The Strategic Errors of Nicholas I

Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias: Nicholas I

The diplomacy of Nicholas I, then, all too often consisted in using inadequate means to try to reach the unattainable. Nicholas’s approach to the use of his military power was also faulty. Consider, for example, his practice of using his army as an instrument of deterrence and intimidation. It is always risky to stage such threats; instead of cowing one’s enemies into submission, they may galvanize them into action. Such was often the case during the reign of Nicholas I. His blustering against the Turks, for instance, led them to declare war on Russia first in 1827 and again in 1853. The bellicose posturing of the Russia was also counterproductive in its relations with the French and, most particularly, the British. The Tsar’s conversations with the British Ambassador in early 1853, when he had suggested the need for an agreement with London in advance about how to fill the vacuum of power that would occur should the Ottomans collapse was misinterpreted by the British as evidence of Russian annexationist designs. The Russian destruction of the Turkish fleet at Sinope the following November—which the Tsar had intended to use to force Turkish capitulation—inflamed British public opinion against Russia and set the stage for the British declaration of war. Nicholas’s practice of trying to bully and intimidate his neighbors with his military might often backfired, much as similar Soviet efforts did under Brezhnev in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Still further, mobilizing the army to send signals or to make military demonstrations was often fundamentally detrimental to Russia if war broke out. Deploying forces as a signal could make the prosecution of a real war much more difficult. The requirements of intimidation and the requirements of warfighting at times radically diverged. Take, for instance, Russia’s occupation of the Danubian principalities in 1828 and 1853. On the former occasion Russia marched into the principalities, despite the fact that Turkey had already declared war, in the hope of scaring the Porte to the bargaining table. Not only did the gesture fail to achieve its purpose, but it also complicated the execution of the Russian campaign plan, as the occupation of the principalities subtracted 20,000 men (almost one-third of its strength) from the ranks of the army. Nor was Russia any more successful in 1853, when as before it seized the principalities and then stopped. That action both antagonized the Austrians and provided the Turks with a breathing space of several months in which to organize their defenses. In international relations, no less than on the street, it can be perilous to draw a gun if one does not really intend to use it.

Once shooting war broke out, Nicholas’s ideas about how to wage it also had harmful results. In the first place the Tsar, who had a grotesquely distorted opinion of his own military talents, meddled far too much in the military planning and operational decision-making. The letters and memoranda he showered on his commanders analyzed the military options available to them in excruciating detail. The Tsar’s gratuitous advice and exhortation naturally enough hobbled his generals, stifling even what little initiative they had. Some of Nicholas’s military recommendations were simply boneheadly wrong, as the proposal he seriously made in February 1854 for a suicide naval attack should the British and French fleets enter the Black Sea and anchor off Feodosiia. Further, the Tsar’s constant insistence on the need for speedy victory, although founded on a shrewd estimation of the limitations of Russian power, often resulted in spreading forces too thin or incurring unacceptable risks. During the Turkish campaign of 1828, for instance, Nicholas ordered simultaneous sieges of three Turkish forts—Varna, Silistriia, and Shumla—despite the intelligent counsel of General Wittgenstein that it would be better to concentrate all effort on merely one objective. As Wittgenstein had foreseen, Russia did not have the forces with which to capture all three fortresses at once. Shumla and Silistriia successfully resisted Russian sieges, and although Varna fell, it took eighty-nine days to do so, principally because of the minuscule resources the Russian army was able to devote to investing it. Nicholas’s decision here was clearly one of the capital blunders of the campaign. Although his purpose had been to accelerate the progress of the war, arguably he only succeeded in protracting it. Nicholas’s demand for rapid results was not much of an asset to the Russian army during the war with Shamyl in Transcaucasia, either. It inclined at least some commanders to reckless haste, such as Viceroy Vorontsov, whose forces Shamyl trounced at Dargo in 1845 for that very reason. It took Nicholas too long to grasp the fact that pacification of guerrilla tribesmen in the extraordinarily difficult terrain of the Caucasus would perforce have to be accomplished gradually and slowly.

