Leo Tolstoy was 26 years old when he first saw the ramparts of Sevastopol. The weather in Crimea in the early winter of 1854—subtropical, cool but not cold—was a paradise compared with the harsh snow and ice farther north. The city itself, though, was in chaos. The heights above the port were ringed with earthworks of woven saplings and packed dirt and stone. Below, the narrow entrance to the harbor was blocked by the hulls of wooden ships deliberately sunk by the Russian navy, placed there to block the invaders. “There are thousands of different objects,” Tolstoy wrote, “thrown in heaps here and there; soldiers of different regiments, some provided with guns and with bags, others with neither guns nor bags, crowd together; they smoke, they quarrel.”
A junior officer in an artillery brigade, Tolstoy already knew something of the exhilaration and horror of battle. For nearly three years, he had been in the Caucasus, the Russian empire’s mountainous southern frontier, in the middle of a grinding counterinsurgency campaign against upland Muslims. He had seen native villages destroyed and besieged, with the great forests of Chechnya whittled down to nothing—a strategy of the Russian army to deny shelter to Chechen raiding parties. Muslim gunmen would wait in the underbrush and aim their long guns at the Russian sappers sent to hack away a clearing on either side of a road. Not that Tolstoy had placed himself in the line of fire. By his own admission, he spent much of his time there in a Cossack stanitsa, or fortified village, hunting, drinking, “running after Cossack women,” and “writing a little,” as he noted in his diary.
When he arrived in Crimea, Tolstoy found himself in the middle of a war that did not yet have a name. For years, tensions had been rising between the two great powers in the Near East, the Russian and Ottoman empires. Czar Nicholas I claimed a right to protect the lives and property of Orthodox Christians inside Ottoman lands, including those who controlled access to the holy sites in Jerusalem. The Ottoman sultan, Abdülmecid I, countered that Orthodox Christians—who formed more than a third of all his subjects—were under no particular threat. The czar’s claims, he said, were merely a pretext for interfering in his domestic affairs.
Diplomacy failed to resolve the dispute, and in the summer of 1853, Nicholas ordered a military buildup in the Danubian Principalities, a Christian buffer zone that would later form much of present-day Romania. Since the principalities were recognized as part of the sultan’s domains—although they had long been under substantial Russian influence—European powers denounced the troop presence as an unprovoked invasion. Démarches and ultimatums flew across the continent. The Ottomans soon declared war. In November, Russia dispatched a squadron of heavy ships-of-the-line from Sevastopol to the Ottoman winter harbor at Sinop, just across the Black Sea. In one of modern history’s most spectacular naval routs, the ships destroyed the Ottoman force and suddenly shifted the strategic balance in the czar’s favor.
Britain, France, and Sardinia came to the Ottomans’ aid. By the time Tolstoy arrived in Crimea, most of the great battles of the war were already past. Russian infantry had been put to flight by an Anglo-French force at the River Alma, the Light Brigade had made its doomed cavalry charge at Balaklava, and brutal hand-to-hand combat at Inkerman had broken Russia’s fighting will and ensured that the rest of the conflict would be focused on the desperate defense of Sevastopol. The war became a siege, with the Russians defending the heights against cannonades and bayonet charges.
Tolstoy was there to witness the results: British and French ships sitting within cannon shot of the Crimean coast; creaking wooden carts being pulled up the steep hills, loaded with corpses; the constant roar of the Russian batteries; and the repeated thrusts of Allied troops, tripping over their greatcoats and slipping downhill in the mud.
|Siege of Sevastopol 1855|
Crimea became an artilleryman’s war, and it quickly reached its inevitable end: the pummeling of the Malakov redoubt, the last bastion of the city still held by Russians in the late summer of 1855, and the silencing of the cannons on September 9, when the city fell to the Allies. It happened to be Tolstoy’s twenty-seventh birthday.
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