Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Religious motivations for the Crimean War

I'm currently in the middle of lectures on The Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC and really enjoying those. The war hasn't started even after 14 lectures, but I love the really detailed set-up (okay - so Persian and Greek wars were mentioned in the earlier lectures, but then those were important for setting the stage). It was therefore a pleasure to read the review of a new book on Crimean War that took place in the 19th century. I think apart from the mention of Florence Nightingale, the war not part of our history curriculum in Pakistan - and I can see justification for that. So here is a new book, Crimean War: A History, that brings out the importance of Crimean war and considers it a religious war being waged by Russia against the Ottomans. Here is the the review from last week's New York Times:

In “The Crimean War: A History,” Orlando Figes restores the conflict — which predated the American Civil War by eight years — as “a major turning point” in European and Middle Eastern history. He argues forcefully that it was “the earliest example of a truly modern war — fought with new industrial technologies, modern rifles, steamships and railways, novel forms of logistics and communication like the telegraph, important innovations in military medicine and war reporters and photographers directly on the scene.” The ferocious yearlong siege of Sevastopol “was a precursor of the industrialized trench warfare” of World War I.
The war itself was initiated when religious squabbles over holy places in the Ottoman towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem prompted Russia to march troops into present-day Romania, threatening the partition of Ottoman lands. In response, the Ottoman Empire declared war, and Britain and France rallied to its defense. The devastating combat around the Black Sea proved unbearable for Russia: two-thirds of the soldiers killed in the war were Russian. After losing Sevastopol, Russia accepted a humiliating peace.        
The book goes on to make a stringer case for religious motivations:

This is history with an argument. Figes maintains that the conflict was essentially a religious war, and he is frustrated that most writers have neglected that theme: “If the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the rise of militant Islam have taught us anything, it is surely that religion plays a vital role in fueling wars.” Figes writes of Russians and Turks clashing over “religious battlegrounds, the fault line between Orthodoxy and Islam,” and explains that “every nation, none more so than Russia, went to war in the belief that God was on its side.” The Crimean War “opened up the Muslim world of the Ottoman Empire to Western armies,” and “sparked an Islamic reaction against the West which continues to this day.” The title of the British edition of the book is “Crimea: The Last Crusade.”
Figes presents czarist Russia as a deeply religious state, on a “divine mission” to recapture Constantinople and deliver millions of Orthodox Christians from Ottoman rule. More than anyone, he blames the war on Czar Nicholas I: a militaristic reactionary, a pioneer in the use of secret police and censorship, who Figes also suggests was mentally ill. In the decisive hours of 1854, as Britain and France threatened war against him, Nicholas failed to make “any calculation” about his military strength or give “any careful thought” to British and French military superiority; he chose war in a “purely emotional reaction,” based “perhaps above all on his deeply held belief that he was engaged in a religious war to complete Russia’s providential mission in the world.”
Figes makes a powerful, if not entirely convincing, case. Russia could be a fickle friend to the Orthodox peoples. It blew hot and cold in its support for an earlier Greek revolt against Ottoman rule. And it had some pragmatic reasons to try to dominate the Ottoman Empire. As Figes notes, Russia needed Black Sea ports for its trade and to project naval power.
As Figes himself emphasizes, ideologues, whether Islamist or Christianist, who seek historical evidence of a permanent war between Islam and Christianity will have to look elsewhere. Britain and France fought for the Ottoman Empire. And Western and Eastern Christians despised each other, sometimes more than they loathed Muslims. Nicholas, declaring himself the champion of Slavs throughout the Balkans, hoped that Britain would not dare “continue to ally with the Turks and fight with them against Christians.” He was dead wrong. If Britain was on a crusade, it was against Russia, not the Ottoman Empire. Britain spent most of the 19th century trying to thwart Russian expansion, with some Britons feverishly dreading Russia as the only land power that might be able to threaten India; Disraeli once claimed, “Constantinople is the key of India.” Figes depicts Britain as obsessed with the Russian menace to liberty and civilization — an obsession, he adds, that partly shaped cold war attitudes about the Soviet threat.
This  looks like a fascinating read (hey - but where's the audio version?). Check out the full review here.

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