It would be something of a stretch to say that the Crimean War (1854-1856) constituted the first modern war, but elements of the conflict clearly foreshadowed military developments that characterized the following century and beyond (most immediately the American Civil War). These elements included the employment of railroads and steam-powered naval vessels for the transportation of troops and supplies (including the first appearance of iron-clad vessels, for bombardment), modern rifles, and telegraphic communications. The war had an unprecedented immediacy for publics far removed from the immediate area of the conflict, as war correspondents used the same technology to transmit on-the-scene reports to newsprints and journals at home, followed soon thereafter by photographs of the battlefields.

The Crimean War, generally known in Russia as the Eastern War, is nevertheless a rather neglected topic amongst historians. It is known in popular imagination, if at all, for the charge of the Light Brigade and the British-French siege of Russian troops in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol (Sebastopol). The British historian Orlando Figes seeks to remedy that neglect in his new book on the topic, The Crimean WarA History (2010). Figes is a rather controversial character; in 2010 he acknowledged that he had posted reviews on that praised his own work as “fascinating” and “uplifting,” while criticizing those of other authors. This work however has been well received and is likely to be the standard text on the subject for some time, due to its level of detail and use of archival resources, even if the reader does not agree with all of Figes’s conclusions.

The war has perhaps been neglected because it is an anomaly in the “long peace” among great European powers that characterized the century between the Congress of Vienna and the outbreak of World War I. In the immediate aftermath it seemed to many to have been a pointless war, badly fought on both sides. If deaths from disease are included, the war cost a staggering 750,000 lives, if not more, two-thirds of them Russian.

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The outline of events is simple enough, although the precise causes of the outbreak of war are quite complicated and controversial. In the early 1850s, Russia was engaged in another round of battles in its long-term conflict with the decaying Ottoman Empire. In 1853 the Russian Army moved into the Danubian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. The conflict between Russian and Ottoman forces spread to the Caucasus. The British government interpreted Russia’s advance as the latest effort to threaten British lines of communication to India and the eastern empire (the Great Game in central Asia was beginning to fire up). Tsar Nicholas demanded the right to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire, including the foreign Christians in Jerusalem and Palestine. The latter claim ran up against the ambitions of Napoleon III, who aggressively claimed special historical rights in the Holy Land. Napoleon III also fancied himself the champion of liberal and national rights against Tsarist despotism (e.g., in Poland). He was particularly anxious to overcome the diplomatic isolation that had plagued the French since the defeat of his uncle, and he welcomed the opportunity to make common cause with his ancient rival, Britain. The British government, stirred by a growing sense of the seriousness of the Russian threat, threw in with France and Turkey (and Sardinia).

The Royal Navy rapidly blockaded Russia in the Baltic and the Black Sea, and French and British forces took the war to the Russian homeland with an invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. Austria, which also feared Russian aims in the Balkans, did not join the war directly but mobilized its army and occupied Wallachia and Moldavia, which had been evacuated by Russia. The ground war in the Crimea went badly for both sides—something well documented by Figes—and it culminated in the year-long Allied siege of Sevastopol. The superior resources and technology, if not generalship, of Britain and France, and their maritime control of the Black Sea, dictated the outcome. Tsar Nicholas died in 1855 and his successor, Alexander II, sued for peace, which was codified at a congress of the great powers in Paris in 1856.

Despite the obscurity of the war in the historical consciousness of the West, Figes argues that it was a watershed, largely because of its unintended consequences, including its origins and impact on religion and politics in the Near East. It broke the conservative alliance between Russia and Austria that had been the bulwark of the continental settlement of 1815, opening the way for the emergence of new nation-states in Italy, Romania, and Germany. It left the Russians with an abiding sense of resentment of the West, for having betrayed the Christian cause and siding openly with the Muslim Turks. It opened the Muslim world to Western armies and technologies and accelerated its exposure to the global capitalist marketplace, all of which sparked an enduring Islamic reaction against the West.

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An important subtext of figes’s argument, although never fully developed, is that Britain bore substantial responsibility for the depth of the Anglo-Russian antagonism. He seems to believe that there was a “realist” case for Britain to resist Russian expansionism, but only to a point. Figes argues that British jingoists went much too far, and probably pushed Britain into an unnecessary war. They created the indelible image of a Russian “Other” inexorably following a Master Plan (the spurious Testament of Peter the Great) to conquer the Ottoman lands as the first step in the destruction of the British Empire. The British hard-liners saw the Crimean War as a major opportunity not only to check Russian ambitions against Turkey but also to strike a decisive blow against Russian military power and end the threat to the Near East once and for all. The relatively poor performance of the British Army undermined these unrealistic maximum aims and led properly to a more limited strategy and eventually a diplomatic compromise on British and French terms.

