Florence Nightingale and Lord Tennyson are two of many historical personages who have been delegated to the corridors of dusty libraries, both real and virtual, to be visited all too seldom by bleary-eyed graduate students. And yet, had our media been worth but one percent of their overblown self-estimate, these mid-19th century English people, so different in their backgrounds and gender, should have been front page news.
Surprisingly, of all the minor and major conflicts of the past two hundred years, it is the Crimean War of 1853 in which both Ms. Nightingale and Lord Tennyson gained undying fame, that is the most deserving of immediate study. The conditions that led to that watershed engagement are now being replicated with rarely seen historical precision; should a conflict break out between Russia and NATO, it will be an almost exact reprisal of that war, which broke the back of the Russian Empire, forever marred the achievements of Russia’s greatest monarchs and generals, and directly led within less than 70 years to the Bolshevik revolution and the creation of the USSR.
The old chess pieces are on the board again; the West, represented by France and Britain, then like now wary of Russian hegemony in the Black Sea. The NATO of today, willing to cut a deal with the Muslim despots of Istanbul, ignoring their totalitarianism, human rights abuses, and overt support for ISIS is oh so similar to the French – British alliance with the Sublime Porte against a fellow Christian power. After all, what are common heritage and universal principles as compared to keeping Russia from crossing the Bosphorus and getting a cut of the lucrative Mediterranean trade routes. The same Slavic “little” peoples, the Slovenes, the Slovaks, the Czechs and the Bulgarians, then as now being played like pawns in the shadow of Turkey (then) or NATO (now), used by Russia to legitimize its Balkan and Mediterranean aspirations. Even the same Istanbul, the second Rome; after all, how can Moscow claim to the third, if it missed its chance to redeem its predecessor, remove the minarets from the Hagia Sophia, and return Constantinople to its former glory?
The Crimean war should have been and almost was easily won by Russia. In the 1850’s the Russian land army was by far the biggest in the world and the overland continuity between the Crimean Peninsula and the rest of the Russian Empire should have made Russian supply chain logistics vastly superior to those of the French – British – Ottoman alliance, which had to resupply its narrow beachhead by sea. Russia demolished the Grand Armee under Napoleon and occupied Paris only 30 years prior. The Turks have been losing sea and land engagements with Russia since the 1770’s. So what happened? In short, modernity sucker-punched Russia straight in its glass jaw of traditionalism bordering on backwardness and put it on the ropes until 80 years later, when in the 1930’s Stalin pulled it up, kicking and screaming, at the cost of untold millions of innocent lives, getting it ready to defeat the greatest military force of the first half of the 20th century, the German Wehrmacht.
The Crimean war exposed Russia as a technologically backward and logistically failed giant, more like the late Ottoman Empire than any major European power of the day. The war debuted on the Allied side rifled muskets firing Minie balls akin to today’s bullets, which were vastly more accurate than the Russian smooth bore muskets of 18th century design. Still, Russia should have been able to gather vastly superior forces and overwhelm the beachhead established by the allies. Their failure to do so over two years caused the war to drag on and the casualties to mount. Allied bravery, particularly on the British side, their superior artillery, both land-based and naval, and their determination to disallow Russia unfettered access to the Mediterranean, caused the war to draw to a standstill. The Russian economy simply could not sustain this kind of prolonged conflict and the Paris Treaty was signed, putting an end to Catherine the Great’s dream of returning Istanbul to Christendom and providing Russia with control over the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. More importantly, the Russian defeat exposed the bankruptcy of their core system of governance: “vera pravoslavnaya, vlast samoderzhavnaya” (Orthodox faith, absolute monarchy). Nicholas I died in 1855, deeply depressed, instructing his son, the Emperor Alexandr I, to tighten his grip over Russia even more, while admitting that the state of affairs he was leaving him was truly dismal.
At the core of all absolute monarchies there is a simple contract between the monarch and the people; the latter will acquiesce to be governed, sometimes with an iron fist, if the former provides for the common defense. Nicholas I failed to live up to his part of the bargain, a fact that the Crimean war so very clearly laid bare. As a result, he was the last tsar who lived out his life without a single assassination attempt and his great-grandson, Nicholas II was deposed and shot like a dog with his entire family in 1918.
While in the West we are completely oblivious to this history, both the rulers and the people of today’s Russian Federation are acutely aware of it. Vladimir Putin has spent his entire presidency, and specifically the last year, eliminating corruption in the Russian civil service and heavily investing in Russian military technologies. He well knows the Russian propensity for “tufta” (pretending to work while doing nothing), for graft, for the building of Potemkin Villages, and for over-stating the superiority of Russian arms. These are the things that cost Nicholas I his empire and his life in 1850’s Crimea. In the same place, at a different time, “tsar” Putin is determined not to let history repeat itself.