The Crimean War by Orlando Figes

This is an excellent book which taught me a lot about certain historical events that I should probably have known about. Before I read this book, I thought I was relatively well educated, but I didn’t know about things like the struggle in Jerusalem around 1848 for access to a holy site for Good Friday services, described as an argument over church keys that led to a war. If I don’t know about it, then I feel that the likelihood is that a lot of other people don’t know about it either. I have two children going through the Russian school system, and I don’t get the impression that they are taught much about the Crimean war, and I’m pretty certain that my wife didn’t learn about it either, during her fairly standard Soviet childhood in Moscow. The embarrassing thing is that I can remember reading “The Reason Why” by Cecil Woodham Smith when I was at junior school, which no doubt had all of this information, but I retained none of it, probably because I was rushing forward to the bit about the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Anyway, Figes’ book is well recommended if you want an account of the Crimean War, and its causes and consequences. He rightly points out that it is a pivotal moment in Russian history. Russia had emerged as a major power after its role in the defeat of Napoleon, and was increasingly feared by the West because of its potentially huge army. The Crimean War taught the Russians that numerical advantage was not enough, and that there was an urgent need to reform both the army and society as a whole.

The first things that I took away from this book was the fact that in 1856 as in 2014, the origins of the conflict were in the Middle East. In 1856 it was rivalry with France over control over the holy sites in Jerusalem, and in 2014 it was a clash with the US over Russia’s involvement in Syria. Others might argue with this, but many Russians believe that the US chose to push for regime change in Ukraine as revenge for Russian interference with US operations in the Middle East.

The second thing that I took away from this book was some really choice Russophobia quotes, which could easily be repeated today. For instance: “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 on themselves, and the Government has already announced by its Acts a determination to submit to no moral influences which may reach it from without.” (David Urquhart, 1835). Like all the best Russophobes, Urquhart had never actually been to Russia.

Once the Crimean War actually started, then the anti-Russia rhetoric got even stronger. The term jingoism came from an anti-Russian song. The point worth making here, though, is that for all the fervid anti-Russian feeling during and after the Crimean War, it was possible for relations to be mended to the extent that Queen Victoria was willing to let her favourite granddaughter marry the Tsar (Nikolai II) and for the Entente Cordiale to be formed between France (then Europe’s leading light of liberalism), Great Britain and Russia. So as bad as things are now (writing in 2022 during Russia’s military operation in Ukraine), the damage is not irreversible.

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