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In the 1850s, Russia fought a bloody war against Britain, France and other nations. One of the main battlegrounds was Sevastopol, where Russian troops are now blockading the harbor.
Today, popular knowledge about the war is limited to the poem Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote about one of its battles, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and from the story of the British nurse Florence Nightingale.
But looking back at the real history of the Crimean War helps explains Russia’s cultural ties to the region in conflict today. Andrew Lambert, professor of naval history at King’s College London, discusses that history with Here & Now’s Robin Young.
“For the Russians to give [Crimea] to the Ukraine would be like giving Pearl Harbor to the Japanese today,” Lambert says. “It hits every wrong note in the psyche of the Russians. They remember the past in ways that we in the West simply do not comprehend. For them it’s like yesterday.”
On Russia and Britain as former rival superpowers
“In the 1840s, 1850s, Britain and America are not the chief rivals; it’s Britain and Russia. Britain and Russia are rivals for world power, and Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, which is much larger than modern Turkey — it includes modern Romania, Bulgaria, parts of Serbia, and also Egypt and Arabia — is a declining empire. But it’s the bulwark between Russia, which is advancing south and west, and Britain, which is advancing east and is looking to open its connections up through the Mediterranean into its empire in India and the Pacific. And it’s really about who is running Turkey. Is it going to be a Russian satellite, a bit like the Eastern Bloc was in the Cold War, or is it going to be a British satellite, really run by British capital, a market for British goods? And the Crimean War is going to be the fulcrum for this cold war to actually go hot for a couple of years, and Sevastopol is going to be the fulcrum for that fighting.”
What happened in the Crimea War
“The Russians get too deep into Turkey. The Turks attack them. The Russians counter-attack, using their fleet from Sevastopol to sink the Turkish navy. And at this point, the British say, That’s it, we’re in this war. We’re going to protect Turkey from the Russians.”
“The strategy of the war was set by the British, and essentially, it’s about attacking and destroying all of Russia’s naval bases. The main base in the Black Sea is at Sevastopol, there’s a great base at Kronstadt, just outside St. Petersburg, and there are bases at Archangel on the White Sea and Petropavlovsk on the Pacific. And in all four theaters, British and French forces try and attack those naval bases and destroy them. But it’s the Anglo-French invasion of the Crimea in September 1854, attempting to capture and destroy Sevastopol, which becomes the epicenter of the fighting part of the war.”
On why retaining Crimea is so important to Russia
“People have always attacked and invaded Russia. The Golden Horde of Genghis Khan completely destroyed medieval Russia. Napoleon invaded, Hitler invaded, the Swedes invaded, the Poles invaded, the British invaded. The history of Russia is about being invaded by dangerous, aggressive, foreign countries, and their strategy is to build a buffer zone of protective zones through which people have to advance, and the Ukraine has been one of those for 300 years, and hope that they can avoid being conquered by what seems to be an endless litany of aggressive foreign conquerors.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, today banks in Ukraine report that people are lining up to take out money in Crimea, fearful of what might happen next there. Western nations have warned President Putin in Russia not to annex the region. He said he's protecting Russians in the region.
This is not the first time a Russian leader has felt what's now called R2P, responsibility to protect. In the early 1800s, Russia under Czar Nicholas I launched a pre-emptive attack from the Sevastopol Harbor in Crimea against the Ottomans across the Black Sea to protect Orthodox Christians. That helped launch the Crimean War, an extremely bloody, multi-nation conflict.
The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy served and famously described a Russian soldier who'd had his leg amputated, saying the chief thing is not to think. If you don't think, it's nothing much. It mostly all comes from thinking. Others think of the Tennyson poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade."
We want to learn more about the Crimean War from Andrew Lambert, professor of naval history at King's College London. He joins us from the BBC for a primer. And Professor, first my outline, a very rough sketch, but did I get it right?
ANDREW LAMBERT: Yeah, that's a great place to start from.
YOUNG: Well, what was happening? Why was Russia feeling that it had to preemptively strike across the Black Sea?
LAMBERT: In the 1840s, 1850s, Britain and America are not the chief rivals. It's Britain and Russia. Britain and Russia are rivals for world power, and Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, which is much larger than modern Turkey, it includes modern Romania, Bulgaria, parts of Serbia, and also Egypt and Arabia, is a declining empire.
But it's the bulwark between Russia, which is advancing south and west, and Britain, which is advancing east and is looking to open its connections up through the Mediterranean to its empire in India and the Pacific. And it's really about who is running Turkey.
Is it going to be a Russian satellite, a bit like the Eastern Bloc was in the Cold War, or is it going to be a British satellite, really run by British capital, a market for British goods? And the Crimean War is going to be the fulcrum for this cold war to actually go hot for a couple of years, and Sevastopol is going to be the fulcrum for that fighting.
YOUNG: Well, in fact you say Sevastopol is to Russians what Pearl Harbor is to Americans.
LAMBERT: Absolutely. This is a heroic city that the Russians built in the 1780s. It was destroyed during the Crimean War by the Anglo-French army. Hundreds of thousands of Russians died defending this city. It was destroyed again in 1942 by the Germans. For the Russians to give it to the Ukraine would be like giving Pearl Harbor to the Japanese today. It hits every wrong note in the psyche of the Russians.
