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From my days as an undergrad historian major, one of the biggest backhanded complements that you could get from a professor was "well researched, needs better writing". I feel like Figes' "The Crimean War" is suffering from such a drawback.
Figes is a cultural historian of Russia, evidenced by his previous work in "A People's Tragedy" and "Natasha's Dance" (both of which I will admit I have not read). In this regard, his research is superb. We get to know Tsar Nicholas I and his mindset, and we really get to know how this war shaped Tolstoy and his writing. We even learn a lot about how the war affected Dostoevsky (who wasn't even a participant), and how the theme of the war was addressed in subsequent Russian and Soviet literature and cinema. If this book was labeled "A Russian Cultural History of the Crimean War", then it would get more stars from me - although less blockquotes would be useful (two pages of unabridged Tolstoy gets a bit much at times).
But Figes is attempting more. This book makes some big claims that it does not follow through on. It claims (especially from its UK title, "The Last Crusade") that this was primarily a religious war. Figes does provide some background on the original dispute over shrines in Palestine, and examines much religion-influenced writing on the conflict in Russia (and to a degree Britain and somewhat France as well), but he seems to believe that the claim that religion is the prime motivator in most conflicts "down to the Balkans in the 1990's" is self-obvious, when to my mind it's more lazy thinking from a British academic. For a claim that is so huge that it even influences the title of the book, he never really argues his point, and his long discussions of diplomacy before, during and after the war point strongly to great power politics, rather than religion, being the motivating factor.
Other commenters have noted his claim that the war was the first "total war", but again there is not much to back up this claim. I also would have preferred if he avoided anachronistic terms in an attempt to make the war seem "relevant" to modern readers. Was Palmerston really a "liberal internationalist"? Was Imam Shamil's lieutenant really an "Islamic fundamentalist", just because he wanted to expel all Russians from the Caucasus? Such throwaways for modern sensibilities (media inspired xenophobia leads to pointless Middle Eastern war!!) are great for the Niall Ferguson and Anne Applebaum blurbs on the back cover, but are completely not backed up with any notes or research.
Once we move away from the subject of Russian culture, Figes' research thins. We get a lot of quotations about British Russophobia, but not much deep explanation of why it proved to be so popular at the time. Very little background is given to the momentous changes occurring in British and French politics, economics and society at the time. And while Figes sees his work as an antidote to Crimean War history being the province of military history buffs, he goes too far in the other direction: very brief explanations are given to social makeup in the British military, and there is very little discussion of military organization or technology. One would never know that the first experimental ironclad "floating batteries" were used by the French in this war, for example. Whole theatres of the war get short shrift: the Caucasus and the Baltic are covered in about three pages, and nothing at all is said about events in the White Sea or Pacific.
However, the biggest fault in Figes' research is his discussion of the Ottoman Empire. Although he gets many details technically correct, he is thoroughly unfamiliar with this history. He describes the millet system as the downfall of Ottoman stability, despite the fact that it guaranteed just that for four centuries previous (it was the replacement of millet identities with nationalism that really undermined the empire). He claims that the Phanariot Greeks pined for a restored Byzantine Empire and looked to Russia for salvation, which has some basis but is overemphasized while their role as Ottoman diplomats, civil servants, and rulers in Moldavia and Wallachia is neglected. Figes never fails to point out Turkish atrocities, which undoubtedly happened, but interestingly we hear little of Russian atrocities (some mention is made of French and British raping and pillaging). Figes loves to mention rumours of Turkish troops capturing boys as slaves, but nevertheless never mentions that European slavery had been outlawed (at least on paper) several decades prior. He says that the Ottoman Muslims referred to Christian millets as "beasts", which is a flat-out wrong translation of "rayah" (meaning "flock" or subjects). He also goes to great lengths to describe Ottoman treatment of Christian subjects as "unfair", which to us it undoubtedly is, but contemporaneously not much less unfair than, say, British treatment of Catholic subjects (no mention of Ireland or the famine is made). And despite all this, very very little is said about serfdom in Russia, which is extremely odd considering that it so adversely affected Russia's ability to fight that Alexander II decided to end the system after the war. In the bibliography only one Turkish language source is mentioned, plus a couple of fifty year old histories of the Ottoman Empire and a few contemporary Western accounts. I don't mean to sound revisionist, but it seems like Figes is mostly working off of the opinions of others, rather than doing any deep or new research on the Ottoman Empire.
In summary: Figes delves deeply into some aspects of the war, and skims others. You can get a lot of diplomacy and Russian cultural history from this work, but many other topics are skimmed or skipped. I was hoping for a Crimean War version of James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom", but this is not comparable in terms of comprehensiveness or readability.