Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Edi's Spotlight: Crimea by Orlando Figes

Historical Week 2012 - Day Two

Dear Readers,

I told you yesterday what you can expect today: The review of Crimea (pb, 2011) [ISBN-13: 978-0141013503] by Orlando Figes.

But before I come to that, it is important for me to explain to you why I just chose this specific book.
I asked myself - a German who reads fantasy and is interested in history - what I know about the Crimean War. In fact the answer was disappointing: It took place before the American Civil War, siege of Sevasotopol, Florence Nightingale full stop

Before putting my nose into the ARC of Into the Valley of Death (May 2012) [ISBN-13: 978-0241954102] by A.L. Berridge, I wanted to know more about this war and its historical context. I wanted to know more about the reasons which led to the war and of course the impact afterwards. And I wanted to know more about the war itself.
I read reviews posted on the sites of following newspapers: The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph and the New York Times. After reading the mentioned reviews I was sure that Crimea by Orlando Figes would be the right choice for me. But I also knew that my review would look different due to following reasons: I'm no professional reviewer and I'm neither an inhabitant of Great Britain nor I'm a United States inhabitant with Great Britain ancestors. It means a different approach to British history - an approach from outside. In order to make it clear let me use a following example. I'm sure the meaning and the emotional impact of reading  The Charge Of The Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is different for me as I did not grew up with it and the history of this short lyric.

You should know that Orlando Figes is a profound British historian of Russia. I know it will not take long until I will read a comment which will bring up the story from 2010 with the faked reviews for his book. Please read Historian Orlando Figes admits posting Amazon reviews that trashed rivals over at The Guardian. I have a clear opinion about that.
But that does not debase the quality of the book.

This is my first review of a history book. At first sight it seems to be something different compared to a fantasy review. And in fact it is different. It seems impossible to review a history book without retelling parts of the content. Have a look at the result and decide whether it is worth to read or not.

Book Store Information
In general my decision to read a book is mostly based on the cover and the blurb/synopsis delivered on the back cover. You do not get more information when you are in a book store.
The world of books is changing which means I also will take in account blurbs and descriptions on GOODREADS and other places.
Here we go:

Crimea (pb, 2011)
[ISBN-13: 978-0141013503]
by Orlando Figes.
"The Crimean War was the defining conflict of the nineteenth century and one of the fiercest battles in Russia's history: pitting its empire against an alliance of Britain, France and Turkey, killing at least 800,000 men and completely redrawing the map of Europe.It was the first conflict to use photography, the telegraph and newspapers; the original 'total war'.
Orlando Figes' vivid new book reinterprets this extraordinary conflict. Bringing to life ordinary soldiers in snow-filled trenches, surgeons on the battlefield and the haunted, fanatical figure of Tsar Nicholas himself, Crimea tells the human story of a tragic war." [Back of the book] 

On the formal level the paperback copy delivered everything I expect from a modern history book: Pictures, illustrations, maps, detailed index, notes, bibliography, explanation regarding dates and names.
Crimea is divided into twelve chapters and an epilogue titled The Crimean War in Myth and Memory.

I think the description from the back of the book give a first impression about the dimension of the Crimean War: 800,000 war victims !!!
That means this war has been as bloody as the American Civil War.

The perception of these wars is totally different.
It is  Orlando Figes' merit to set in motion the change of perception.
Based on a huge amount of British, Ottoman, French and Russian sorces he draws a view on the Crimean War which goes far beyond the emphasized stories (like the Charge of the Light Brigade) by military historians. It is a view which includes the political, social, religious and econimical context of the time.

He talks about religion, the complicated politics of Palestine, the Russian messianism, the Russophobia of the English, the progress in weaponry, communication, the increasing influence of newspapers, the instrumentalization of  the mass and other things in a not expected way. He enriched the dimplomatic point of view with real events.
The detailed description of the events on Good Friday, on 10 April 1846, in Jerusalem left me dumbfounded. It showed me again that in the name of religion everything is possible. I do not want to go into details because in that case I could post the whole book.

I would like to point out that ant to point out that Orlando Figes takes his time to explain in detail the eve of war where eve of war means a longer period of time. He unfolds unknown events with a virtuosity that let time fly by.

The chapters depicting the war itself including the main battles and the Sewastopol siege are far beyond the statements you find in other history book. He gives the events a face, a body, a name.

It becomes clear that the Crimean War has been a war with inner conflicts:
- Modern weapons versus outdated warfare
- Aristocratic senior command versus poor class troopers
- Sanitation versus disease

It took me longer than expected to read the war related chapters because I had to shook my head that often.

Imagine you arrive with a ship and you are not allowed to disembark for two and a half days and you run out of water.

Imagine you go to war an the command has no maps of the region.

It is Orlando Figes who gives the soldiers attention by delivering their suffering and fighting experiences. But he never gets lost in details. He tries to give a vivid impression especialy about the grim siege of Sevastopol.

With Crimea Orlando Figes makes it possible get an understanding of a period of European history which seems to disappear more and more.
It seems inhabitants of Western Europe are more interested in American history than in their on past.

With the information of Crimea by Orlando Figes in mind I felt well prepared for reading Into the Valley of Death (pb, 2012) [ISBN-13: 978-0241954102] by A. L. Berridge. And I can tell you that has been true.

Crimea (pb, 2011)[ISBN-13: 978-0141013503] by Orlando Figes is definitely and extraordinary, excellent and well executed history book.
Orlando Figes is an author who intrigues his reader with his narrative abilities his vivid style and his talent to keep complex circumstances simple, understandable and entertaining.

You want to know more about the Crimean War? Then you need to read only one book: Crimea by Orlando Figes - except you are an author of historical fiction like A. L. Berridge.

What do I mean by that? Come back tomorrow when historical fiction author A. L. Berridge will talk about what it means to write historical fiction.

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