Friday, September 12, 2014


Orlando Figes is by any account a wonderful historian of Russia.  His Natasha's Dance was a brilliant introduction to the history of Russian culture and aesthetics.  His People's Tragedy:  The Russian Revolution, 1891- 1924 was an equally insightful book about the whole revolutionary era in modern Russian history.  Well-written, well-researched overviews of broad subjects, both books received a great deal of acclaim from various quarters.   Figes' The Whispers was an equally insightful book about private life in the era of Stalin, and offered readers a strong interpretative framework in which to make sense of Stalin's impact on the ordinary lives of Russians.  In light of these ventures, it's no wonder that Figes looms so large in Russian historiography.

In many ways, Figes' The Crimean War is another masterpiece of contemporary Russian history.   The books is of course detailed, objective, and fluid.  However, the book doesn't seem to offer many new perspectives on this important mid-nineteenth century event.  Indeed, the book seems to rehearse what historians have said about the war for many decades.  In fact, the book often seems like an old-fashioned diplomatic and political history.  Of course, one should never discount the importance of personalities.  Nicholas II and Palmerston were certainly key agents in the advent of war.  Yet one hoped that this new excavation on old soil would turn up something new.  

Figes' book on Stalinism wasn't a standard account of the man's murderous personality.  Rather, his book broke new ground, or at least summarized a new trend in the analysis of Russian life in a totalitarian culture.  But Figes' book on the Crimean War is sadly lacking in any kind of cultural analysis.  To be sure, Figes talks about religious discord in the Holy Land, but only insofar as that discord led to the entanglement of foreign powers that represented the various religious constituencies there.  And Figes also covers the Russophobia in the British press, but this phenomenon has obviously been described many times before.  

One has to recognize the strengths of The Crimean War.  Old-fashioned diplomatic, political, and military history isn't easily done.  Only Figes' mastery of dynastic politics, and a keen sense of the interplay between multiple courts, makes the story come alive.  But in the midst of the present crisis in Crimea, one wishes this book told us more about Russia and less about a diplomatic system that has been well-described by less talented authors on many occasions, though not recently.