Orlando Figes’ new book does much to shed light on a conflict long neglected by contemporary historians and is likely to become the preeminent work on the Crimean War.  However, the book suffers from serious shortcomings that prevent it from becoming a military history of such caliber as Antony Beevor’s and Max Hastings’ works.

Figes characterizes the Crimean War as the first “truly modern war” and the “first war in history in which public opinion played so crucial a role.”  The war itself lasted less than three years (1853-56) and was essentially a war of aggression by Britain and France to prevent the Russian Empire from playing an active role in the Balkans and the Near East and to prop up the unraveling Ottoman Empire.  The book’s strongest point is its account of the run-up to the Crimean War.  The author convincingly shows that British and French Russophobia was the biggest cause of the war.  An unrelenting campaign of paranoia and lies was launched by British pamphleteers and foreign-affairs commentators, culminating in the West’s invasion of Russia’s Crimean Peninsula in 1854.

As Figes acknowledges, Russia had a legitimate interest in protecting pilgrims to the Ottoman-held Holy Land both from Ottoman persecution and Western machinations.  (Anglicans and other Protestants mounted an intensive campaign to convert Orthodox Arabs, an effort that was supported and encouraged by the Turks.)  British diplomats dismissed the Russians’ religious devotion with snobbish disdain, if not outright hostility.  Foreshadowing the West’s backing of the Muslims against Orthodox Christians in the Balkans in the 1990’s, British commentators denigrated Orthodoxy as savage and not truly Christian—“who has not observed the fanaticism, the antipathy, of all these sects,” while praising Islam (“calm, absorbed, without spirit of dogma, or views of proselytism”).  Islam was viewed by many Western intellectuals as “a basically benign and progressive force.”  The persecuted and ravaged Christians of Ottoman lands would beg to differ with the alleged calm and benign nature of Mohammedan rule, but their voices were silenced in the roaring storm of Western Russophobia.

The prime villain of the book, David Urquhart, was the most rabid of the British Russophobes; as Figes acknowledges, “no writer did more to prepare the British public for the Crimean War.”  The 19th-century Scottish counterpart to today’s Russo- and Serbophobic neocons, Urquhart started out as a pamphleteer promoting friendship with the Turks and war with Russia.  While most other commentators were interested in the rotting Ottoman Empire as a dumping ground for British manufactures and a source for cheap raw materials, Urquhart was sincere in his devotion to the Mohammedan cause.

Like modern-day Western liberals and neoconservatives, Urquhart was a devoted supporter of the Islamists’ jihad against Russia.  The Islamist warlord Shamil, a Dagestani imam, launched a wide-reaching rebellion against the Russian Empire, which lasted for 25 years.  Shamil succeeded in uniting Dagestani, Chechen, and Circassian tribes and was the biggest threat to Russian rule in the North Caucasus until the modern Chechen terror campaign.  Even after his surrender to the Russians and  exile, Imam Shamil remained a hero to North Caucasian Muslims.  (Shamil Basayev—the most bloodthirsty and successful Chechen terrorist of recent memory—was named after Imam Shamil.)

David Urquhart did not simply agitate in the press on behalf of the Islamist rebels.  More than two decades before the Crimean War, when he was part of Albion’s mission to Constantinople, he visited the Circassian rebels and promised British support for Shamil’s campaign.  This proved too much even for the staunchly pro-Ottoman foreign secretary Palmerston, and Urquhart was recalled.  Under pressure from the anti-Russian British press, Urquhart was restored to office two years later (1836) and single-handedly brought Britain to the brink of war with Russia, 20 years before hostilities actually erupted.  Urquhart sent a British ship, appropriately named Vixen, to the North Caucasus with arms for Shamil’s jihadists.  When the Russian navy seized the ship, the British press went into paroxysms of Russophobic rage; the Times even called for war with Russia.  Again, Palmerston had to defuse the situation, and Urquhart was dismissed for good from the foreign service.

David Urquhart went on to serve in the House of Commons as an independent candidate, “taking as his colours the green and yellow of Circassia.”  More than any other figure, he drove Britain into war with Russia.  His tenacious advocacy of foreign interests and a determination to push Britain into an unnecessary and destructive war are reminiscent of the neoconservatives’ influence in modern America.

