Monday, May 9, 2011

Book review - Crimea: the Last Crusade

A bit outside the usual scope of this blog, I know, but I read this book straight after finishing the Russia Against Napoleon , both of which provided a sweeping panorama of 19th century Russian history; this book virtually picks up where the first leaves off.

Most other books I've read on the Crimean War start off with the dispute over the Holy Places in Jerusalem and then touch on the territorial disputes and the declaration of war between Russia and Turkey, the incident at Sinope, then launch into the history of the campaign. This book starts off with the political scene in both Turkey and Russia in the early 19th century and how internal politics and history pushed all the players into a collision course that ultimately caused the well-known events.

Tsar Nicholas I took his responsibility to the Holy Alliance (the post-Napoleonic War treaty between Russian, Austria and Prussia) as policeman of Europe seriously, making diplomatic rumblings against the July Revolution and the revolutions that ushered in the Second Republic and Second Empire in France and the Belgian revolution of 1830 and actually sent troops to help bloodily put down the 1848 Hungarian revolution, all of which didn't leave a favourable impression in Western Europe. The bloody suppression of the 1830 Polish uprising also turned Western European public and diplomatic opinion against Russia. Large doses of racist and religious bigotry also helped fuel the perception of the Russian bogey that grew larger as the century wore on. The British concern was for the threat Russia posed to its empire, especially India, while the French, especially after the accession of Napoleon III, looked to overthrow the limitations imposed on France in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Russia was the most active member of the alliance that kept France in its box.

The tsar also took his role as the defender of the Orthodox faith very seriously and also made no secret of his wish to restore Constantinople (or' Tsargrad') to the faith. This last factor was a running sore between the two neighbours that had seen almost constant conflict that, since the early 18th c. had inexorably resulted in Russian territorial gains at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Usually this expansion had not caused any undue concern in the rest of Europe, beyond the usual horse-trading between the major eastern powers to maintain the balance of power, but in the early 19th c. Russian expansionism at the expense of the Ottomans smacked of a hegemonic ambition that the other major powers could not tolerate. Russia had asserted its right to 'protect' the Christian population of the Ottoman Empire in treaties after the Turkish defeats in 1812 and 1829, which in effect reduced the Ottomans' sovereignty. More demands in the 1840s led to resistance by the Turks and to looking to the West for help against the Russian bear. Britain jumped at the chance to shore up the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against a potential threat to its lines of communication with India, but couldn't resist imposing reforms of its own on the Turks, who paid lip-service to the British in order to secure British and French support. The dispute over the keys to the Holy Places of Jerusalem was the first manifestation of this support, even if its purpose was to stymie and provoke Russia, rather than to support Turkey per se. Tsar Nicholas felt betrayed by the monarchs and governments of Europe, especially by Britain, as he'd thought he'd come to a gentleman's agreement with over Russia's ambitions, without understanding the British political system's sensitivity to popular pressure. Russia's defeat on the issue led to more aggressive maneuvers to support its rights over the Christian population of Turkey-in-Europe, with the tsar being egged on by the vocal Slavophile movement. Anti-Russian sentiment in Britain was stirred up in the main by Palmerston, who was an influential member of the government in various capacities over the period, while France followed behind, mainly in order to curry favour with the British. It was only after war became inevitable, that France wholeheartedly seized the opportunity to assert itself in the international stage over the issue. The path of events from this point on is fairly well known, so I won't dwell on it too much more.

What I found interesting was the views of the wars in the respective histories of the various participating nations; of all the nations involved, only Britain and Russia have elevated it to levels of national mythology and both have taken very different views.

For France, which among the allies, did the most fighting and suffered the most casualties, the war received much less historical attention because rapprochement with Russia was important for Napoleon III's Italian project, and the war was quickly overshadowed by the French involvement in the Italian wars of liberation, the Mexican adventure and, ultimately, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Britain viewed the war as a triumph for liberal values stopping the hegemonic ambitions of the despotic, absolutist Asiatic Russia, while protecting the underdog. The realities of war had also been uncomfortably thrust into the public consciousness for the first time, with the sufferings of the ordinary soldier and the incompetence of those in command exposed as never before by journalists utilising the new technology of the telegraph. Interestingly, it led to a change in the perception of the common soldier as a noble fellow suffering uncomplainingly for Queen and Empire, rather than the previously held view as a drunken, violent reprobate useful for no other purpose. In turn, the new perceptions and the exposure of incompetence led to steady reform of the armed services in the last half of the 19th c.

In Russia, the war has been reinterpreted by the different systems of government from the tsarists through to the present day oligarchical regime, with the constant theme of glorious resistance to outside invaders in the style of 1812. Noble sacrifice and the endurance of the unendurable in the face of overwhelming odds in the protection of the Holy Motherland are the recurring themes. Interestingly, the Russians went through a rethink on the way they viewed the common soldier, too, partly thanks to writers like Tolstoy, who portrayed the day to day life of the army in besieged Sebastopol. The sufferings of the peasant soldiery also made army reform a priority in the aftermath of the war and their comprehensive defeat made the Russians re-examine their whole system, eventually granting 'freedom' (of a kind) to the serfs in the attempt to modernise the economy

In Turkey, interestingly enough, it is seen most realistically of all as a temporary truce in the continuing Russo-Turkish struggle.This time, however, their victory came at the humiliating price of having to enact, or be seen to enact, policies forced on them by the west; equal rights for Christians, banking reform, political and legal accountability. Turkey also found itself in financial debt to the West which tied it even more closely. This caused resentment in the educated elite and a nationalist backlash against the West, which ultimately led to the 'Young Turk' movement that brought down the Ottoman Empire in the wake of WW1.

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting review - I have a real soft spot for the Crimea, probably the result of exposure to Flashman in my youth. I have often thought that Inkerman would make an interesting scenario transposed to the Napoleonic wars. Tolstoys book on the subject is also well worth looking at, having the curious distinction of being the book most frequently stolen from my library.


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