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on 31 December 2010
This is a beautifully paced book. There is an excellent account of the factors leading up to the war making some sense out of the "Eastern Question". The battles are dealt with in sufficient depth but not a blow by blow narrative as is too often the case in military history. What makes the book outstanding is the focus on the ordinary soldier and particularly their suffering during the first winter in the Crimea. We get a clear picture of the awful conditions, the disease, the injuries and above all the incompetence of the commanders.There are many extracts from personal letters and they, along with the illustrations and maps, contribute greatly to the story. The book does not end with the Treaty of Paris but goes on to describe the effect that the war had on European politics during the ensuing deacdes.
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on 11 September 2011
This is the first book by Figes I've read (having until now little or no interest in Russian history, or perhaps more correctly: not the time to immerse myself in the subject), but it will definitely not be the last. 'Crimea' is truly a gem. I had read The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Wordsworth Military Library) years ago, but looking back now I enjoyed 'Crimea' a lot more, and - more to the point perhaps - I think it's not just a fuller account of the Crimean War (and what came before and after) but also a more objective view.

Figes consulted a wealth of primary and secondary sources, considers the conflict from all viewpoints, gives each of the allies and opponents their due (from the commanders-in-chief to the lowliest soldier), and above writes it all down in a clear, easy and sweeping style which kept me reading on well into the night completely oblivious of the time. An unputdownable book about the defining conflict of the 19th century.
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on 2 February 2011
I have read much on the Crimean war but little about it's causes and aftermath. This book is easy to read, brilliantly researched and I enjoyed it very much. In some respects it is rather like a mural as it paints the various players, the political and religious factions, the war itself and the social and national consequences. The use of quotations from other writers is very well done to illustrate the feelings of those times. My great grandfather and great great grandfather were at the siege of Sevastopol and I have visited the city twice. I would have liked to see some of the paintings mentioned in the book by way of illustration as I could only recall one of them, "the roll call". Well done Orlando.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 August 2011
On July 18, 1854, two British warships under the command of Captain Erasmus Ommaeny bombarded the monastery on the main island in the Solovetskie Islands in the White Sea. The monastery itself had no real military or political value, but Ommaney lacked the forces necessary to attack the main Russian base in the area at Archangel and decided that the monastery was a suitable enough target to win his men plaudits at home. After the outdated Russian batteries defending the monastery were destroyed, Ommaney demanded the surrender of the place; when this was refused he launched a second bombardment before sailing away in frustration, his bold military action having caused a total of six casualties, all among his own men.

There is no mention of Ommaney's adventure in Orlando Figes's history of the Crimean War, which is unfortunate considering how nicely it encapsulates the pointlessness that is a dominant theme of his assessment of the conflict. Its absence is also revealing, as it shows Figes's focus to be squarely on the eponymous theater of the war. There is some discussion of the combat in the Caucauses, a couple of passing mentions of fighting in the Baltic and no mention of battles anywhere else. This is also unfortunate, as it would have been interesting to see him employ the same penetrating analysis to these other overlooked theaters that he applies to the fighting in the Crimea. For his book offers a insightful reexamination of this often-overlooked conflict, one that demonstrates its underrated significance to the history of Europe in the 19th century.

Figes spends the first part of the book teasing out the complicated origins of the war. While many factors were involved, he considers the role of the Russian tsar Nicolas I to be the most significant one, giving greater weight to religion as a motivating factor in his actions than have previous historians. Yet this only served to define some of the particulars of what was an ongoing struggle between the major European powers over the fate of the Ottoman Empire and her territories. Pressured by Russia, the Ottomans received support from Great Britain and France, each of whom were motivated by different interests and seeking different goals.