Figes’ book also succeeds in its discussion of the Crimean War’s most famous aspects and the debunking of certain myths associated with the conflict.  For example, the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava, immortalized by Tennyson, is described by Figes not as a “glorious disaster” of popular myth, but “in some ways a success, despite the heavy casualties.”  As the author explains, “the objective of [the Charge] was to scatter the enemy’s lines and frighten him off the battlefield, and in this respect, as the Russians acknowledged, the Light Brigade achieved its aim.”  The casualties suffered were highly exaggerated by the British press: The Times reported that hundreds were killed while the real death count was 113—comparable to the Russians’ casualties.  The same battle gave rise to the term “thin red line”—a misquotation of the Times’ description of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders’ heroic stand in the face of Russian cavalry as a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel.”

Orlando Figes also demonstrates that the impact of the revered Florence Nightingale has been tremendously exaggerated by her admirers.  During the height of the war, “despite all her efforts, the death rate continued to escalate alarmingly”; in a single month of the war, one in ten of all British soldiers in the Crimean theater died from disease.  Figes shows that the death rate in Nightingale’s fabled Scutari hospital in Anatolia shot up from 8 percent in November 1854 when the Lady With the Lamp arrived to a stunning 52 percent just three months later.  Figes convincingly proves that the Florence Nightingale of popular British lore was a figure whose achievements were largely invented by wartime propaganda.

The real medical hero of the Crimean War was the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov, the founder of field surgery and a luminary virtually unknown outside of the former Soviet Union.  Pirogov began his medical studies at the age of 14 and was appointed a professor of medicine at 25.  Unlike other surgeons of his time, Nikolai Pirogov was a firm believer in anesthesia and pioneered the use of ether.  During the campaign against Imam Shamil, Pirogov became the first surgeon ever to use anesthesia during a field operation.  Unfortunately, his groundbreaking research was largely unknown outside Russia.

Pirogov’s main achievement was the system of triage.  When Pirogov arrived at besieged and bombarded Sevastopol, Russian field surgery was in terrible shape.  Operating rooms were filthy and chaotic: “those who were dying mixed with those who needed urgent treatment and those with light wounds.”  Pirogov sorted out the wounded into three groups: the seriously wounded with a chance of recovery were quickly operated on; the lightly wounded were assigned numbers and waited nearby until a surgeon could treat them; and the mortally wounded were taken to a hospice where they were cared for by nurses, nuns, and priests and died in comfort and dignity.  This rational and effective method resulted in much higher postsurgery survival rates among Russians compared with their British and French adversaries.  Nikolai Pirogov also invented a method of amputation that left more support for the leg and pioneered amputations that cut lower on the limb, resulting in less trauma and blood loss.

Unfortunately, Figes’ writing is at its weakest in his descriptions of actual battles and the personas of various military commanders.  The book suffers from an overabundance of minute details of squabbles between Western generals and is saturated with extensive citations from soldiers’ and officers’ letters and memoirs.  The military narrative of Figes’ book does not flow well and is hard to follow.  Another serious flaw is the author’s lack of attention to Russian military leaders in the Crimean War.  Admirals Nakhimov and Istomin—the heroes of Sinope (the first modern naval battle) and the defense of Sevastopol—receive obscenely brief mention, while the incompetent British commander Lord Raglan’s almost every move and decision are described extensively.

Orlando Figes’ work is most powerful in its descriptions of the West’s Russophobia and its favoring of Islam over Orthodoxy.  The poisonous fruits of Urquhart’s and Palmerston’s anti-Russian and pro-Mohammedan agitation are reflected today in the Western elites’ support for Bosnian Muslim Islamists, Kosovo Albanian cutthroats, and Chechen mass murderers.  And while the purely military narrative of the book is woefully inadequate, this shortcoming is more than compensated for by Figes’ exposure of Western bias and his debunking of the myths arising from the Crimean War.


[The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (New York: Metropolitan Books) 608 pp., $35.00]