First, a disclaimer: this review will not touch upon some recent, odd behaviour of this book’s author, Orlando Figes, because I can’t see that it’s relevant. The history of the Crimean war is far removed in time and in space from contemporary literary politics, and I think we should keep it that way.
Second, an unexpected fact. Although the Crimean war is also far removed in time and space from contemporary American politics, while reading this excellent book I could not help but marvel at the many parallels with the present. Figes’s goal, in writing about the Crimean war, was to take the subject away from the military historians who have ‘constantly retold the same stories (the Charge of the Light Brigade, the bungling of the English commanders, Florence Nightingale)’ and to put it back into its political context. He is fascinated by, among other things, the Russophobia of the English, the messianism of the Russians, and the obsession everybody had with the complicated politics of Palestine. He argues that subsequent characterisations of the Crimean war as ‘senseless’ or ‘unnecessary’ don’t take into account the importance that these kinds of issues had at the time.
Above all, he paints the Crimean war as an early example of what we now call liberal interventionism. When Lord Palmerston announced he was sending warships to the Dardanelles to help the Turks stand up to the bullying Czar, the British public was delighted. The ‘readiness to intervene in any place around the world in defence of British liberal values’ was exactly what the middle classes expected from their government at that time. If you think that makes 19th- century Britain sound like 21st-century America, you would be absolutely correct. The only difference is that the British didn’t stick around after the fighting, as the Americans did in Iraq, to bring democracy to the Ottoman empire.
This may have been a result of British racism, rather than the lack of British willpower. As Palmerston himself once put it, he would not be disappointed to
see the Turk kicked out of Europe and compelled to go and sit cross-legged, smoke his pipe, chew his opium and cut off heads on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus.
Queen Victoria also expressed, privately, the wish that the Turks would one day all become Christians. Nevertheless, Palmerston’s crusade against the Russians and in favour of the Turks won him the support of what we would now call the tabloid press, at a moment when the tabloid press was just beginning to matter. His commitment to foreign intervention ‘reinforced their John Bull view that Britain was the greatest country in the world’. Which also sounds familiar, no?
Figes describes at length the role that nationalist and particularly religious fanaticism played in the run-up to the war. We sometimes see these things as cancers of the present, imagining all past statesmen as sober realists, men who only went to war when it was in the national interest to do so. But the Russian motivation in the Crimea, as in the Caucuses, was religious above all else. The Czars’ brutal war against the Chechens, which involved burning crops and villages and cutting down forests (another series of events with echoes in the present) was justified as a fight against the infidel.
Both the Russians and the British, to a degree hardly imaginable now, were also captivated by the dispute over which religious denominations should control the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Jesus was allegedly buried. The desire to take back the Holy Land for Western Christianity also motivated the French to take an interest in the Middle East in general, and to oppose Russia in particular. Stories of Russian persecution of Catholics caused outrage in 19th-century Paris, which was then the home of many prominent exiled Polish aristocrats. Figes, perhaps because he is a scholar of Russia, is not entirely sympathetic to these exiles, who by supplying such stories helped foster an image of Russia in France as simultaneously aggressive and backward. Perhaps because I am a sometime resident of Poland, and thus steeped in Polish history, I am more inclined to see their point.
I am also uncertain whether the classification of the Crimean war as ‘senseless’ or ‘unnecessary’ is really so inaccurate. Figes’s explanation of why the war was fought, and what motivated those who did the fighting, is excellent. But it’s hard for me to see, 150 years later, how a war fought at least in part for control of the Holy Sepulchre was ‘necessary’. Though once again, that surely reflects my distance in time and space. A century or two from now, I’m sure people will find our wars equally absurd.