Allen Lane, £30, 560pp. £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Crimea: the Last Crusade, By Orlando Figes

In the tsunami of bad publicity that has swamped Orlando Figes this year, it has been easy to forget that he is a star: one of the finest historians of his age. In the middle of the media scandal over the anonymous reviews of rivals' books that he unwisely posted on the Amazon website, I remembered a tutorial at university. My tutor, never forward in giving praise, had set an essay on the Russian Revolution. "Last year, my reading list for you would have been 14 books or so, but now," he said, holding up a book, "this is all you need." The book was the A People's Tragedy, Figes's spectacularly good history of the Russian revolution.

His books since – Natasha's Dance, about Russian culture, and The Whisperers, about family life under Stalin – may have lacked its high-octane drive, but have been solid contributions to difficult subjects. These achievements were largely ignored after he admitted being the author of a vicious online review of a book by Rachel Polonsky and milder remarks about other historians, prompting critics to call him everything from "Professor Poison" to "contaminant slime".

For transparency's sake, I should make clear that possibly the only positive anonymous review he wrote was for my book, Let Our Fame Be Great. Even without that, I thought the media reaction exaggerated. Apart from the Polonsky review, many of his anonymous posts were fair comment and comparing them to Stalin-era slurs, or his lawyers to the KGB, was plain daft.

Figes could not have chosen a better subject for his new book. The Crimean War allows him to exercise his admirable gifts for describing the impact of high politics on ordinary people, and to lay out with clarity the strange diplomatic manoeuvres that led up to the war.

In that respect, it is a much-needed work. The causes of the Crimean War are so complex that 1066 and All That is not far off being accurate when it jokes: "the French thought that the Holy Places ought to be guarded (probably against the Americans) by Latin Monks, while the Turks, who owned the Places, thought they ought to be guarded by Greek Monks. England therefore quite rightly declared war on Russia, which immediately occupied Roumania."

Most people today would remember only Florence Nightingale and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Figes picks apart those legends with admirable efficiency, but his focus is on the build-up, conduct and aftermath of a war that cost more than half a million lives, achieved almost nothing, and has been all but forgotten.

Figes calmly guides us through the diplomatic wrangles over which church – Catholic or Orthodox – should guard the holiest shrines of Christianity. He shows how it was a proxy conflict for which power – France or Russia – should inherit the legacy of the dying Ottoman Empire, and how it was given urgency by a spiritual awakening in Russia and by French Emperor Napoleon III's desperation to regain the glory France had known under his uncle.

Like a giant version of the board game Diplomacy, London, Paris and St Petersburg moved armies and fleets backwards and forwards in the hope that the other powers would back off. The game failed and the lumbering giants engaged one another, for want of another battlefield, in the Crimea.

So far, so 19th century - but as the book goes on, Figes subtly isolates parallels with the wars and crises of the present, giving his history startling immediacy. He shows how western disdain for Russians – "whose wild behaviour seemed barely Christian at all" – influenced misguided policies towards the great eastern empire. Russians, meanwhile, fumed that St Petersburg had to "ask Europe for permission if it quarrels with a neighbour", while western powers could invade other countries with impunity.

"We can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice, which does not understand and does not want to understand," said one of Tsar Nicholas's advisers in words that would not have looked out of place in the mouth of a Kremlin adviser during the Russia-Georgia war of 2008. As the war started, in 1853, British priests whipped congregations into war fury, with one saying "We thank thee, O God, that we are not as other nations are: unjust, covetous, oppressive, cruel". Surely other readers will also wonder whether those words could not have come from the mouth of an American preacher in the days before the Iraq war. Ottoman imams were simultaneously preaching to students about the need for jihad against the Russian invaders.

As the fighting drags on, we read of supply problems, of bad commanders and of diplomatic incompetence. Figes calls it "the first modern war, a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War".

This is not a perfect book, and his sourcing can be erratic. He is prepared to quote a skewed Stalin-era book from 1950 to justify a questionable assertion that Britain had been "secretly running guns and money to the rebels" fighting Russia in the Caucasus, while dismissing the equally dodgy Soviet belief that Tsar Nicholas had killed himself. He gives little attention to the other fronts of the war, such as that in eastern Turkey. When he turns to the Caucasus, he over-simplifies a complex war between Russia and the highlanders. I was also confused as to why a history of a war mainly fought between Christian powers and entirely fought outside the Holy Land deserved the subtitle "the last Crusade".

Nonetheless, as my tutor at university might have said, this is the only book on the Crimean War anyone could need. It is lucid, well-written, alive and sensitive. Above all, it tells us why this neglected conflict and its forgotten victims deserve our remembrance.

Oliver Bullough is author of 'Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus'

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