Considering the depth of mutual suspicion and animosity between Britain and Russia after they were allies in defeating Napoleon in 1815, it is astonishing that the lion and the bear have fought each other only twice. At Winston Churchill’s behest, British forces took desultory action supporting the Whites in the 1919–1921 civil war. The nations clashed much more fiercely between 1854 and 1856, when the Crimean War had a harsh impact on British society: it set a benchmark for political and military bungling, and for public recrimination about it, that endures today.
A British officer wrote to me from Afghanistan last fall: “When the history of this war is written, almost everything we have done here until very recently will be discussed in the same breath as the Charge of the Light Brigade.” The Battle of Balaclava, in which Lord Lucan’s cavalry entered the “Valley of Death” on October 25, 1854, has provided synonyms for battlefield folly ever since.
Most British children nowadays leave school ignorant of all historical events save the two world wars, but they acquire fragments of folklore about the Crimean War. They learn that stupid British aristocrats launched a war with Russia during which even stupider ones in uniform then squandered thousands of soldiers’ lives on the battlefield; that Florence Nightingale showed what an enlightened woman could achieve in transforming the care of the wounded, after men had grossly mismanaged the job; that William Howard Russell was the first honorable journalist (cynics add “and the last”) to expose the madnesses of war, while highlighting the new power of the press.
Some of this is more or less true, as Orlando Figes, following many other historians, acknowledges in his new study of the war. More than half a century ago, in her magnificent The Reason Why (1953), Cecil Woodham Smith described the chief British officers in the Crimea with a vividness and coruscating wit that remain unsurpassed. Figes’s account of military operations is a trifle pedestrian by comparison, but it is freshly informed by Russian sources, of which he is a master.
The important and impressive part of his book addresses the origins of the war, analyzing it in its international setting with authority and clarity. Russian expansionism evolved in the late eighteenth century, with a southward advance to the Black Sea inspired by Catherine the Great. The Ottoman khanate of Crimea, on the northern coast of the Black Sea (and now part of Ukraine), was annexed by Russia in 1783. In the early nineteenth century, Russian armies conquered Bessarabia and the Caucasus, and thereafter engaged in frequent strife with their Muslim inhabitants.
In the decades following Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in 1815, both Britain and France became increasingly alarmed by Russian ambitions, especially toward the tottering Ottoman Empire. The Prince of Serbia told the British consul in Belgrade in …