A final flaw in Nicholas I’s appreciation of warfare was the pernicious influence upon it of the image of the War of 1812. As we saw in the previous chapter, a considerable gap existed between the reality of the Fatherland War and the myth. The Fatherland War had not in fact seen the forging of unshakable national unity. Nicholas thought that it had. He considered its chief lesson to have been that the Russian army was invincible when in defense of its own territory. That was a dangerous belief for the Tsar to hold, for it engendered overconfidence no less than his erroneous reliance on alliances with the German Powers. Unrealistic expectations befogged the Emperor’s mind during the Crimean War. It was as if he expected his troops to be able to compensate for every advantage the enemy possessed by dint of gallantry alone. That gallantry, although evident on many occasions, was inadequate to the task.

Weaknesses in the Armed Forces

Nicholas’s use of military forces to gain his objectives often misfired. Part of the trouble lay in the quality of the military instrument itself. Grave inadequacies in the army, many stemming from Nicholas’s preference for using it to threaten, not fight, crippled the execution of Russia’s wartime strategies.

Of all of the problems of the Nicholaevan army, perhaps the most severe was that of manpower. Nicholas’s army was larger on paper than it was on the parade ground or in the field. In every war waged by Russia throughout the reign, its generals were chronically embarrassed by a shortage of troops. During the Turkish War of 1828–29, for instance, the Second Army mustered only 65,000 men, roughly half what it was supposed to contain by statute. Adjutant General Vasil’chikov, entrusted by the Tsar with drafting a report on the failure of the 1828 campaign, concluded that it had occurred in large measure because of insufficient military manpower. Ninety thousand men, he wrote, were simply too few with which to occupy Wallachia and Moldavia, block the Danubian forts, and conduct the sieges of Brailov, Varna, and Shumla. Three years later, during the Polish war, the situation was no different. The initial contingent of Russian forces earmarked for field operations consisted of only 120,000 men, and it required two months to assemble even that number. When Paskevich begged for reinforcements in August 1831, Nicholas replied that only 10,000 infantry men were immediately available and that there would be no more at least until the spring. Still later in the reign, when Russia went to war against Britain, France, and Turkey, it experienced grave (and notorious) difficulties in bringing its military power to bear in the chief theater of conflict. Out of total military forces that were supposed to amount to 1.4 million soldiers, fewer than one hundred thousand were initially available for the defense of the Crimean peninsula. Indeed, Russia’s military effort in the Crimea would be crippled throughout the two and a half years of war by inadequate numbers of troops.

What explains the fact that in Nicholaevan Russia, the outbreak of any war was immediately attended by a crisis of military manpower? Several factors were responsible. In the first place casualties were always high whenever the Russian army embarked on a campaign, and for the traditional reasons: miserable weather, bad hygiene, and inferior military medicine. During the Persian campaign of 1827 Russian losses from heat prostration (temperatures hit well over 100 degrees F. that July) so weakened the army that the siege of Erivan had to be postponed. During the subsequent Turkish war, disease in combination with extreme cold during the terrible winter of 1828 resulted in the loss of 40,000 men, virtually half the army. Operations in Poland in 1831 were stymied by an epidemic of cholera, which carried off the Tsar’s Viceroy and his commander-in-chief along with thousands of common soldiers. Excessive mortality and morbidity were also features of the campaigns in the Caucasus. Conditions of service in the Black Sea forts that Russia built to blockade the coast were so harsh that a soldier’s life expectancy there was estimated at three years. D. A. Miliutin, who was a participant, remarked that the rapid spread of sickness among the Russian soldiers during the siege of Akhulgo in 1839 was the result of “prolonged encampment in the same positions, on sunparched cliffs and in air poisoned by corpses.”

We should note, inter alia, that poor hygiene and bad food plagued the health of the troops in peace as well as in war. The Ministry of War admitted, for instance, that dysentery “was a frequent, even common” ailment suffered by the troops every summer. Official statistics indicate that more than 16 million cases were treated in military hospitals and clinics from 1825 to 1850. Over the same time period, whereas 30,000 Russian soldiers perished in combat, more than 900,000 succumbed to diseases of all kinds.

Another strain upon available military manpower in war was the widespread use of military units to perform a variety of nonmilitary services within the empire. During the first twenty-five years of Nicholas’s reign some 2,500 battalions of troops were at some time employed in state works for the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Communications, the Engineers, or the military colonies. Elements of the Russian army performed such essential tasks as the road repair and bridge-building. A still more serious headache for military planners was the deployment of large numbers of troops as permanent garrisons throughout the empire for the maintenance of internal order. In addition to the fifty battalions of the Internal Guard, troops were also stationed in quantity for this purpose in Finland, Orenburg, and Siberia. During the Crimean War forces detached for internal duty (and consequently excused from combat) may have numbered as many as 500,000. Also complicating the manpower problem during 1853–56 was the need to deploy troops in auxiliary and potential theaters of war other than the Crimean peninsula. The struggle against Shamyl’s murids tied up the entire 200,000-man army of the Caucasus; 300,000 soldiers were emplaced in the northeast to defend against possible attacks on the Baltic coast; and Paskevich insisted on retaining sizable forces in Poland to deter potential Austrian intervention.

A final limitation on military manpower inhered in the defects of recruitment. Throughout the reign of Nicholas, Russia continued to replenish its armed forces on the basis of the old Petrine conscription system. In times of peace the state decreed levies of from two to three soldiers per 100 taxable men in the empire. The system was naturally burdensome to the Russian economy, and Nicholas, for one, was troubled by that fact. Although early on he rejected the idea that the military colonies should be enlarged so as eventually to create a captive pool of manpower equal to the army’s entire annual needs, he was keenly interested in reducing the strain of recruitment on the population of his empire. He experimented with various reforms, including dividing the country into halves from which conscripts would be taken only in alternate years. Yet none of his reforms came up to the Tsar’s expectations, principally because the system as it was almost guaranteed that the quality of recruits would be poor. To be sure, selection of recruits by means of lotteries, which was gradually made mandatory for state peasants (gosudarstvennye krestiane) under Nicholas, was a reasonable safeguard against the tendency of that segment of the population to defraud the army of quality men. But for the majority of peasants—the proprietary serfs—selection of recruits was still in the hands of local landlords and village communes. Both the landlords and the communes still had every incentive to fob the dregs of the village off on the army. Because the conscription laws were often quite slackly enforced during peacetime, the consequence of the system was that the Russian army began each of the wars it fought under Nicholas seriously under strength. When the Turkish war broke out in 1828, for instance, the army was undermanned by no less than 40 percent. Since Nicholas almost never foresaw the outbreak of any war (expecting his military bluster to prevent it), the army was always severely short of men at the precise moment when operations began. The government therefore had no choice but to institute draconian recruitment procedures, including a doubling or tripling of the conscription levy, in order to fill the ranks of the army as quickly as possible. Yet despite all of the emergency efforts of the recruitment officers, numbers of recruits dispatched to the theater of war always lagged behind army requirements. The forced marches the new recruits endured, in addition to their almost total lack of training, seriously impaired their military value once they arrived on the battlefield. During wartime, in Nicholas’s words, the regiments “either did not receive reinforcements or received naked, unshod, and exhausted recruits; the regiments melted away, perished, and behind them stood nothing.”

It was precisely because he was alive to this problem that Nicholas had tried to overhaul the recruitment system by introducing provisions for “unlimited furloughs” in 1834. As already noted, the purpose of the reform was to build up a supply of trained reservists who would be available for recall to the army in the event of a crisis. After fifteen years of blameless service, a demobilized soldier was assigned to a reserve battalion that was in turn linked to an actual field regiment. On one level the “unlimited furloughs” were doubtless a boon to the Russian army, for having reserves was clearly preferable to having none. For example, in 1848 and 1849 the state succeeded in calling up more than 175,000 men in this category. Unlimited leaves were probably beneficial to army morale as well. Surely the prospect of an early discharge from the ranks was a powerful incentive for good behavior.

But the “unlimited furlough” system imposed costs on the state as well. In granting up to 17,000 men a year indefinite leave, the Russian government in effect created a legally anomalous and impoverished new class. Where, after all, were these discharged men to go? State peasants on indefinite leave might rejoin their communities, but for the majority of men on leave, former proprietary serfs, there was no welcome at home. Now legally free, they had nonetheless lost all of their claims on land or property within the village the moment they had entered the army. If they tried to rejoin their families, the latter were burdened with feeding them and paying their taxes. Thus neither their relatives nor their former landlords, for that matter, wished to see them return. The result was that many apparently took to begging, vagabondage, or crime. The plight of those miserable outcasts properly ought to have been a matter of grave state concern; in actuality, the Russian government was even more worried lest the former soldiers prove to be an unstable element in the villages and towns where they took up temporary residence. One prominent general warned Nicholas that “a man who is not attached to society by either property or family ties, wandering without work or goals, easily gets involved in disorders.” The head of the political police himself reported to the monarch in 1842 that in his opinion indefinite leaves had produced “an undesirable change in the morals of the Russian soldier.”

In any event, the reform of 1834 was a palliative, not a solution. Although it was able to provide the army with enough reservists to undertake the punitive expedition into Hungary in 1849, the program was too small in scale to satisfy the army’s need for reinforcements in case of a major war. All the 200,000 reservists on the books had been called up within the first year of the Crimean War. As that number was insufficient, the government once again had to resort to ad hoc emergency levies, which inducted possibly as many as 800,000 men into the ranks of the army during the conflict. Even that quantity proved in the end to be too small.

Problems other than inadequate manpower sapped the combat strength of the Russian army. The omnipresent evils of corruption and peculation are an example. On all too many occasions, officers devised ingenious methods for robbing both the state and the soldiers under their command. They ranged from outright theft, to doctoring the books, to substituting inferior goods for state supplies and pocketing the difference. To be sure, soldiers themselves stole as well. Then, too, as one scholar has recently emphasized, in view of the haphazard issuance of pay, the snail’s pace of logistical deliveries, and in general the relatively small state resources expended on its maintenance, the Russian army could not even have survived without some corruption. Still, egregious thieving could not but be detrimental to the morale of the troops. Some colonels were known to have syphoned off as much as 60,000 rubles from the regiments in a single year. It was not uncommon for soldiers to be deprived of such necessities as rations and firewood because of the criminal greed of their commanders. Abuses like those, a War Ministry report of the 1850s commented, “have a harmful effect on discipline”—an understatement if there ever was one.

Bad consequences arose also from what has been termed the “platz parad” (parade ground) tradition during the reign of Nicholas I. The tradition has often been portrayed as more dysfunctional than it actually was: goose-stepping and meticulously executed drill really did make the army look fearsome and imposing, which is how the Emperor wanted to look to potential enemies abroad or potential dissidents at home. Still, as was the case also with military deployments, drill that served the interest of military intimidation often did not prepare the troops for war. At inspections and exercises troops were required to observe petty rules: ranks had to be perfectly dressed; intervals between each man had to be identical; and boots had to be polished just so. Failure to measure up could incur many blows of the stick. In general, disciplinary measures were brutal. Army authorities meted out harsh punishments (including often fatal sentences of running the gauntlet) for quite trivial offenses. Although better off than common soldiers, officers themselves were not spared the rigors of Nicholaevan discipline. One young officer complained in his diary that as he found it physically impossible to fulfill all of his service obligations, he was under intolerable mental strain, fearing that any moment he might be visited with summary punishment for dereliction of duty.

