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The Crimean War: not the last crusade

Was the Crimean War really a crusade or was it motivated more by Russia’s need to have access to the Black Sea? Dominic Lieven reviews Orlando Figes’ new history of the conflict.

Dominic Lieven
24 November 2010

Orlando Figes’s new book covers the causes, course and consequences of the Crimean War. One of its greatest attractions is that, unlike the overwhelming majority of English-language books on this war, it looks at the conflict in the round and not just from the British perspective. Figes presents the war from the Russian, French and Ottoman viewpoint, in the process providing a picture which will surprise many British viewers by its complexity. Nor does he forget the Crimean Tatars or the Circassians, Muslim peoples on the Russian Empire’s southern periphery who were among the war’s greatest victims.

Charge light brigade

The charge of the Light Brigade, is the only event in the war that lived on forever in British popular memory.

It would not be fair to say that Figes is the first scholar to present this rounded view to an English-language readership. Winfried Baumgart did this in 1999, for example. But Baumgart’s was a dry and scholarly work aimed at the student market. Orlando Figes’s book on the contrary is aimed at the general public and for this public aspects of the book will be an eye-opener. They will even learn something new about the charge of the Light Brigade, along with Florence Nightingale about the only event in the war that lived on forever in British popular memory. As Figes rightly notes, the charge was a good deal less unusual and even a bit more rational than popular legend imagines.

As always with Orlando Figes, the book is elegantly written and the narrative races along. Perhaps it is not quite as beautifully narrated as some of his earlier books because nineteenth-century war and diplomacy doesn’t excite his imagination to the same extent as Stalin’s crimes or Tolstoy’s novels.

In my opinion most of Figes’s judgements are sound. Perhaps he could have made the point more strongly that the key result of the war was to undermine the Vienna settlement of 1815 and the European balance of power which it sustained. In the short run some of the participants believed themselves to have benefited from this. Above all this was true of Napoleon III, for whom tearing up the Vienna settlement was almost the core priority of a Bonapartist regime and a major element in its search for legitimacy. The peace treaty was signed in Paris to symbolise France’s renewed centrality in European high politics. But ironically all the participants of the Crimean War ultimately lost more than they gained from the conflict’s main result. The biggest winner was Prussia and Otto von Bismarck. As a result of the Crimean war, Russia stood by and cheered while Prussia defeated Austria and then France on the way to becoming Europe’s leading power. In the end the biggest loser of all from the Crimean War was the man who more than any other was responsible for the war’s outbreak, namely Napoleon III. The Habsburgs survived defeat by Prussia. The Bonapartes did not.

I think there are two main problems with Orlando Figes’s view of the Crimean War: one is a sin of omission, the other in my opinion a sin of commission.

In many ways economics and finance were the key to the war’s outcome and they get little coverage. The British and French moved, fought and communicated with the technology of the Industrial Revolution. The Russians still operated in a pre-industrial age. The first news received from Crimea by the Russian emperor generally came via telegraph from Paris. There are glimpses of this in Figes’s book, as for instance when he talks of how British rifled muskets outranged even Russian artillery, but the issue is so crucial that it deserves more elaboration. Above all, there is near total silence on the subject of Russian finances, though these were crucial as regards the backwardness of Russian arms and communications, and also go far to explain why Alexander II ultimately conceded defeat.

Taking MAlakoff

The taking of the Malakoff Redoubt in 1858; a British officer salutes the French flag.

Above all, I think Figes’s interpretation of tsarist policy is largely mistaken. The book’s title  - The Last Crusade – reflects Figes’s view that religion was the key source of Russian foreign policy and the key cause of the war. There is of course no doubt that Orthodoxy was one of the main pillars of the tsarist regime and at times played an important role in Russian foreign policy, where it easily became entangled in sympathy for the Slavs. But tsarist policy was driven by other factors too. Figes himself notes that the Ottoman Empire’s rulers were pragmatists and not religious fanatics and the same was even more true of Russia’s rulers.

Tsarist realpolitik was born in the hard school of survival and ultimately success under the Mongol yoke. It was honed in the fiercely competitive world of European great power politics. The tsarist elites were thoroughly westernised by the mid-nineteenth century and none more so than the man who sat on Russia’s throne.

The famous statue of Nicholas I on Saint Isaac’s Square has him in the uniform of the Chevaliers Gardes and not of the Cossacks. This very much reflected his own mindset and preferences. The Russian and Prussian Guards cuirassiers looked almost identical. Even the saddle cloths of the Chevaliers Gardes were the same colour as those of the Prussian Garde du Corps, the senior cavalry regiment in the army of King Fredrick William IV, Nicholas’s brother-in-law. The three women whom Nicholas loved most in his life were his mother, his governess and his wife. All were German. The tsar was certainly proud of Russia and identified with it. But for him Russia was above all the state and its army. As Queen Victoria rightly remarked, power and politics were Nicholas’s priorities, to the near exclusion of other concerns. He valued Baltic Germans because they served his state loyally and preserved order. Slavophiles were less obedient and more suspect.

Nicholas 1, tzar

The tzar of Russia Nicholas I blundered and blustered his way into an unnecessary war, to some extent falling into a trap laid for him by Napoleon III.

For Nicholas and the Russian government before the Crimean War the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman sultan were above all a weapon. Russia had crucial interests at Istanbul. Her grain exports had to get out of the Black Sea. Her southern coastal ports and her vital sea communications to the Trans-Caucasus were all threatened if the Ottomans leaned towards foreign powers and away from Russia. Once allowed by the Turks into the Black Sea Britain’s navy could devastate key Russian interests and undermine the Russian Empire’s security.

So Nicholas’s obsession with maintaining Russian pre-eminence in the Russian capital was logical, even if the methods he used to maintain that pre-eminence in the run-up to the war were often ham-fisted. Figes believes that Nicholas was increasingly subject to lunatic genes inherited from his father. Personally I suspect that this was a great deal less important than nearly thirty years as emperor and autocrat, an experience likely to delude most human beings as to life’s realities. Undoubtedly Nicholas blundered and blustered his way into an unnecessary war, to some extent falling into a trap laid for him by Napoleon III. Once he had fallen into that trap and found himself at war with most of Europe, then it made good sense to appeal to Russian Orthodox and Slavophile opinion to sustain him in the struggle. To a certain and not very successful extent the war was portrayed as a crusade. But this was never its underlying reality for Russia’s rulers, let alone its cause.

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