This book is a solid attempt to fill real void; the absence of a good overview history of the Crimean War. Figes is a specialist on 20th century Russia and equipped to delve into the Russian literature on the Crimean War. The result is a well-balanced book in which Figes attends to all the major combatants - Russia, Ottoman Turkey, France, and Britain. Another very good aspect of this book is Figes' interesting reconstruction of the origins of the war. To some extent, this is the story of the breakdown of the post-Napoleonic settlement involving the "Holy Alliance" of conservative European powers. The Crimean War grew partly out of imperial rivalry between Russia and Britain, particularly as the expanding British industrial economy became enmeshed in trade in Ottoman Turkey and Imperial Russia attempted to expand around and monopolize the Black Sea. The background is the decay of the power of the Ottoman state and the efforts of various European powers to exploit Ottoman weakness. This imperial conflict as a key factor in genesis of the war is generally known well but Figes stresses 2 additional important factors; religious conflict, and domestic politics in Britain and France.
Figes argues that religion figures in several important ways in the outbreak of the war. Religion was a major motivation for Russian policy, in large part because the pious Nicholas I felt a divine vocation to expand Orthodox Christianity. A certain amount of anti-Orthodox feeling was also an important factor in British and French politics. Ottoman Turkey, for example, allowed a limited amount of Protestant evangelism within its borders, Russia did not. French Catholic interests were also opposed to Orthodoxy. Related to these religious issues was the relative importance of public opinion in Britain and France. Popular sentiment in Britain, particularly among the relatively pious middle classes, was against Russia. In the first age of mass press, this gave war sentiment considerable impetus. In France, Napoleon III pursued an aggressive foreign policy as a way to bolster the legitimacy of his recently installed regime. War against Russia was also a way to placate conservative Catholic sentiment.
Much of the book is a well written narrative of the Crimean campaign. Figes shows well that this was not a minor war, but rather a major effort with enormous casualties among the combatants and very large effects on civilian populations around the Black Sea. These narrative sections are well done, stressing the primitive nature of the Russian military and the amateurish British war effort. Only the French army, with its long experience in North Africa, was really prepared for combat. The French and British benefited also from a significant technological innovation, the Minie ball rifle, which greatly enhanced infantry firepower. Figes is careful to point out that the Crimean campaign, while the major theater, was not only theatre of the war. There were efforts by the British and French in the Baltic, and significant combat in the Balkans and the Caucausus.
Figes is also quite good on the aftermath of the war. The breakdown of the Congress of Vienna system with the severing of ties between Austria and Russia is shown well. The re-emergence of France as a major force in European politics was one of the results of the war. The highly unsatisfactory nature of the war and the post-war settlement had major repercussions in Britain and Russia. It prompted major reforms in the Russia, including relaxation of serfdom, and contributed considerably to discrediting the role of aristocratic management of politics in Britain. One of the most interesting and important sequelae of the war was major ethnic cleansing and redistribution around the Black Sea. Prior to the war, for example, the Crimea had been populated by Tatars. During and after the war, the Crimea became a Russian dominated region.
This book, however, has some significant defects. In a book where a lot of text is devoted to military operations, the maps are sparse and not particularly good. As Figes points out, this is also the first war to be covered by good quality photography. What not more photos of the terrain on which the war was fought? Figes points out correctly that this was a major war with casualties in the hundreds of thousands, but nowhere is there any systematic presentation of casualties. A simple chart with estimates and some record of the troops committed would be very useful. The focus on the Crimea gives the impression that the Baltic and Caucausian theatres were sideshows. I suspect the brief treatment of both is somewhat misleading. The Franco-British failures in the Baltic appear to have been a significant effort and the failures had major strategic consequences. The operations in the White Sea and the Pacific were minor but are never mentioned. Figes also appears to be a bit careless about some details. His brief account of the Hungarian revolution of 1848 is misleading. I doubt that Russian muskets had an effective range of 300 yards. As shown by the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, its not correct that the Austrian were in constant retreat in the Balkans from the 1870s to the outbreak of WWI.