The Crimean War: A History

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9780805074604: The Crimean War: A History

From "the great storyteller of modern Russian historians," (Financial Times) the definitive account of the forgotten war that shaped the modern age

The Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale―these are the enduring icons of the Crimean War. Less well-known is that this savage war (1853-1856) killed almost a million soldiers and countless civilians; that it enmeshed four great empires―the British, French, Turkish, and Russian―in a battle over religion as well as territory; that it fixed the fault lines between Russia and the West; that it set in motion the conflicts that would dominate the century to come.

In this masterly history, Orlando Figes reconstructs the first full conflagration of modernity, a global industrialized struggle fought with unusual ferocity and incompetence. Drawing on untapped Russian and Ottoman as well as European sources, Figes vividly depicts the world at war, from the palaces of St. Petersburg to the holy sites of Jerusalem; from the young Tolstoy reporting in Sevastopol to Tsar Nicolas, haunted by dreams of religious salvation; from the ordinary soldiers and nurses on the battlefields to the women and children in towns under siege..

Original, magisterial, alive with voices of the time, The Crimean War is a historical tour de force whose depiction of ethnic cleansing and the West's relations with the Muslim world resonates with contemporary overtones. At once a rigorous, original study and a sweeping, panoramic narrative, The Crimean War is the definitive account of the war that mapped the terrain for today's world..

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About the Author:

Orlando Figes is the author of The Crimean War: A History, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, and A People's Tragedy, which have been translated into more than twenty languages. The recipient of the Wolfson History Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, among others, Figes is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Crimean War
1 Religious Wars For weeks the pilgrims had been coming to Jerusalem for the Easter festival. They came from every corner of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, from Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Anatolia, the Greek peninsula, but most of all from Russia, travelling by sea to the port of Jaffa where they hired camels or donkeys. By Good Friday, on 10 April 1846, there were 20,000 pilgrims in Jerusalem. They rented any dwelling they could find or slept in family groups beneath the stars. To pay for their long journey nearly all of them had brought some merchandise, a handmade crucifix or ornament, strings of beads or pieces of embroidery, which they sold to European tourists at the holy shrines. The square before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the focus of their pilgrimage, was a busy marketplace, with colourful displays of fruit and vegetables competing for space with pilgrims' wares and the smelly hides of goats and oxen left out in the sun by the tanneries behind the church. Beggars, too, collected here. They frightened strangers into giving alms by threatening to touch them with their leprous hands. Wealthy tourists had to be protected by their Turkish guides, who hit the beggars with heavy sticks to clear a path to the church doors. In 1846 Easter fell on the same date in the Latin and Greek Orthodox calendars, so the holy shrines were much more crowded than usual, and the mood was very tense. The two religious communities had long been arguing about who should have first right to carry out their Good Friday rituals on the altar of Calvary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot where the cross of Jesus was supposed to have been inserted in the rock. During recent years the rivalry between the Latins and the Greeks had reached such fever pitch that Mehmet Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem, had been forced toposition soldiers inside and outside the church to preserve order. But even this had not prevented fights from breaking out. On this Good Friday the Latin priests arrived with their white linen altar-cloth to find that the Greeks had got there first with their silk embroidered cloth. The Catholics demanded to see the Greeks' firman, their decree from the Sultan in Constantinople, empowering them to place their silk cloth on the altar first. The Greeks demanded to see the Latins' firman allowing them to remove it. A fight broke out between the priests, who were quickly joined by monks and pilgrims on either side. Soon the whole church was a battlefield. The rival groups of worshippers fought not only with their fists, but with crucifixes, candlesticks, chalices, lamps and incense-burners, and even bits of wood which they tore from the sacred shrines. The fighting continued with knives and pistols smuggled into the Holy Sepulchre by worshippers of either side. By the time the church was cleared by Mehmet Pasha's guards, more than forty people lay dead on the floor.1 'See here what is done in the name of religion!' wrote the English social commentator Harriet Martineau, who travelled to the Holy Lands of Palestine and Syria in 1846. This Jerusalem is the most sacred place in the world, except Mekkeh, to the Mohammedan: and to the Christian and the Jew, it is the most sacred place in the world. What are they doing in this sanctuary of their common Father, as they all declare it to be? Here are the Mohammedans eager to kill any Jew or Christian who may enter the Mosque of Omar. There are the Greeks and Latin Christians hating each other, and ready to kill any Jew or Mohammedan who may enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And here are the Jews, pleading against their enemies, in the vengeful language of their ancient prophets.2 The rivalry between the Christian Churches was intensified by the rapid growth in the number of pilgrims to Palestine in the nineteenth century. Railways and steamships made mass travel possible, opening up the region to tour-groups of Catholics from France and Italy and to the devout middle classes of Europe and America. The various Churches vied with one another for influence. They set up missions to support their pilgrims, competed over purchases of land, endowed bishoprics and monasteries, and established schools to convert the Orthodox Arabs(mainly Syrian and Lebanese), the largest but least educated Christian community in the Holy Lands. 'Within the last two years considerable presents have been sent to Jerusalem to decorate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Russian, French, Neapolitan and Sardinian governments,' reported William Young, the British consul in Palestine and Syria, to Lord Palmerston at the Foreign Office in 1839. There are many symptoms of increasing jealousy and inimical feeling among the churches. The petty quarrels that have always existed between the Latin, Greek and Armenian convents were of little moment so long as their differences were settled from time to time by the one giving a larger bribe to the Turkish authorities than the other. But that day passes by, for these countries are now no longer closed against European intrigue in church matters.3 Between 1842 and 1847 there was a flurry of activity in Jerusalem: the Anglicans founded a bishopric; the Austrians set up a Franciscan printing press; the French established a consulate in Jerusalem and pumped money into schools and churches for the Catholics; Pope Pius IX re-established a resident Latin patriarch, the first since the Crusades of the twelfth century; the Greek patriarch returned from Constantinople to tighten his hold on the Orthodox; and the Russians sent an ecclesiastical mission, which led to the foundation of a Russian compound with a hostel, hospital, chapel, school and marketplace to support the large and growing number of Russian pilgrims. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church sent more pilgrims to Jerusalem than any other branch of the Christian faith. Every year up to 15,000 Russian pilgrims would arrive in Jerusalem for the Easter festival, some even making the long trek on foot across Russia and the Caucasus, through Anatolia and Syria. For the Russians, the holy shrines of Palestine were objects of intense and passionate devotion: to make a pilgrimage to them was the highest possible expression of their faith. In some ways the Russians saw the Holy Lands as an extension of their spiritual motherland. The idea of 'Holy Russia' was not contained by any territorial boundaries; it was an empire of the Orthodox with sacred shrines throughout the lands of Eastern Christianity andwith the Holy Sepulchre as its mother church. 'Palestine', wrote one Russian theologian in the 1840s, 'is our native land, in which we do not recognize ourselves as foreigners.'4 Centuries of pilgrimage had laid the basis of this claim, establishing a link between the Russian Church and the Holy Places (connected with the life of Christ in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth) which many Russians counted more important - the basis of a higher spiritual authority - than the temporal and political sovereignty of the Ottomans in Palestine. Nothing like this ardour could be found among the Catholics or Protestants, for whom the Holy Places were objects of historical interest and romantic sentiment rather than religious devotion. The travel writer and historian Alexander Kinglake thought that 'the closest likeness of a pilgrim which the Latin Church could supply was often a mere French tourist with a journal and a theory and a plan of writing a book'. European tourists were repelled by the intense passion of the Orthodox pilgrims, whose strange rituals struck them as 'barbaric' and as 'degrading superstitions'. Martineau refused to go to the Holy Sepulchre to see the washing of the pilgrims' feet on Good Friday. 