They remember the past in ways that we in the West simply do not comprehend. For them it's like yesterday. People have always attacked and invaded Russia. The Golden Horde of Genghis Khan completely destroyed medieval Russia. Napoleon invaded, Hitler invaded, the Swedes invaded, the Poles invaded, the British invaded.
The history of Russia is about being invaded by dangerous, aggressive, foreign countries, and their strategy is to build a buffer zone of protective zones through which people have to advance, and the Ukraine has been one of those for 300 years, and hope that they can avoid being conquered by what seems to be an endless litany of aggressive foreign conquerors.
YOUNG: Well, but what happened, briefly? Again, whole volumes can be written on the subject, but what happened, briefly, during the Crimean War?
LAMBERT: The Russians get too deep into Turkey. The Turks attack them. The Russians counterattack using their fleet from Sevastopol to sink the Turkish navy. And at this point, the British say that's it, we're in this war. We're going to protect Turkey from the Russians.
YOUNG: Everybody's protecting people in the region.
LAMBERT: This sense of ownership, the strategy of the war was set by the British, and essentially, it's about attacking and destroying all of Russia's naval bases. The main base in the Black Sea is at Sevastopol, there's a great base at Kronstadt, just outside St. Petersburg, and there are bases at Archangel on the White Sea and Petropavlovsk on the Pacific.
And in all four theaters, British and French forces try and attack those naval bases and destroy them. But it's the Anglo-French invasion of the Crimea in September 1854, attempting to capture and destroy Sevastopol, which becomes the epicenter of the fighting part of the war.
YOUNG: Well, as you say, this is primarily a war about naval power, Britain wanting to destroy Russia's. But it's also such a cultural touchstone. Florence Nightingale, "Charge of the Light Brigade," the first real use of photography. Tell us more about - it's almost like the mystic, mythical part of the Crimean War.
LAMBERT: Once the British and French land in the Crimea, the war rapidly turns into a grand siege of the city of Sevastopol. The Russians are inside. They're using their naval base, they're using their sailors, their guns, and the population of Sevastopol to defend the city, and the British and French are trying to batter down the defenses and push their way in.
The human casualties on both sides are heavy. In the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, 630 British light cavalry troops charge down a valley packed with Russian artillery, and they smashed through the artillery, drove off the Russian cavalry and then retreated in fairly good order back to the start line.
The report of this was sent back to the Times of London, the leading newspaper of the age, by the first ever real war correspondent, a man called William Howard Russell, and Russell misunderstood what had happened. And he believed that only 120 men had survived when in fact only 120 men were killed.
And he sent a report back saying it was a disaster. The British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson picked this story up and wrote this amazing verse in which he eulogized the heroic actions of these brave, working-class men who'd been slaughtered by the incompetence of their aristocratic officers. He then discovered the story wasn't true. But the poem has got such a rhythm and a cadence to it that he wouldn't cancel it, and everybody has learned this poem ever since, half a league, half a league onward.
It really is a marvelous piece of verse, but the story he tells simply isn't true.
YOUNG: Isn't that something? Andrew Lambert, professor of naval history at King's College in London on the Crimean War, fought in the 1850s, much of it around Sevastopol, which is of course where Russian troops are today blocking the harbor. Hundreds of thousands died then. This is blood-soaked, hallowed ground for many Russians. And the Crimean War informed a blood-soaked American conflict just a few years later as we're going to hear after the break, HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. Russian troops are in control in much of Crimea, and we decided to brush up on Russia's long history in the region, especially its involvement in the Crimean War, as it tried to defend Sevastopol. One of the cultural touchstones for many of that war is the Charge of the Light Brigade, the famous poem by Tennyson, about a British cavalry charge during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They're charging. What madness.
YOUNG: Sound from a 1936 film, which is portrayed in the poem as a disaster for the British, but as our guest just told us, that charge really wasn't. Andrew Lambert is a professor of naval history at King's College London. So, Andrew, Tennyson got it wrong, but what is true about the war itself? How bloody was it? Who won? Who lost?
LAMBERT: The war was won by the British and the French. The Russians gave up their attempt to control Turkey. They also suffered the complete destruction of their naval base and their navy in the Black Sea, and they didn't have another one for another 20-odd years. They were also bankrupted.
The real parallel with current events is that Russia's real defeat is that the rest of the world stopped buying Russian exports. Russia, in those days, exported bulky produce like grain, timber, iron. And as soon as people stopped buying them, the Russian economy collapsed. And it would be the same today if we stopped buying oil and gas from the Russians. They have no other exports, and their economy would collapse.
But the fighting at Balaclava is really a last little glorious bit of high-theater fighting, men in very brightly colored uniforms doing brave, dashing things on horseback with swords. Most of the fighting is like the Western Front in the First World War, men in trenches firing guns at each other. Most men died of disease.
