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The Crimean War

I mentioned in my post a week ago on Jim Dodson’s American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf that I had started Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War: A History, but set it aside 60 pages in when the Dodson book appeared. That night I returned to the Crimean War history and this morning I finished it.

What a book! I learned so much. It starts slowly. Figes even warns in the Introduction that a reader eager to get to the war without reading the preliminary chapters on the conditions that led to war should just skip ahead. This would amount to jumping to about page 150 of its 500 pages. And it would be a huge mistake, since much of what makes the book so good is the context it provides for the war. On the other hand, the pace certainly picks up once the war starts.

I had intended on several occasions over the past week to write about the book’s many strengths. Now that I’m done, I hardly know what to highlight. I’m tempted simply to say read it yourself and you’ll see. Plus, much of what so fascinated me may reveal more about my prior ignorance than about the book itself. Still, it’s a superb primer on the tensions from the late eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth between Britain, France, Russia, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire over the former, present, and future countries, the principalities, and assorted ethnic and national groups that surround the Black Sea. Underlying all these tensions is the religious divide between Islam and Christianity, along with the divide within Christianity between Orthodox and western Christians, and still further between Protestants and Catholics, as well as divides between modernizing Muslims of Turkey and more fundamentalist Muslims throughout the Ottoman Empire or within areas controlled by Russia. It’s for good reason that the original British title of Figes’ book is Crimea: The Last Crusade.

I can try to elaborate on all of this, but there’s a reason Figes takes 500 pages to lay it out. Any attempt on my part to summarize would be silly. Keep in mind, when it comes to the complexity of the religious and political considerations, that ultimately France and Britain would go to war against Russia on the side of the Ottomans. Russia saw itself as the protector of Orthodox Christianity, the rightful heir since the fall exactly 400 years earlier of Constantinople. Britain was more interested in preserving its trade routes through Ottoman-controlled lands to India, and in supporting a liberalizing Turkey against what it perceived to be an expansionary Russia. But this is simplifying.

The broader issues aside, there are the amazing stories of poorly trained troops (with ample quotes from their letters), the never-ending wonder of the siege of Sebastopol, bad weather, inadequate supply lines, sea battles, reporters in the field getting word back home via telegraph, war photography. And, of course, the battle of Balaklava with its Charge of the Light Brigade. Oh, and don’t forget Florence Nightingale. Tolstoy too.

Time and again, as I read the book, I would recognize the ground being laid for conflicts of the twentieth century. The Balkans. The Caucasus. Afghanistan. Recent developments such as the Chechen War and the 2008 conflicts between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia all make more sense to me now. Not to mention that I know where they all are. I have a complete picture for the first time in my life of the geography of the Black Sea (which happens to be where my grandmother was born and spent the first part of her childhood, in Odessa). And for good measure, I’ve extended my picture eastward past the Caspian Sea into Central Asia, inspired in part by the book and in part by attending the Central Asian ikat exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum two weeks ago. Indeed, I can now name and locate all 15 former Soviet republics.

The Black Sea at the time of the Crimean War

[Mike King, in The New York Review of Books, June 2011]

I’m getting away from the point, which is that like all great history, the book has much to teach us, both about the past and about our present time. Here’s one example, from early in the book, in a discussion of British attitudes toward Russia:

In November 1835 [David] Urquhart launched a periodical, The Portfolio, in which he aired his Russophobic views, of which the following is typical: “The ignorance of the Russian people separates them from all community with the feelings of other nations, and prepares them to regard every denunciation of the injustice of their rulers as an attack upon themselves, and the Government has already announced by its Acts a determination to submit to no moral influences which may reach it from without.”

I have to confess that when I read about a country whose people regard “every denunciation of the injustice of their rulers as an attack upon themselves,” with a government determined “to submit to no moral influences which may reach it from without,” I could not help but think of our own country under President Bush, though I fear that Obama is little different in this regard. You may think otherwise, but I promise you this. If you read Figes book, time and again you will find passages that resonate with the present day.

(See also reviews by Max Hastings last June in The New York Review and Gary Bass last July in the NYT.)

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Categories: Books, History
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