In any event, contemporaries often bemoaned the deleterious effects of this rigorous and punctilious training on the health of the troops. Tight uniforms and incessant parading are said to have born fruit in disease. Parade ground exercises also wreaked havoc with military equipment. The manual of arms, which required a soldier to slam his musket violently onto the ground, often dislocated the firing mechanism, which could later result in the breech exploding in his face when he tried to take a shot. At least one commander placed such an emphasis on the smartness of his unit when on parade that his men’s gun barrels were actually worn thin through excessive burnishing.

Drill can obviously be of great military use. It can teach civilians to think of themselves as soldiers and can help build confidence and esprit de corps. There can, however, be too much drill. Pushed too far, as it was under Nicholas I, drill contributed little to preparing the soldiers for battle. Still worse, if soldiers attempted to perform in the field as they had been trained to on the Champs de Mars, the results could be disastrous. Intelligent young officers assigned to the Army of the Caucasus during Nicholas’s reign quickly discovered that it behooved them to forget everything they had learned on the parade ground—that is, if they wished to remain alive.

A final set of difficulties stemmed from the state’s efforts to economize on the maintenance of its army. Take, for example, the military colonies. One of the principal reasons for establishing them was the desire of the government to keep the military budget under control. Yet despite the fact that the colonies allowed (and indeed encouraged) soldiers to marry and raise families, both the soldiers and the peasants settled in the colonies regarded them as little more than hells on earth. Count A. A. Arakcheev, the driving force behind the colonies, was a sadistic martinet, and the administration of the settlements bore the imprint of the deformities of his character. Every aspect of life and behavior in the colonies was regimented; each colonist was attired in military uniform; hours of drill were demanded on top of backbreaking agricultural labor; discipline was both harsh and capricious. Conditions in the colonies, frankly unendurable, resulted in high incidences of suicide and eventual rebellion. In 1831 military colonists in Novogord suddenly rose up in revolt and massacred more than two hundred bailiffs, nobles, and officials; 3,600 men and women implicated in the atrocities were tried and punished.

The rebellion forced the state to ameliorate the regimen that existed within the colonies. In the immediate aftermath of the 1831 uprising many of the colonists were reclassified as “farming soldiers.” That relieved them of the responsibilities of military drill and placed them more or less on a par with the state peasants. Their children were no longer automatically enrolled as cantonists. Those reforms, however, represented a retreat from the principle of squeezing the colonies to provide food, money, and conscripts for the army.

Although Nicholas’s regime was unquestionably militaristic and although the Tsar personally was devoted to his army, the fact remained that the state simply did not possess enough revenue to support its armed forces or its ambitious military policies. Despite all the efforts of the Ministry of Finance, the state ran a budgetary deficit almost constantly during the reign of Nicholas I. Although the army continued to claim a high proportion of total governmental outlays, the bad harvests of 1839–41 compelled St. Petersburg to cut even its military spending.

Financial pressure had obvious consequences for military preparedness. Nicholas I was, for instance, very interested in constructing or improving fortifications along the western perimeters of his empire from Åland Island to Aleksandropol. Yet while Nicholas started nine large-scale fortress-building projects during his reign, he completed few. Of the three forts deemed indispensable for the defense of Poland—Novogeorgievsk, Ivangorod, and Brest—only the first had been finished when Nicholas died.