Achieving their various goals eventually cost the sides involved far more than they had anticipated. When war did break out in 1854, the British and the French were divided as to what to do to strike at the Ottomans. Eventually an assault on the Russian Black Fleet and their main naval base at Sebastopol became their goal, motivated as much by the allies' desire to move their forces out of cholera-afflicted Bessarabia as anything else. Their landing and subsequent advance soon developed into a ponderous siege of the town. Here Figes excels in describing the siege and the major personalities involved, capturing the bravery of the men and the appalling errors which were made by their leaders in waging it. The fall of Sebastopol, along with Nicholas's death and succession by his reform-minded son Alexander II, led to a negotiated peace that was a humiliation, one which was soon reversed by a combination of adroit diplomacy and fortuitous timing. Figes concludes with a chapter in which he looks at the weight given to the conflict in the national imaginations of the various countries which sent men to fight and die there, a few of whom were immortalized but most ultimately forgotten.

Figes's book is a superb history of a often-overlooked war. His background in Russian history and his command of the Russian-language sources allows him to provide a far more complete examination of the conflict than exists in most English-language accounts, while his abilities as a writer help bring the war to life. In this sense Ommaneny's escapade can go unnoticed, overshadowed as it was by the far larger and bloodier farce that took place further south that Figes recounts with both humanity and insight. The result is a book that, while far from the final word on this complex and multifaceted conflict, is unlikely to be bettered anytime soon for the author's success in providing such an entertaining and informative account of a war that has long been denied its due.
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on 27 June 2013
If you are a general reader of history, rather than a specialist, and are looking for a lucidly written, one-volume account of the Crimean War, its causes and effects, then this is the book for you. Prior to reading it my knowledge of the war was confined to a hazy awareness of the charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale, and some Russian place-names such as Sevastopol and Balaklava. This history sets out in great detail the political context within which the war broke out, including the fear of Russian expansion which led western nations such as Britain and France to take the side of the Ottoman Empire against Russian attempts to release Orthodox Christians from Muslim hegemony.

Figes draws on Russian and Turkish sources in addition to British and French ones and the result is a very impressive and convincing account. The military course of the war is covered without overwhelming the reader with technical detail but the book is particularly strong on the plight of soldiers injured in the war or suffering from the conditions under which they operated, particularly during the siege of Sevastopol. If I have any quibble it is that I would have liked more on the experience of the people being besieged.

The fascinating course of events following the war is also deftly handled by Figes. Read it!
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 3 October 2010
It is rare to find such a chunky big history which is as easy to read and genuinely enjoyable and interesting as this one. This is not just a military history however with the ramifications in the participating nations and their populations as a whole dealt with in depth. In a way this may be seen as a weakness, but with there being many military histories about this conflict in existence this volume serves as an all encompassing overview of a war that may not have been strategically necessary but was felt worth fighting by a British government showing a paranoia about Russian intentions in the region which may well not have been misplaced. There are many parallels with present day tensions in the Black Sea region, especially in the Caucasus and the Balkans (you can guess this from the subtitle) and these are ably described by Figes by writing about them from the point of view of the various participants.

