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The Crimean War: A History Paperback – February 28, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. All most people know of the Crimean War is the charge of the Light Brigade, but this war was both global and modern, insists noted historian and University of London professor Figes (The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia) in his magnificent account. It was fought with industrial technology, railways, and steamships; 750,000 soldiers and uncounted numbers of civilians died. After an 1853 religious dispute with Ottoman leaders, Russian armies invaded a disputed area in present-day Romania. Longstanding anti-Russian anger in both Britain and Turkey boiled over into war. French opinion was less enthusiastic, but Napoleon III yearned for military glory. Although Russia soon retreated, Britain's cabinet wanted to inflict serious damage. The result was the massive 1854 British-French Crimean invasion. But the armies dawdled, resulting in a costly siege, bloody battles, and 18 months of legendary heroism and incompetence ending in a treaty that only temporarily restrained Russian advances and the Ottoman Empire's decline. Using French, Russian, and Ottoman as well as British sources, Figes has written a lucid, thoroughly satisfying, definitive history. 16 pages of b&w photos; 19 b&w photos throughout; maps. (Apr.)
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“Engrossing . . . In a book densely packed with incident, Figes highlights the influence of the press and the brutal casualties that the war produced . . . Could make a hardened war correspondent's blood run cold.” ―The New Yorker

“Important and impressive . . . it is freshly informed by Russian sources, of which [Figes] is a master. . . . [The Crimean War] admirably narrates the saga in its international and religious setting.” ―Max Hastings, New York Review of Books

“Meticulously researched . . . Comprehensive and compelling . . . Using a startling array of sources, from government records, news articles, and memoirs, to the letters of barely-literate soldiers, Figes deftly balances political, military, and social history . . . The chapters on the war itself are as gripping as an adventure novel . . . The Crimean War is an evisceration of war, a celebration of scholarship.” ―Boston Globe

“Fascinating . . . Narrative history at its best, with patient unfolding of events unknown and forgotten--but that have consequences even today. A thoroughly impressive book.” ―Kirkus, starred review

“A lucid, thoroughly satisfying, definitive history.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Narrated in fearsomely vivid detail and with analytical precision . . . Figes restores historical significance and human suffering to the conflict.” ―Booklist

“A wonderful subject, on every level, and with Orlando Figes it has found the historian worthy of its width and depth.” ―Norman Stone, Standpoint

“Figes' new work will remind readers of his gifts, keen judgment and mastery of sources.” ―Max Hastings, The Sunday Times

“This is the only book on the Crimean War anyone could need. It is lucid, well-written, alive and sensitive. Above all, it tells us why this neglected conflict and its forgotten victims deserve our remembrance.” ―Oliver Bullough, The Independent

“Figes is a first-class historian. . . an excellent guide to the vagaries of the battlefield and the suffering of the ordinary soldiers . . . and the extent to which this was a religious war.” ―Dominic Sandbrook, The Daily Telegraph

“A fine, stirring account, expertly balancing analysis . . . with an impressive narrative across the vast panoramic sweep of the war.” ―Mark Bostridge, Financial Times

“Excellent. . . I could not help but marvel at the many parallels with the present.” ―Anne Applebaum, The Spectator

“A stellar historian. As ever, Figes mixes strong narrative pace, a grand canvas and compelling ideas about current geopolitical tensions.” ―Tristram Hunt, The Observer

“Entertains as well as enlightens… With its account of combat in the Balkans and conflict in Iran, Afghanistan and Jerusalem, [The Crimean War] makes the modern reader blink with recognition.” ―Angus Macqueen, The Guardian

“A complex tale, told vividly by Figes.” ―The Economist


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (February 28, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250002524
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250002525
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #54,595 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Before I read this book, I thought of the Crimean War as one of Queen Victoria's Little Wars...but nooooo! It was a much bigger show than I thought. This book is well written, instructive, and smart. The author is one of eminent historian Norman Stone's students, and it shows. The insights are like none that I've ever read about the Crimean War. The prose is engaging. He takes a different tack altogether from Trevor Royle's approach from a few years ago. The introduction to this book is great....especially when he urges those who "are ready for the fighting to start" to be patient for a few chapters or to skip ahead. The author tells you in the introduction very clearly what he is setting out to do, and I appreciate that. You know what you're getting into and whether or not it's worth buying the book and forging ahead. Trust me on this: It is worth the price and worth the read. Within the first twelve pages, there are forty dead bodies in The Gunfight at the Holy Sepulchre, which makes the work done by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday pale in comparison. Professor Figes knows how to write action.
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A fine history of the nasty Crimean War. This was one of those wars that should never have happened. Neither the French nor British could quite figure out why to go to war. Russia had the deteriorating Czar Nicholas seeing possible war in religious terms. The Ottoman Empire was in decline. The dynamics, thus, were not auspicious.

Once war began, the allies (Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, plus others as well) bruised the Russian forces at the outset. Then, a surprisingly strong stand by the Russians at Balaklava. This is the battle, of course, where history witnessed The Charge of the Light Brigade (which was actually rather successful despite the heavy losses suffered by the troops involved). The invasion force of the British eventually won and moved--with the French--toward the key city of Sevastopol. The allies moved slowly, not seeing need for dispatch. A major mistake. Time played into the Russians' hands as they fortified the city and received reinforcements. Another factor in Russia's favor was the inept British commander, Lord Raglan. He made mistake after mistake, thereby aiding the Russian cause. On the other hand, the Russian forces were afflicted with a set of poor commanders as well.

By the time the allies began their move to Sevastopol, a siege was inevitable. The Russian winter and disease devastated the besiegers--especially the British, who had frighteningly poor logistics.

Media were players in this war, one of the earlier occasions when media played a key role. Media helped fan the flames in the West in favor of war; stories about the appalling conditions facing the soldiers during the war also had an effect on the people back home. In addition, the technology of war had changed.
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Figes is known as a historian of Russia, and his Crimean War history focuses mainly on Russia, with much additional material on Britain and France. Other than slightly more material on Russian internal politics, this is pretty much the standard focus that most English language histories of this conflict have taken in the past, and, frankly, there is little new here. The usually neglected aspects of the Crimean War - Baltic operations and the Russo-Turkish campaigns- remain neglected here, even though the battles and sieges along the Danube and on the Asian mainland are as interesting as the Crimean peninsula operations. There are only very brief mentions as to these other areas of the conflict, and the cursory, reluctant coverage of the other spheres of battle is unimpressive.

Another problem with the book is that the actual military operations of the War itself, besides focusing on the usual restricted viewpoints seen in Western histories, only take up about a third of the text. The diplomatic build-up to the war, the diplomatic maneuverings behind the scenes, and (unusually) the cultural aspects of the remembrance of the conflict take up the other 2/3rds of the text. Though some might find this fascinating, I wished Figes would have focused more on the actual operations.

Figes, like many academic historians, with a few notable exceptions like John Keegan (in his earlier days anyway) has little feel for military affairs and his coverage of the War gives little real insight into how and why the battles and sieges developed as they did.
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