Revenue problems were still damaging to the armed forces during the 1840s and after. During that time Russia’s European competitors increasingly adopted advanced (and expensive) military technologies. Impoverished Russia lacked the money with which to compete. The navy was the first to suffer. In the early years Nicholas had been concerned with upgrading and improving his fleets. Indeed, sea power had served Nicholas well at Navarino in 1827 and at Constantinople in 1833, to mention but two occasions. Yet when the transition from sail to steam began, the Russian navy lagged behind. Russia did not acquire its first steamship until 1848. When the Crimean War began, there were only ten small paddle-wheelers in the entire Black Sea fleet, and they were completely outclassed by the French and British ships-of-the line, driven by their screw propellers. Russia was to suffer for that naval inferiority throughout the entire war. It was the reason that Russia felt it had to detach such a high proportion of troops to guard its Baltic coast in the 1853–56 period. It also meant that certain Russian possessions had to be abandoned. In December 1854 the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich ordered the governor-general of Eastern Siberia to evacuate all Russian troops from the island of Kamchatka in view of the impossibility of defending it against an amphibious invasion. Technological inferiority was also a great problem for the army. The smoothbore muskets and cannon employed by the defenders of Sevastopol were no match for the rifles and improved ordnance of the enemy. French and British guns could fire faster and farther than Russian ones. The allies, moreover, were more abundantly furnished with ammunition; during the siege the French and the British fired at least 400,000 more shells on Sevastopol than the Russians were able to fire back. There is something in the end pathetic about Nicholas’s requests during the war that captured enemy rifles and shells be brought to Petersburg for his personal inspection; he was making an all too belated acquaintance with the implications of nineteenth-century technological progress. Allied technological superiority was in the end to be decisive in the Crimean War.

The Crimean War

As Russia interpreted them, the terms of the Peace of Kuchuk Kainardzhi of 1774 gave it special rights to protect the interests of Orthodox Christians living in the Ottoman Empire. In 1850, however, the government of France began to pressure Constantinople to grant it exclusive rights over the Churches of the Holy Sepulcher and the Nativity, in Jerusalem and Bethlehem respectively. Those demands were advanced even more forcibly after 1852, when, by means of a coup d’état, Louis Napoleon had swept away the Second Republic and proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. As Emperor, Napoleon III was eager both to enhance his international prestige and to curry favor with Catholic opinion in France by posturing as the most devoted defender of the Roman Catholic faith.

Napoleon’s negotiations with the Turks put Nicholas I in a difficult position. While the Holy Places per se were of little concern to him, he was unwilling to be perceived as backing down in the face of the French. Then, too, he believed that Imperial France was about to embark on a revolutionary policy, designed to win influence in Turkey at Russia’s expense. After much abortive negotiating, Nicholas finally dispatched his Minister of Marine, Prince Menshikov, to Constantinople as his personal emissary. Menshikov’s mission was to demand that the Turks reconfirm the special privilege of the Russian Tsar to protect the status of the 12 million Orthodox believers who were Ottoman subjects. Regarding this as tantamount to a surrender of sovereignty, the Turkish government rejected the demand, counting on the support of both France and Britain. Napoleon III was only too glad to oblige. And the coalition government of Lord Aberdeen, which included the Russophobe Palmerston as Foreign Minister, was increasingly inclined to view Russia’s activities as a prelude to an aggressive assault on the Near Eastern balance of power.

After the fiasco of the Menshikov mission Nicholas I attempted to threaten the Turks, as we have previously seen, by staging an invasion of Wallachia and Moldavia, two provinces under the nominal suzerainty of the Sultan. The Turks, however, were not inclined to give way. When a last-minute attempt at mediation by the Austrian Chancellor, Count Buol, also failed, Turkey declared war on October 4, 1853.

Although Russia intended to stand on the defensive against the Turks on land, it undertook offensive naval action early. In November its Black Sea fleet caught a Turkish naval flotilla in the Black Sea port of Sinope and sent it to the bottom. Fearing that Turkey was now in danger of toppling, France and Britain sent naval squadrons into the Black Sea and shortly thereafter (March 1854) declared war themselves.