As Figes sees things, Russia had no master plan. To be sure, Nicholas and many Russian officials were driven by a sense of religious and ethnic mission, which often led to an aggressive approach to the Balkans and the Near East. But there were more cautious, countervailing views in St. Petersburg, and deep divisions in Russian society coupled with economic and technological weakness. Russia’s ability to project military power beyond its frontiers was limited and its strategic plans were hardly coherent and did not represent an existential threat to the British Empire (in this, Figes follows much of the current drift of Western scholarship on the Great Game). Figes draws parallels between this situation and what he suggests was the excessive “Russophobia” of the Cold War, which carried over from the 19th century and presumably affected the Americans as well as the British.

To this one might observe that, just because the British were paranoid didn’t mean that Russians weren’t out to get them. At the very least Russia was operating according to the logic of empire, which drives expansion in order to secure borderlands against local unrest and penetration by imperial adversaries. The logic of empire—of which Britain too was subject—is not inherently limited. We are now in something of an admittedly uncontrolled experiment, as to how the policy of the British maximalists of the 19th century will play out in the 21st century, now that containment of the Soviet Union has resulted unexpectedly in a major, if perhaps temporary, diminution of Russian power.

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The most prominent classic history of the war is the eight-volume study by the travel writer, historian, and politician Alexander William Kinglake—The Invasion of the Crimea, published between 1863 and 1887. Kinglake, who witnessed the battle of the Alma, developed a friendship with the controversial British commander, Lord Raglan. Lady Raglan commissioned the work to defend her husband’s reputation and gave Kinglake access to Raglan’s papers. He also utilized otherwise private and confidential British state records, interviewed the participants extensively, and employed French, Russian, and Turkish sources. Because of Kinglake’s connection with Lord Raglan and some questions about how he utilized his sources, his history received mixed reviews, yet it remained the anchor of Crimean War studies for well over a century. (Winston Churchill was once asked what one should read to improve one’s writing style. “Kinglake,” he responded. Anything else? “more Kinglake.”)

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The works of two war correspondents, to use the term broadly, were highly influential in shaping their respective national public’s view of the war. The British journalist William Howard Russell of the Times spent two years with the British Army, reporting almost daily on the conflict. He stressed the bravery of the common soldier but told a rather different story about the British military establishment. Russell highlighted the inefficiency of the support services, especially the medical corps, and the deplorable conditions in which many of the soldiers found themselves. The clear message was one of incompetency and lethargy by a British military still based on aristocratic privilege and nepotism rather than merit, and mired in the outdated ways of the Napoleonic Wars. This led Lord Raglan and other senior officers to complain to their superiors that Russell had published information useful to the Russians—including the numbers, condition, and equipment of British forces—as well as harmful to the morale of British troops. Raglan argued unsuccessfully that Russell should be prosecuted for treason. Russell’s journalism established a critical standard for others to follow and left an indelible impression on the British public of “Colonel Blimps,” contrasted with the hardy and resourceful British “Tommy” (to use expressions created—or popularized—in the 20th century).

Russell, it should be noted, shortly thereafter went to the United States to cover the American Civil War. He is a major character in Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (2010).

The other writer of note was a restless Russian nobleman and sometime scholar who had recently joined the Army, Leo Tolstoy. In the winter of 1854, Tolstoy, an artillery officer, arranged for a transfer to the Crimea, where his duties took him periodically to Sevastopol. He published three essays in a Russian literary journal, which described different phases of the siege (“December,” “May,” and “August”). They were later collected and published as The Sebastopol Sketches (1856). Tolstoy used different literary devices in each sketch, describing the internal reflections and conversations among imagined participants, all Russian soldiers. There is an immediacy to the sketches that allow Tolstoy to be counted among the first modern war correspondents, who provide something more than facts to the reader. Tolstoy says that the hero of the stories is truth, and truth is not always lovely. War is contradiction—everything is ordinary, yet completely unreal. Nobody knows what is happening. War is bravery and endurance, but also vanity and hankering for medals, honors, and promotions. The first sketch, which concludes with the conviction that the town will never be surrendered, was well received by authorities; Alexander II ordered it to be translated into French. The subsequent sketches were considerably darker and more pessimistic; they were subject to censorship and were amended to conclude with a ringing patriotic appeal.

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The sketches prefigured the techniques and views that later appeared in Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace (1869) (Tolstoy originally conceived that novel as being set in the aftermath of the Crimean War). Underlying Tolstoy’s attempt to portray war honestly was a fierce sense of Russian patriotism—along with his reaction against the glaring deficiencies of the Russian military system and hierarchy. As Russians attempted to make sense of their defeat in the war to a West that was obviously superior technologically, they could take national pride in the defense of Sevastopol as portrayed so memorably by Tolstoy—seemingly against all odds, and reflecting the true Russian national character, a spirit of resilience that had always protected the country against the foreign invader.

Near the end of the final sketch, the besieged Russian soldiers take heart in a rumor that they are going to be rescued by an American fleet. As to how and why they thought that might be possible, is a story for another time.