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'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing