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Useless to experts, bad for beginners.
on 24 September 2013
This book combines shoddy, pop-history analysis with a drearily conventional structure. Professor Figes offers no new revelations whatsoever regarding the story of the Crimean campaign itself and at times distorts the facts to generate a more 'glamorous' storyline.
"Crimea: The Last Crusade" was put together extremely carelessly, and a reader fresh to the subject will find it very hard to navigate. In the five chapters leading up to the war, Figes deals with everything from rival Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem to the introduction of Christianity to Kievan Rus' in the tenth century, yet dedicates almost no time at all to the soldiers and ordinary civilians on whose testimony the major part of his account later relies. It really feels like two unconnected books: one a religious and social history of Orthodox Christians in south-eastern Europe and the Levant, and one a fairly banal account of a war fought by people completely dissociated from the first book.
Figes is one of those historians who starts every chapter with a glossy scene-setting anecdote: the crowds of pilgrims flocking to Jerusalem, the Sultan on his white charger riding to the Mosque, etc. This can be a great way of drawing the audience in, as it allows historical beginners to picture the past as well as read about it. Unfortunately Figes' writing flair dies out after only a few pages and the reader is left leafing through pages and pages of terminally dull official correspondence between this Russian minister and that British diplomat. These extracts from repetitive letters sometimes take up entire pages. "Crimea: The Last Crusade" is old-fashioned, stodgy Great Man history at its worst. It weighs the reader down, asking us to process name after unfamiliar name, letter after letter, report after report.
The reader may, in chapter 5 ("Phoney War") have a distinct sense of deja vu as Figes repeats the same issues over and over again. Despite the endless blow-by-blow account of what the Russian and British governments were discussing internally prior to the war, Figes fails to link any of it directly to pilgrims in the Holy Land or Christians in the Ottoman Empire, one of the major contentions of his prologue. There is some discussion of Christian uprisings in the Balkans, but all we hear of them is the occasional (lengthy) memo on the subject between the Tsar and his ministers. It's shockingly boring, when it could and should be a gripping story about national identity.
Figes has some odd writing quirks and this includes his way of describing people: he refers to the British Ambassador Stratford Canning as "Stratford" throughout the text (nobody else named Canning appears in any significant capacity, not even the former Prime Minister), and at one stage introduce Charles Dickens as "Dickens" without mentioning his first name at all.
This assumption of prior knowledge on the one hand, with rank ignorance on the other, permeates the entire book. Figes takes time to explain what a "Ship of the Line" is in a naval context, and then almost immediately describes the Russian fleet as consisting of "battleships". Quite apart from being inaccurate this also precludes the audience from learning anything about fleets (or words) in the nineteenth century.
That is another major fault; as a military history, "Crimea" is dire. While Figes rightly includes countless excerpts from soldiers' diaries and official reports, these are never constructed into a coherent story. The battle of the Alma, for example is a series of anecdotes, without a map or a summary from the author to guide us (the map included at the beginning of the book is not annotated and in no way relates to Figes' description).
On the battlefield, every individual who is mentioned comes across as a clown or a moron. For every reader who thought that the 'butchers and bunglers' school of military history had been safely consigned to the ashtray of historiography, think again. Figes takes the usual line that Lord Raglan was a senile old duffer, and actually cuts out his direction of horse artillery at the Alma (perhaps the most important thing he did in the entire Crimean War) from his account completely in order to justify this characterisation. Added to this are the usual descriptions of drunken and incapable Russian generals ordering their troops to fire at friendly cavalry, British troops freezing to death on Cathcart Hill and aristocratic officers unable to tell their arses from their elbows.
Much of this would be fine (most of it is true) if it was balanced out by some attempt to explain why wars were fought in such a bloody and clumsy way during the mid-nineteenth century. But in this, too, Figes is more interested in shocking the reader than teaching them. So at one point we have a scorching critique of the Russian army's focus on parade-ground drill and reliance on the "obsolete" musket, followed a few pages later by an indictment of the Ottoman army for being "unable to adopt modern formation fighting". These are not accurate portrayals, but even if they were, they would be contradictory and in neither case does he really bother to explain why. Instead what we are offered is a self-satisfied smirk at the expense of 'the olden days'. If you like that kind of thing, then buckle up: this account of the Crimean War consists of smirking and little else.
This lack of real analysis of the combatants is everywhere. Figes at one stage describes French Zouaves as "mostly North African" when he has already established in a previous chapter that Zouave regiments consisted of Frenchmen. He does not mention the 'Turcos' or North African Tiralleurs (who actually were Muslim North Africans fighting for France) at all. Given the awesome reputation which both Zouaves and Turcos acquired in the Crimea this can only be a deliberate oversimplification.
These are small points but they build up over time into a narrative that the reader cannot trust. Figes isn't a 'details man' and his tendency to oversimplify leaves the reader ignorant at best and confused at worst. His framing of the war as a clash of civilisations is huge, but his delving into the minutiae of the actual war itself then becomes distracting. It's the old story: his book tries to be all things to all men, and fails at every step.
I was particularly disappointed with his explanation of the war as the logical consequence of the Russian belief in a 'holy mission' to rebuild the Byzantine Empire. And it all started so well! Figes seemed genuinely interested in Russo-Turkish relations and put together a lively and interesting description of Orthodox pilgrims' journey to the Holy Land, and the political tensions this caused over time. I was very curious to learn what became of the pilgrims (and the pilgrimages) during and after the war, and all I got at the end was a short passage describing how everything went back to normal after the Crimean war. What was it all for? If the book had been plugged as an account of the futility of war from the very start, that might have made sense. As it is, it feels like a waste of our time.
The worst part about "Crimea; The Last Crusade" is not its missing facts or its lack of cohesion, it's that Professor Figes doesn't actually seem all that interested in the Crimean War. With his tendency to let diary extracts run for paragraphs, he leaves the telling of history to other, better writers who were actually there. He evinces neither original analysis nor any kind of personal interest. This book resembles nothing so much as an untidy desk piled high with books and notes and almost impossible for a reader at any level to piece together.
We as an audience rely on historians to teach us what happened in the past, and why it was important. While there is some discussion of the Crimean War's cultural consequences, this seems to be yet another excuse to load us down with endless extracts and cultural minutiae, and where Figes himself steps in to summarise for us, he always paints in very broad strokes that don't really explain anything beyond "many things changed in the Ottoman Empire. People wore different clothes, and some of them learned to read".
A lot of people have written reviews here praising this book. If they enjoyed it, that is fair, but I would strongly advise anyone to read more, and read other accounts, of the Crimean War. The military or historical enthusiast will learn nothing at all, and anybody reading about the Crimea for the first time may take away some wrong impressions of a very interesting period of history, especially if they treat Crimea: The Last Crusade as definitive.