Fury and litigation were the result when Orlando Figes posted reviews of books on aspects of the history of the Soviet Union on Amazon's website earlier this year. Offering his pointed comments under the somewhat transparent pseudonym of "Orlando Birkbeck", he praised his own work and rubbished that of rival authors. It is perhaps just as well, then, that he has turned his scholarly attention from the USSR - a subject that seems to infect its historians with all the brotherly love that characterised the Kremlin under Stalin - to an earlier episode in Russia's and Europe's history.
To mid and late Victorians, the Crimean War was the great, if unnecessary and mishandled, war of their or their fathers' lifetimes. But to most Britons today, the greatest European conflict between 1815 and 1914 means little, overshadowed as it is by the grand panorama of the Napoleonic Wars and the ordeal of the First World War. What popular memory retains is fragmentary and insular: a pointless cavalry charge; military incompetence; a high death rate due as much to cholera as to the battlefield; Florence Nightingale; and the introduction of two articles of clothing, the cardigan and the balaclava helmet. Figes, however, argues for the enduring significance of a war that marked a major turning point in the history of Europe.
Although he is somewhat arrogant in his dismissal of previous work on the subject, Figes offers a study that, with its attention to Russian, French and Turkish sources, rescues the Crimean War from the insularity with which it has often been regarded in Britain and instead places it firmly in the context of broad historical developments: the varied concerns and ambitions of the powers as the Ottoman Empire declined; the weakening of the alliance between Austria and Russia, which had upheld the conservative settlement of the Treaty of Vienna; the ambitions of Napoleon III; and Britain's determination not to permit an end to Turkey in Europe, which could lead to Russia at Constantinople and in control of the Black Sea Straits.
If the term the Crimean War does scant justice to the conflict's causes or geographical reach, certainly the Crimea became its main killing field. The death toll of at least 800,000, the trench warfare that marked the siege of Sebastopol, and the roles, in Britain and France, of the press and public opinion lead Figes to characterise it as, in many ways, "the first example of a truly modern war". However, there are also arguments against its depiction as a prequel to the First World War: one can cite the aristocratic and unprofessional nature of military organisation and, as the author notes, the resemblance of its earlier battles to those of the Napoleonic Wars and the shreds of an older chivalric approach to warfare visible in the calling of truces to allow the dead to be buried.
The book's subtitle, The Last Crusade, points to the most original aspect of this study, which places the war in the context of Tsarist Russia's expansion into hitherto Ottoman Europe, the coasts of the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Khanates of Central Asia, and the religious nature of Russian nationalism. For Tsar Nicholas I, there was a divine mission on two fronts: the expulsion of Islam from Europe and even from areas beyond the Urals; and the vision of a new Orthodox, Russo-Greek Byzantium, which would exclude Latin and Catholic influences from Eastern Europe. Most historians have dismissed the immediate causes of the Crimean War, namely the unseemly scuffles between the monks and clergy of different Christian denominations, as of negligible importance. Did it really matter who had the right to repair the roof of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, or whether Catholic or Orthodox clergy (and, in that case, which Orthodox clergy?) should hold the keys to the Church of the Nativity? Figes contends that these religious squabbles mattered quite a bit.
His analysis of the causes of the war, its campaigns and its consequences demonstrates the relevance of the conflict to the problems of the modern world. That a religious dispute over holy places in Jerusalem could start a major war seems much less unlikely today than it may have appeared to previous generations of historians; the consequences of the fault line between Orthodox Russia and Islam are evident in Chechnya and other mainly Muslim erstwhile Soviet republics; while the opening-up of the whole Ottoman Empire to Western influences played a major part in the creation of militant Islamism. This insightful book ends with Figes noting that on Vladimir Putin's order, a portrait of Tsar Nicholas now hangs in the antechamber of the Kremlin's presidential office.
Crimea: The Last Crusade
By Orlando Figes
Allen Lane, 608pp, £30.00
Published 7 October 2010