Eastern Questions

Crimea: The Last Crusade by Orlando Figes

Two years ago, Turkish television, with evident glee, showed film of a fight that had broken out in the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. Brotherly love was at work. The Greek Orthodox were smuggling a monk into the tomb just as an Armenian ceremony was getting under way. Enraged, the two sets of monks then started battling it out, smiting each other with processional crosses or anything else that came to hand. There were two dozen casualties and several arrests. The peace has since been kept, very uneasily, between the six churches claiming their rights in the Holy Places, and these have to be defined down to small details. 

The Orthodox, on the whole, are the most demanding and cantankerous, and in a way you can see how such quarrelling did, in 1853, manage even to bring about European war. The Catholics installed a Latin cross in Bethlehem, and the Orthodox defaced or stole it. The French sent a warship and a bully to tell the Turks to respect an old treaty. The Russians sent another bully and another warship and eventually the British and French came to the Turks’ rescue. The Crimean War (1854-1856) resulted. 

The story sounds absurd and indeed sounded absurd to civilised people at the time. But it was in deadly earnest. The fire-eating Lord Palmerston as Prime Minister said that the moment had come to destroy Russia: there should be a European coalition, including Sweden and Turkey, to throw her back to her old boundaries — the “pre-Petrine Muscovy”, of which the Germans were to speak in 1918 when they imposed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and created independent Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, etc. Palmerston’s plan broke down, partly for a quite simple logistical reason — you cannot really invade Russia unless you are Genghis Khan — and mainly because at that time no one in Berlin wanted to take on Russia. Those squabbling monks, bashing each other with chasubles, opened up enormous geopolitical issues. At the end of the line, within three years of the treaty at Paris that ended the Crimean War, a united Italy was coming into existence. Then, in 1866, comes Greater Prussia, and the German Reich.

The Crimean War is, in other words, a wonderful subject, on every level, and with Orlando Figes it has found the historian worthy of its width and depth. The only reproach that I might make at him is that, though he can handle sources in the half-a-dozen languages you need to write up this war, he has not managed Ottoman Turkish. Marx, who understood exactly how important this war was, set himself to do Ottoman Turkish (I do not think that he succeeded). For there is another side to the Crimean War, also important for today. How do you Westernise the Middle East? The Turks have made a decent go at it.

The religious squabbles were important in themselves at the time — to understand this you just need to look at the street corners of any town in England, with their Victorian churches, often rather decent buildings, that no one now quite knows what to do with. When Gladstone as senior politician denounced the Pope for claiming to be infallible in matters of dogma, his pamphlet sold 100,000 copies, and fathers of families, of a Sunday evening, would assemble their troops and read his moralising budget speeches. Figes is rather good when it comes to collecting sermons as to the wrongs of Orthodoxy. Usually, Protestants, as Pope-haters, got along tolerably well with the Orthodox, at any rate Russian Orthodox. There was much inter-marriage: the Romanov dynasty itself was either 97.5 per cent Lutheran German or 100 per cent Lutheran German, depending on how you rate the likelihood of Catherine the Great’s becoming pregnant with Peter III, famous for drunkenly substituting a Te Deum for the requiem mass laid on for his predecessor. His brains were bashed out with a footstool wielded by Count Orlov, Catherine’s lover. Just the right background for the guardianship of the Holy Places. 

Around 1850, the northern European, liberal, capitalist (hence Marx’s interest) world had turned very strongly against Russia. There had been 40 years of peace in Europe, but they had been underwritten by a strongly conservative alliance of Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg: no nonsense about parliaments and no nonsense about nationalism and not very much nonsense about religious freedom. The Tsar’s army just moved in, whether it was Poland or Hungary, to stop that nonsense. And when in 1850 the king of Prussia very hesitantly suggested some sort of constitution for some sort of non-aggressive Germany (in effect the ancestor, stillborn, of today’s Germany), it was the Russian ambassador who said no. Liberals and nationalists fled to Western Europe, and did so via Turkey, where the Sultan refused to hand them over for execution. At the time, the Turks were attempting a sort of proto-version of the reforms that came after the First World War, and they had introduced free trade in 1838 as a way of bringing in British capital (in which they were quite successful). For the Turks this is an interesting time, and they had quite a favourable press. Some of their reforming statesmen (not all: one or two reckoned, not wrongly, that they would do better with a Russian alliance) decided to make a play for alliance with the British and French, in the name of decency and liberalism. These obscure religious haggles therefore grew to a monstrous scale, and a great ideological war resulted: Western liberalism versus Russian reaction.

The Eastern Question — what happens when Turkey goes? — was old enough, going back to 1770, when the Russians smashed the Ottoman fleet off Izmir. That became balance-of-power stuff, superbly written up in Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory (Penguin). Maybe Napoleon and Tsar Alexander could have divided Europe — the Venetian empire for France, the Ottoman Empire for Russia — and defied the British but that did not work. By 1850, ideology was intervening and the Crimean War, in that sense as in many others, is the first modern war. Public opinion counted. It could be mobilised by the press: the first photographs were doing the rounds (I believe the first political photograph is of a barricade in Paris during the June Days proletarian uprising); the telegraph flashed news from far away within hours, for printing next day; buccaneering journalists are at work; the troops, sent by steamship, arrive by a mobilisation plan unthinkable in the days of sail. 

The great Florence Nightingale (I was very glad indeed to see that Figes has paid adequate tribute to a movingly good book on her by Mark Bostridge) is in her way a symbol of the odd anticipations of modernity that occur in the Crimean War. It is maybe something of an irony that Orlando Figes, whose mother Eva is famously a bit of a feminist, is rather better on battles — and he really is astonishingly good at them — than he is on Nightingale. He is indeed good at the battles, and you can sort out the Light Brigade very well.

The one point at which I might query his account is that he does not see that the Crimean War provided a huge shock to the Russian system, which caused Nicholas’s son, Alexander II, to say that a vast reform would be needed. That should be the next subject for this extraordinarily talented historian. 

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