'I could not go to witness mummeries done in the name of Christianity,' she wrote, 'compared with which the lowest fetishism on the banks of an African river would have been inoffensive.' For the same reason, she would not go to the ceremony of the Holy Fire on Easter Saturday, when thousands of Orthodox worshippers squeezed into the Holy Sepulchre to light their torches from the miraculous flames that appeared from the tomb of Christ. Rival groups of Orthodox - Greeks, Bulgarians, Moldavians, Serbians and Russians - would jostle with each other to light their candles first; fights would start; and sometimes worshippers were crushed to death or suffocated in the smoke. Baron Curzon, who witnessed one such scene in 1834, described the ceremony as a 'scene of disorder and profanation' in which the pilgrims, 'almost in a state of nudity, danced about with frantic gestures, yelling and screaming as if they were possessed'.5 It is hardly surprising that a Unitarian such as Martineau or an Anglican like Curzon should have been so hostile to such rituals: demonstrations of religious emotion had long been effaced from the Protestant Church. Like many tourists in the Holy Land, they sensed that they had less in common with the Orthodox pilgrims, whose wildbehaviour seemed barely Christian at all, than with the relatively secular Muslims, whose strict reserve and dignity were more in sympathy with their own private forms of quiet prayer. Attitudes like theirs were to influence the formation of Western policies towards Russia in the diplomatic disputes about the Holy Land which would eventually lead to the Crimean War. Unaware of and indifferent to the importance of the Holy Lands to Russia's spiritual identity, European commentators saw only a growing Russian menace to the interests of the Western Churches there. In the early 1840s, Young, now the British consul, sent regular reports to the Foreign Office about the steady build-up of 'Russian agents' in Jerusalem - their aim being, in his view, to prepare a 'Russian conquest of the Holy Lands' through sponsored pilgrimage and purchases of land for Orthodox churches and monasteries. This was certainly a time when the Russian ecclesiastical mission was exerting its influence on the Greek, Armenian and Arab Orthodox communities by financing churches, schools and hostels in Palestine and Syria (an activism resisted by the Foreign Ministry in St Petersburg, which rightly feared that such activities might antagonize the Western powers). Young's reports about Russia's conquest plans were increasingly hysterical. 'The pilgrims of Russia have been heard to speak openly of the period being at hand when this country will be under the Russian government,' he wrote to Palmerston in 1840. 'The Russians could in one night during Easter arm 10,000 pilgrims within the walls of Jerusalem. The convents in the city are spacious and, at a trifling expense, might be converted into fortresses.' British fears of this 'Russian plan' accelerated Anglican initiatives, eventually leading to the foundation of the first Anglican church in Jerusalem in 1845.6 But it was the French who were most alarmed by the growing Russian presence in the Holy Lands. According to French Catholics, France had a long historical connection to Palestine going back to the Crusades. In French Catholic opinion, this conferred on France, Europe's 'first Catholic nation', a special mission to protect the faith in the Holy Lands, despite the marked decline of Latin pilgrimage in recent years. 'We have a heritage to conserve there, an interest to defend,' declared the Catholic provincial press. 'Centuries will pass beforethe Russians shed a fraction of the blood that the French spilled in the Crusades for the Holy Places. The Russians took no part in the Crusades ... . The primacy of France among the Christian nations is so well established in the Orient that the Turks call Christian Europe Frankistan, the country of the French.'7 To counteract the growing Russian presence and cement their role as the main protector of the Catholics in Palestine, the French set up a consulate in Jerusalem in 1843 (an outraged Muslim crowd, hostile to the influence of the Western powers, soon tore the godless tricolour from its mast). At Latin services in the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem the French consul began to appear in full dress uniform with a large train of officials. For the midnight Christmas Mass in Bethlehem he was accompanied by a large force of infantry furnished by Mehmet Pasha but paid for by France.8 Fights between the Latins and the Orthodox were as common at the Church of the Nativity as they were at the Holy Sepulchre. For years they had squabbled about whether Latin monks should have a key to the main church (of which the Greeks were the guardians) so that they could pass through it to the Chapel of the Manger, which belonged to the Catholics; whether they should have a key to the Grotto of the Nativity, an ancient cave beneath the church thought to be the place where Christ was born; and whether they should be allowed to put into the marble floor of the Grotto, on the supposed location of the Nativity, a silver star adorned with the arms of France and inscribed in Latin: 'Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary'. The star had been placed there by the French in the eighteenth century, but had always been resented as a 'badge of conquest' by the Greeks. In 1847 the silver star was stolen; the tools used to wrench it from the marble floor were abandoned at the site. The Latins immediately accused the Greeks of carrying out the crime. Only recently the Greeks had built a wall to prevent the Latin priests from accessing the Grotto, and this had ended in a brawl between the Latin and Greek priests. After the removal of the silver star, the French launched a diplomatic protest to the Porte, the Ottoman government in Constantinople, citing a long-neglected treaty of 1740 which they claimed secured the rights of the Catholics to the Grotto for the upkeep of the silver star. But the Greeks had rival claims based oncustom and concessions by the Porte.9 This small conflict over a church key was in fact the start of a diplomatic crisis over the control of the Holy Places that would have profound consequences. Along with the keys to the church at Bethlehem, the French claimed for the Catholics a right to repair the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, also based on the treaty of 1740. The roof was in urgent need of attention. Most of the lead on one side had been stripped off (the Greeks and the Latins each accusing the other side of having done this). Rain came through the roof and birds flew freely in the church. Under Turkish law, whoever owned the roof of a house was the owner of that house. So the right to carry out the repairs was fiercely disputed by the Latins and the Greeks on the grounds that it would establish them in the eyes of the Turks as the legitimate protectors of the Holy Sepulchre. Against the French, Russia backed the counterclaims of the Orthodox, appealing to the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, signed by the Turks after their defeat by Russia in the war of 1768 - 74. According to the Russians, the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji had given them a right to represent the interests of the Orthodox in the Ottoman Empire. This was a long way from the truth. The language of the treaty was ambiguous and easily distorted by translations into various languages (the Russians signed the treaty in Russian and Italian, the Turks in Turkish and Italian, and then it was translated by the Russians into French for diplomatic purposes).10 But Russian pressure on the Porte ensured that the Latins would not get their way. The Turks temporized and fudged the issue with conciliatory noises to both sides. The conflict deepened in May 1851, when Louis-Napoleon appointed his close friend the Marquis Charles de La Valette as ambassador in the Turkish capital. Two and a half years after his election as President of France, Napoleon was still struggling to assert his power over...

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