Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Review of Crimea by Orlando Figes (Penguin, 2010)

In 1853, Russia after a lengthy negotiation with the European powers of Britain, France and Austria and threats to the Ottoman Empire, entered the Danubian principalities (now part of Romania).  Ostensibly the origin of the conflict lay in squabbles over access and control of the Holy Lands between the Orthodox Church and Catholics and the treatment of Christians in the Ottoman Empire.  In the background lurked a large geopolitical project of speeding up the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the gain of territory and expansion of the Russian sphere of influence.  The Turks declared war and France and Britain backed them seeking to block Russian imperial plans.  As British and French fleets entered the Black Sea and troops moved into Danube delta, Russian withdrew.  Rather than conclude with peace, France and Britain decided to continue the campaign to cower Russia.  Their intent was to deal a devastating blow in the Crimea, seizing Sevastopol, the Russians main naval base.  After a successful landing in September 1854 and march on the naval base, British and French military leaders made a series of blunders and rather than quickly taking the port ended up in a long and costly siege that lasted eleven months.  In March 1856, Russia sued for peace and the war was officially ended by the Treaty of Paris that forbade a Russian fleet in the Black Sea, led to some Balkan states becoming mostly independent, and to moderate reforms in the Ottoman Empire. 

Orlando Figes provides what one blurb calls ‘wide-angled history’ of the war, drawing on a range of sources to cover the conflict from all perspectives.  The result is a very detailed account of the war, including an extended introduction charting the pathway into the war, and an extended epilogue that documents its short and long-term consequences with respect to European affairs and the political map.  In particular, he details the geopolitical context to the war and the various machinations at work, as well as the key political and military personalities within the various nations, and each of the main battles.  By drawing on personal diaries and newspaper coverage he provides intimate details of bloody encounters and political intrigue.  The book thus provides a fascinating account of the context for and surrounding the war, as well as its actual prosecution.  In many ways, however, the telling could have done with a bit of an edit.  In its ambition to be the most thorough and balanced account of the war, it ends up being overly long, with too much context prior to and after the war, and often too much detail concerning its various elements (there are dozens of vignettes of various minor personalities, for example, which while interesting are effectively asides).  This will be a huge plus for some readers, but for me put too many trees in the woods.  Nonetheless, it is an impressive piece of scholarship and certainly informs the reader about all aspects of the conflict and its aftermath.

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