All in all an engrossing history that adds to what to has been written before
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on 17 October 2010
The most important event of the nineteenth century was the Crimean War. Paradoxically, it is also the most forgotten one. However,Orlando Figes has resurrected its memory and in his new book about it he has done a superb job. This is history at its best, written by a master historian who knows how to write history which reads like a thriller.
More than 800000 men were killed in this horrible war, whose starting point was a religious motive and which ended in many changes in the European political,religious and ethnic fields. The war signified the end of the Concert of Europe. According to Figes,it is the first book to draw on many and various Russian,French,Ottoman and British sources and his command of the new, hitherto untapped sources is perfect.
The first quarter of the book serves as an introduction to the causes of the war, where Professor Figes discusses the religious factor which was the main reason for the Crimean War. He offers the reader a panoramic view about the pilgrims to the Holy Land; a description of the Russian and Turkish clashes over the Holy Land and interests in those places and an in-depth analysis of the Eastern Question.
The rest of the book,more than 400 pages, is devoted to the war itself, and it is this part where the reader will,in my view, enjoy it most. Figes' forte is in using as many perspectives as possible about the same event,thus you will be able to know what the Russian soldier,the Turkish officer,the British doctor or the French Emperor were doing what and where. Kings, queens,princes,courtiers,diplomats,religious leaders,Polish and Hungarian revolutionaries,doctors,nurses,journalists,arists and photographers,pamphleteers and writers(the most famous one being Tolstoy) and also historians-all are here with their individual stories,memories,journals,photos or letters. In fact,the abundance of sources is so rich that you get the feeling of watching a multi-angled excellent documentary.
In the words of the author,"the Crimean War was a watershed.It broke the old conservative alliance between Russia and the Austrians and as a result of the war,new nation states emerged, among them Romania and Germany. It left Russia with a deep resentment of the West,a feeling of betrayal that the other Christian states had sided with the Turks,and with the frustrated ambitions in the Balkans that would continue to destabilize relations between the powers in the 1870s and the crises leading to the outbreak of the First World War".
This was the first war where the public had its say, where the telegraph aided the war correspondets in their mission to tell their readers real and rapid accounts of what was happening in the killing fields of Balaklava, Alma,Inkerman and Sevastopol. Only on the battlefield of Inkerman the Russians lost about 12000 men,the British 2610 casualties and the French 1726,which was "an appallling number killed in just four hours of fighting-a rate of almost on par with the battele of the Somme".
The war correspondent Nicholas Woods observed that ..."some (men)had their heads taken off at the neck,as if with an axe;others their legs gone from the hips;others their arms, and others again were hit in the chest or stomach,were literally as smashed as if they had been crushed by a machine".(pp.268-269).
Among the many interesting many characters peopling his opus,there stands out the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov,who was responsible for the introduction of field surgery trouth the use of anaethetics.
One of the main villains in this war was Lord Palmerston who wanted to see a crushed Russia,thus helping the British achieve masterdom in East Asia. Seeing Russia as the main aggressor was the British point of view which had dominated British politics up to World War Two.
This war changed many things among them the way the West regarded the Turks and the way the Turkish leaders regarded the West.In Britain it marked the end of the British aristocracy being the defender of the Empire,substituted by the common soldier.
The other strong points in this book are the way he describes the soldiers,the officers and the civilians in the Crimean theater and their daily methods of coping with disease,their war crimes(looting, rape,murder),personal tragedies and so on.
The last part, the shortest,is about the way the war stirred-and still does-memories mainly in France and Russia. In 2006 the bodies of 14 infantrymen were discovered, buried with their grenades and crucifixes in the famous battle of Alma,and they were reburied with full military honours.
This is one of the best history books which I have read in the last ten years and I am sure that it will become not only a bestseller but also a classic. Bravo,Professor Figes!
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on 20 December 2010
In Crimea, the Last Crusade Orlando Figes takes a holistic approach to the Crimean War. Numerous first-hand sources resurrected from archives in Russia, France, Turkey and the UK combine to make this book at once both original and moving. Extracts from the letters and diaries of Allied and Russian soldiers are interwoven with those of journalists, generals, politicians and emperors. The mistakes of the `arrogant and wilful' Russian Tsar, Nicholas 1, and of the `near geriatric' British commander-in-chief, Lord Raglan, whose refusal to capture Sevastopol when it was only lightly defended by the Russians condemned both sides to a drawn-out struggle in conditions that augured the pernicious quagmire of the Western Front, are itemised in full. Like World War One, the Crimea became a war of attrition between `lions led by donkeys' - the stoic heroism of the battered, sodden, frozen, sleep-deprived and (in the case of the Russian and Turkish troops) starved soldiers would beggar belief if it were not so authoritatively documented in vividly described trench and battle scenes.
At the same time the reader if made aware of the frailty of the combatants, of the high rates of contagion and desertion of duty and of the appalling impact of the weapons of modern warfare on the human body. The `thin red line' of the Alma gives way to a struggle resembling something between the Somme and an interminable medieval siege in which, as Leo Tolstoy tells us on the back of the dust-jacket, we `will see war not as a beautiful, orderly, and gleaming formation..... but war in its authentic expression - as blood, suffering and death'. As a young artillery officer, Tolstoy fought at Silestria before the Allied intervention and subsequently defended Sevastopol - his 'Sevastopol Sketches' (which made him famous) and his diaries and letters are frequently cited. Yet Orlando Figes is so talented a writer and historian that he can easily encompass the reflections of his chief witness within his own absorbing narrative and afford to allow him the last word.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 December 2010
"Crimea" explains the power struggles of mid-nineteenth century Europe: the ramshackle Ottoman Empire, ironically dismissed by the Russian Tsar Nicholas 1 as "the Sick Man of Europe" as he falls prey to his growing obsession to liberate the Eastern Orthodox Christians from Turkish dominance; Austria, traditionally an ally of Russia, but now unwilling to go beyond "armed neutrality", for fear that encouragement of uprisings of Slavs in Turkey will give its own minority groups ideas of rebellion. France is keen to gain victory against Russia after its earlier humiliation under Napoleon Bonaparte, and the English - concerned more about commerce than religious rights- wish to deflect the Russians from their suspected designs on India. This melting pot of conflicting aims causes one of the frequent wars between Russia and Turkey to boil over into the conflict which has left the fragmented legacy in our history of the "Lady with the Lamp", Florence Nightingale (who gets scant mention here, including her failure to realise that soldiers were dying in droves because the local water supply was contaminated), the balaclava hat against the perishing winters and the heroic, misconceived charge of the Light Brigade (which was not quite the disaster it was portrayed).