And in the middle of all of this, the middle-class anxieties of Britain, which hasn't seen a major war for 40 years, produce this astonishing phenomenon called Florence Nightingale. She's a well-educated and trained hospital manager, and she takes up a commission to go out and run a hospital. And there she presides over what is the first modern, professional attempt to run a hospital and to create what we now recognize as the nursing profession. She is the creator of modern nursing.
And because the war is not going particularly well, and the battles are not being very glorious, the press is very keen to find a middle-class hero. But the English middle classes don't fight. The working-class people joined the army and the navy. Aristocrats command the army and the navy, and the working classes stay at home and make money and read about the war.
And the only vaguely middle-class person they can find is Florence Nightingale, who's probably very upper-middle class. So, she then becomes this heroic figure, the lady with the lamp. She's celebrated in the Times of London, and she becomes an instant celebrity, because she's not killing people. She's saving people.
As a result, the two things everybody remembers about the Crimean War are the Charge of the Light Brigade, which was meant to be a disaster, but wasn't, and Florence Nightingale, who was meant to have done nursing, and in point of fact, didn't. She was a hospital manager. She oversaw the work of a hospital. She kept it clean, well-organized. She made sure that the meals were on time. But the idea that she went round and tended to the sick and dying was simply laughable. And all of the nursing of the injured soldiers was done by male orderlies.
YOUNG: You still cannot take down Florence Nightingale in my eyes for how she inspired...
LAMBERT: I know. I'm not trying to take her down. What I'm trying to say is that modern nursing is not about being an individual heroic nurse doing what we class as nursing today. It's actually about creating a professional model, and she does that. And her role in the creation of the modern hospital, the modern way that we view medicine, is simply astonishing.
And in Britain, the main Crimean War Memorial, which is in the middle of London, features three men of the Brigade of Guards, who fought in a savage battle at Inkerman, and Florence Nightingale, who is standing there looking, for all the world, like an angel.
YOUNG: Well, wars tend to produce advances, as you were just saying - hospitals, for instance. And the Crimean War, the first media war, the first military use of armored warships, intercontinental electric telegraph, submarine mines. But you also draw a line from it to the Civil War in America. How so?
LAMBERT: The timeline is very important. The Crimean War breaks out in 1854. It finishes in 1856. Even before the war ends, the United States government sends a high-powered military mission to the Crimea to catch up with all the latest news on how to fight wars. And this is published in Washington in 1861.
And, of course, all of the men who fought the Civil War had this book on their shelves. It tells you everything that the British, the French, the Russians and other observers had picked up during the war, including the plans of the first armored warships, which are critical to the construction of the CSS Virginia, the Confederate armored warship that fought in that famous battle at Hampton Roads, right down to the details of the latest cavalry saddles, camp cooking.
So the American Civil War breaks in 1861. They use the same rifled shoulder arms, the new muzzle-loading rifled musket. The British and French use is it the Crimea. Both sides use it in the Civil War. So, there are steamships. There are armored warships. There are underwater mines. There are electric telegraphs. Really, the new things in the American Civil War that add on to that are the next stage in moving towards World War I: the first use of machine guns - Richard Gatling's gun is used at the end of the war - and the first serious use of barbed wire.
YOUNG: So there is just some of the history. I'm Andrew Lambert. But I'm wondering, from that perspective, knowing this history, how are you watching the current debate over the vote coming up in Crimea, citizens choosing between becoming independent. Right now they're an autonomous region. Independence would be even, you know, more autonomy - or leaving and joining Russia altogether - all these other G7 countries who circled around Crimea in the Crimean War, now saying to Russia don't you dare try to annex. Russia's saying they have to protect Russian interests in Crimea. How are you watching this?
LAMBERT: I think we're looking, in the case of Vladimir Putin, he's a Russian nationalist. If you ask any Russian anywhere in the world about Sevastopol, they can tell you everything you need to know. It's a heroic city. Russians fought and died in huge numbers to defend this city - not once, but twice. It's one of the two or three biggest names in Russian history.
Putin, as a nationalist leader, could not give up Sevastopol. It would be the death knell to his political existence. So he has a very difficult role to play. He doesn't want to start World War III, but he does have to keep Sevastopol. So he's trying to find a compromise deal.
There is a deal to be had here, which preserves the integrity of the Ukraine as a sovereign state, and also recognizes the vital interests of Russia, which are not really strategic. They're actually cultural. This is about preserving a place which lives in the memory of your country in such a way that to sacrifice it would be to call into question the very existence of what it means to be Russian.
It would be like giving up one of the great battlefield sites of the Civil War. We have to be very careful that we don't read Mr. Putin a lecture to which his answer is pretty straightforward and not very positive.
YOUNG: And probably not printable here.
LAMBERT: Fortunately, it would be in Russian, and most of us don't understand Russian swear words.
YOUNG: Andrew Lambert, professor of naval history at King's College London. We'll have a link to his BBC website on the Crimean War at hereandnow.org. Professor Lambert, thank you so much.
LAMBERT: Thank you very much.
YOUNG: By the way, I'm realizing I said wars produce advances. Some would debate, I know, whether higher-grade weapons are actually an advance. But you know what I mean. Fascinating history. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.