With the ongoing crisis and unrest in Ukraine, I decided to read Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War: A History. I’m glad that I picked this book to read because it offers some insight into the reasons of the current situation in Ukraine and the Crimea. Figes not only gives a narrative of the war, he puts in perspective by reviewing what caused the war and reviewed the impact it had on the participants, especially Russia and Great Britain. If, like me, you were not fully familiar with the Crimean War and the history of the region I would suggest reading The Crimean War: A History to get some perspective on the current problems in the Crimea.
“Two world wars have obscured the huge scale and enormous human cost of the Crimean War. Today it seems to us a relatively minor war; it is almost forgotten, like the plagues and gravestones in those churchyards.”
Indeed, the Crimean War is a forgotten war. It is glossed over in basic world history courses despite the impact that it would have on Europe. It shouldn’t be a forgotten war, it deserves to be remembered for the impact it had upon the relationships between the European powers, the geography of Europe, and for sowing the seeds of future conflict. As you read this book, you can see the roots of multiple wars including World War I as well as the current crisis in Ukraine and the Crimea. It isn’t something that just came about and has its roots in the 1850s and earlier. It defined how the European powers would interact in the future and it changed the maps in in Eastern Europe. It also changed populations as Muslim and Christian communities were forced out of their homes and areas repopulated by the other religion.
“This was the first ‘total war’, a nineteenth century version of the wars of our own age, involving civilians and humanitarian crises.”
Frequently, American students are taught that the US Civil War was the first “modern” war, but the Crimean War took place several years before our Civil War and made use of of technology and ideas that were also used in the Civil War. Figes illustrates how the warfare and the Industrial Age met in the Crimean War through the use of railroads, telegraphs, modern ideas of hygiene and medicine. He also shows how the war changed the military systems in Great Britain and Russia regarding the views on the common soldier and leadership of the aristocracies.
“But the origins of the Crimean War cannot be understood by studying only the motives of statesmen and diplomats. This was a war – the first war in history – to be brought about by the pressure of the press and by public opinion.”
Figes also illustrates how the telegraph, photography, and the war reporter combined to influence public opinion and how the opinion of the middle class in Great Britain in particular brought Britain into the war and influenced how the war was conducted. He also shows how the opinions of the pan-Slav movement in Russia had an effect on the actions of the Tsar and therefore Russian conduct in the buildup to the war and the post war years.
“To varying degrees , the major parties to the Crimean War – Russia, Turkey, France, and Great Britain – all called religion to the battlefield. Yet by the time the war began, its origins in the Holy Lands had been forgotten and subsumed by the European War against Russia.”
An interesting thread that Figes weaves throughout the book is religion and how religion helped bring the war about. He shows how the roots of the war were in the Levant and how the fractious relationship between the Muslims, Catholics, and Ottomans brought about unrest t that would fan the flames of war. For the Russians in particular it was seen as a holy war to protect Orthodox Christians from persecution by the Ottomans. He also explains how the fact that European Christian governments allied themselves with a Muslim government to fight another Christian European power (even though the other European powers didn’t really consider Russia ‘European’) had an effect on Russian thought and their relationship with the other European powers thereafter.
I had a hard time coming to a rating on The Crimean War: A History. It is a very good read on a subject that rarely receives attention. It is more than just a military history of the war, it is also a political and diplomatic history of the war. Figes goes beyond the war to explain its causes and its ramifications by explaining what happened in the pre-war and post-war years. I read the Kindle version and this is where my problem with the book comes in. The book covers a war that many don’t know about in a region of the world many aren’t familiar with. For this reason, there should have been maps in line with the text so that the reader could see the borders of the time and the geography of the battlefields. Instead, all of the maps (which are pretty good quality for a Kindle book) are grouped all together at the end of the book. It is hard to envision border changes and geographic disputes in an area where borders have changed a great deal over time without a map showing the borders of the period. It’s also difficult to build a mental image of a battlefield and the movement of troops over geography and terrain you’re not familiar with without a map. Those maps should have been in-line in the appropriate parts of the text rather than added at the end. I would have given the book four stars if that had been the case but because of the maps issue I’m only giving it three. I understand that in the print version this is not the case, so I fail to understand why they’ve done it with the Kindle version. If you plan on reading this book I would therefore strongly recommend the print version over the Kindle version.
I apologize if this review seems off kilter, disjointed, or sub-par in any fashion. It was written in a hospital waiting room as an attempt to burn time and occupy my mind while awaiting the outcome of a loved one’s surgery.