Revisiting a hefty history in search of context for the Ukraine conflict
Cruelly deprived of audio access to Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees or Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev (at one end of the literary spectrum), or Alexander Morrison’s The Russian Conquest of Central Asia: A Study in Imperial Expansion, 1814–1914 (at the other), I turned to Orlando Figes’ acclaimed 2010 doorstop Crimea in an attempt to understand anything at all about the context of the ongoing Ukraine conflict.
“For weeks,” begins Malk Williams’ fluid narration, in 1846, “the pilgrims had been coming to Jerusalem for the Easter festival…” Well, I hadn’t been expecting that.
Soon, though, Figes has darted back to the tenth century, the conversion of Vladimir the Great and the Christianisation of Kievan Rus (“a deep historical fault line”); then to the overt conception of the Russian empire as “an Orthodox crusade”; then Russia’s desire for “major power” status, and associated push south in search of a year-round, warm-water port.
This last led to direct and never-ending clashes with her Ottoman neighbours – as did provocative and questionable claims to protective “responsibility” for co-religionists in Ottoman possession, such as Palestine. In 1783 Russia annexed the Crimea, the first Ottoman territorial loss to a Christian power. Within decades, Turkey had degenerated into “the sick man of Europe,” needing repeated rescuing by Western nations that inevitably began to interfere in her affairs.
Britain and France (among others) were not keen to see Russia gain access to the Mediterranean, any more than Russia wanted Western warships freely moving round the Black Sea. While all parties awaited the collapse of the sclerotic Ottomans, these interlocking fears began to play out in sideshows, in locales no longer found beyond the opera (Ruthenia, Wallachia and Bessarabia), and peopled by such antique folk as Kalmuks, Cossacks, and Circassians.
Tsar Nicholas I was within his rights to point out something of a British double standard, happy to base their foreign policy on spreading liberal values against tyranny, but not accepting of his plans for a pan-Slavic Orthodoxy.
But the Russophobic English press, in alliance with Anglicanism and the John Bull-ish middle classes, was determined to side with an ostensibly “reformist” Muslim nation, not least to expand what Nicholas not unreasonably called the “imperialism of free trade”.
In July of 1853 the frustrated Russians occupied the Ottoman-held Danubian Principalities – and so Britain and France went to war against a “semi-pagan” Christian Empire… on behalf of (or at least in alliance with) an Islamic one.
But by the following year, after some minor military confrontations, the Russians had left again. The Franco-British campaign had been “won”. So why was there a Crimean War at all? Because the prevailing view among the amped-up allies was, as Captain Blackadder would later put it, they’d now gone to too much trouble not to have a war.
On 14 September 1854, the allied fleet arrived at the inauspicious-sounding Kalamita Bay (where the local Governor met them on the quay, in full regalia, and asked them to quarantine: almost any page of this book might furnish half a novella). It took them the better part of a week to disembark, and they could have seized Sevastopol the day after their first contact with the Russians… but the dotard British commander Raglan wavered.
And so began the longest and most costly siege to date – “not only wrongly conceived but also badly planned and prepared” – based on the shaky premise that the destruction of the Russian Black Sea Fleet would bring Imperial Russia to its knees.
The ensuing war (the charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale, all that good and not-so-good stuff) is actually less interesting than what preceded it. And after three years, with three quarters of a million soldiers dead and wounded (overwhelmingly from disease), and a war that involved actions from the Baltic to the Pacific, the sum total of land that changed hands was… the Danube Delta and a slice of Southern Bessarabia.
Crimea was promptly handed back to an apparently “humiliated” Russian empire; but in 1877 Russia retook from Turkey almost everything she had lost. As a nation, Russia was forced to confront its hopeless backwardness, and start a long, slow, climb to some unstable form of near-modernity. But the knock-on effects were felt from Austria to Alaska. The Crimean War destabilised the long-held Concert of Europe, fed directly into the Great Game, and set up fault-lines and alliances that led to World War I.
So was I able to form some insightful overview of the Ukraine crisis? Not really, no. But there are some notable similarities.
The half-modern, half-outdated warfare; the Russian army’s being considerably less formidable than either we or they believed, and their enemy not nearly such a pushover as they had assumed; Orthodox leaders supporting the Russian expansionist policy; Russian suppression of the press (while Western media have frontline access); unexpected Western support for the underdog; Russia’s aggression ironically achieving exactly what they most feared at the beginning; the hope that a chastened Russia might enact some much-needed domestic reforms; the as-yet unknown international ramifications (it was said months ago the Ukraine crisis would affect the wool price in the Falkland Islands).
But mainly – and I say this having listened to it twice now, once at x 1.75 speed – Crimea was just too complicated, and there was too much of it. Brilliant and exotically detailed as the material is, it’s not, I’d suggest, the sort of thing you can usefully engage with while you’re in the shops, or on the rowing machine. And unless you have an extraordinary knowledge of the Black Sea and the Caucasus, you’ll need a map to hand (some beautiful, contemporaneous ones are available on the internet). I took the whole experience as a cautionary reminder of just how little we know about these places, and indeed how hard it is to turn centuries of ethno-religious history into quick and simple summaries.
Crimea itself, of course, has been de facto back in Russian hands since 2014. And Putin’s motivations do seem, if anything, even less “nuanced” than Nicholas’s. But Figes’ epilogue – “The Crimean War in myth and memory” – is over an hour long; and (through no fault of the author) it was only in the last five minutes that I really found what I’d been looking for.
Ukraine was a significant battleground in both the Russian Civil War and World War II, and the first years of the Cold War nearly saw an exact re-enactment of the Crimean business: fresh purges of the Tatars, a conflict for Kars, the inevitable squabble re the Dardanelles, and US warships in the Eastern Med. Within ten years, Britain, France and Turkey were once again allied against the USSR, through NATO, giving piquancy to the celebrations of the war’s centenary.
Nikita Khrushchev gave “back” Crimea to (the) Ukraine in 1954, and Ukraine declared its independence upon the Soviet implosion in 1991. One Russian nationalist poet wrote: “On the ruins of our superpower there is a major paradox of history. Sevastopol, the city of Russian glory, is outside Russian territory.”
But Sevastopol always remained an ethnic Russian town, and a conference on the Crimean War in 2006 – organised by the Centre of National Glory of Russia, and supported by the Russian ministries of education and defence – concluded publicly that “the war should be seen not as a defeat for Russia, but as a moral and religious victory, a national act of sacrifice, and a just war… Russians should honour the authoritarian example of Nicholas I, a tsar unfairly derided by the liberal intelligentsia for standing up against the West in the defence of his country’s interests.” Today, a portrait of Tsar Nicholas hangs outside Vladimir Putin’s office.
ASH Smyth is a writer and radio presenter, living in Stanley. He is a member of the Falkland Islands Defence Force, and previously served in the Honourable Artillery Company, in Helmand and Kabul