Prior to picking up this book, I had only two cursory impressions of the work of Orlando Figes. The first came from having to peruse a previous book of his — A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (1998) — for my doctoral comprehensive examinations back in 2001-2002. As is the nature of a comp experience, I now remember next to nothing about that book, but I am sure I have notes on it in a box somewhere. The second impression came from the 2010 controversy Figes found himself embroiled in over his writing anonymous reviews on Amazon.com criticizing the work of fellow Russian historians while talking up his own books. As such, in deciding to read Figes’ newest book on the Crimean War, I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
The Crimean War is an excellent narrative treatment of a mid-19th century war between Tzarist Russia on one side and Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire on the other that is, as Figes claims, “a relatively minor war…almost forgotten” today.1 However, the book does not focus merely on the war itself, which took place between 1853 and 1856, but also explores how the conflict fit into the wider context of European political and diplomatic history both before and after the war. This is a key strength of the book. In developing this wider analysis, Figes relies upon a broader primary source base than most English language treatments of the war, drawing extensively from Russian, French, and Ottoman sources to provide a more comprehensive examination of the main combatants and why they became involved in the conflict. For instance, Figes spends considerable time at the beginning of the book describing the longstanding religious turmoil between Orthodox Russia and the Islamic Ottomans that was a major factor in the war’s outbreak. This was an aspect of the conflict I had not previous been cognizant of; that is to say, I had not particularly considered the Crimean War a religious war, instead focusing on the geopolitical issues surrounding Russian access to the Mediterranean Sea through the Dardanelles straits. Thanks to Figes’ book, I can now see why this was a limited view of the conflict.
The other key strength of the book is the attention Figes gives to the experiences of the soldiers fighting and suffering during the war. The chapters dealing with the siege of Sevastopol provide a grim overview of the conditions soldiers fought and lived through. Reading this, one is struck by how much this war was a precursor to the abhorrent and nihilistic carnage of the Western Front during the First World War. And that, ultimately, is Figes’ wider point.
Overall, Figes is attempting to reframe our understanding of the war, making the argument that the Crimean War reflects a key transition point between the older, aristocratic and Napoleonic styles of war fought in Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries and the newer, more modern and destructive industrial wars of the 20th century. As Figes argues in the introduction, “This was the first ‘total war, a nineteenth-century version of the wars of our own age, involving civilians and humanitarian crises.”2 While it has become almost de rigueur lately for historians to claim a particular war was the “first total war” (for a relatively recent example, check out David A. Bell’s The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It), Figes makes a strong case for the importance of the Crimean War as a key transition toward modern warfare. Scholars and educators of modern European history will find much of value in this book.