Once he "gets into" the battles in the Crimea, Figes' account is gripping. He brings out clearly the chaos, incompetence and misplaced courage under fire - yet frequent barbarism with looting of the dead, beheading them in the hope of monetary reward being one Turkish tradition . WW1 is foreshadowed, with the accounts of soldiers fraternising between onslaughts - the officers from opposing sides sometimes sipped champagne together as their men cleared away bodies so that the battle could continue.

Although I found interesting the first chapter on the unholy disputes between different religious factions in Jerusalem, and there is the intriguing incident of the Tsar travelling incognito (for fear of assassination) to England to persuade Queen Victoria and the Prime Minister to agree to a future carve-up of Turkey, not realising that Parliament might need to be consulted, the opening chapters are hard to follow in places, particularly the important section on "The Eastern Question". Figes invites you to skip the first 130 pages, but the analysis of the background is important and it would have been better if he had simply provided better maps, a glossary of key characters, and a simple "time line" of critical events. I suppose this reflects the historian's usual dilemma as to how much prior knowledge to expect of the reader.

The evaluation of the aftermath gives food for thought: the Russians focussed on their victories during the war, rather than their overall failure, and managed to recoup within 25 years their losses under the Paris Peace Treaty. They proceeded quite quickly to fight the Turks again, having made strenuous attempts to update their military organisation. The epilogue on the British commemoration of the Crimean War in rather sickly Victorian poetry is a bit of an anticlimax.

Overall, this is more digestible than many historical tomes, and I found much of it fascinating.
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on 4 April 2014
This book is an excellent account of the Crimean war (1853-6)that started between the Ottoman empire and Russia over religious matters such as the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jeruselam but spread to become a border war which Britain and France joined i9n 1854 on the side of the Ottomans.The war was origionally fought in the Caucusesbut evantually settled to Crimea but actions took place as far away as St.Petersburg and the Far East.
20,000 of the 98,000 British troops died but 16,000 of the 20,000 died from disease and not battle.
Well written with good battle accounts of Balaclava,Sevastopol,Inkerman and Almos and naturally the exploits of Florance Nightingale.
A first class book.
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