Although the Russians had successfully repulsed Turkish attacks in the Balkans and the Caucasus during the first months of the war, the correlation of forces was now different. In September 1854, under the cover of the Royal Navy, an Anglo-French expeditionary force landed on the Crimean peninsula roughly 30 miles north of the strategic fortress of Sevastopol. On September 20 combined French, British, and Turkish forces ran into a Russian detachment of 36,000 men at the Alma River. The battle of the Alma, which featured senseless frontal assaults on both sides, resulted in a costly victory for the allies. The Russians were forced to retreat into the fortress of Sevastopol itself, reinforcing the 20,000-man garrison.

The Russians now made extensive preparations for the defense of the city. Under the direction of the brilliant engineer Colonel Totleben, Russian troops constructed an intricate system of earthworks and fortifications on the southern or inland side of the town. Those works were so formidable that the allies hesitated to risk an assault on them. Finally, in early October 1854 the allies launched the first of their attempts to take Sevastopol. The allied fleet bombarded the seaward side of the fortress with more than 40,000 rounds, while siege guns dragged into positions inland hammered at Totleben’s fortifications. The struggle, however, proved inconclusive, for if many of Sevastopol’s guns were silenced, several allied warships also took heavy damage.

But food and ammunition supplies were running low inside Sevastopol. Precisely because of powder shortages, Menshikov, the commander of the garrison, now ordered a Russian counterattack in the hope of raising the siege. The Russians selected as their target Balaclava, the site of a great concentration of British food and stores. The upshot was the Battle of Balaclava (October 12, 1854). The Russian 12th Division under Liprandi early on captured four Turkish redoubts on the British right flank. It soon appeared that the entire battle would turn on the British efforts to retake them. This was the engagement that witnessed the notorious Charge of the Light Brigade. Misunderstanding its orders, which were to harass the Russians on Causeway Heights, Cardogan’s light brigade instead attacked directly into the massed Russian artillery, with predictably catastrophic results. Despite wholescale carnage on both sides, Balaclava was also curiously indecisive. Although the Russians had failed to break through the allied lines, their military position actually improved after this defeat, for they shortly received a large number of reinforcements.

On October 24 Menshikov once again tried to break out of the allied encirclement by assaulting the forces of the British right flank on Inkerman Heights. Initially hard pressed by the Russian assault, the British troops were saved by the timely arrival of French troops from Bosquet’s corps of observation. The Russians were once again rebuffed, taking 11,000 casualties—roughly 40 percent of the men they had committed to the battle.

The war now settled into the dreary pattern of siegecraft, bombardment, and sorties. But time was not on the Russian side. Finally, after losing the suicide engagement at Black River (August 4[16], 1855), the Russians decided that Sevastopol had to be abandoned. The outgunned and outnumbered Russian soldiers and sailors began the evacuation; Sevastopol fell to allied forces at the end of August. Russia was now at the point of exhaustion. It was fighting a coalition composed of France, Britain, Turkey, and Sardinia. Sweden was growing increasingly hostile. When the Austrian government presented its ultimatum, demanding that Russia negotiate or face war, the new Emperor, Alexander II, felt that he had no choice but to agree.

The Crimean War represented the death knell of the Nicholaevan system. That system, and much of what it stood for, was thoroughly discredited. The Crimean defeat put into motion a process of reassessment that eventually resulted in such important reforms as the abolition of serfdom in 1861. Efforts by Russian diplomats to undo the humiliating Peace of Paris, which ended the war, were to occupy them for years afterward. But the impact of the war on the Russian military establishment was no less momentous. For more than a hundred and fifty years, the Russian military system with its impressed peasant army had proved equal to almost any challenge that could be brought against it. The Russian army had been an extraordinarily reliable instrument of the state’s grand strategy. But the Crimean War demonstrated that this was not necessarily the case any longer. The old military system was no longer of value under the changed conditions of warfare. That system now had to be reinvented—taken apart and replaced with something else that would permit Russia to be victorious on the battlefield once again. The problem was complex. What new sort of military system ought Russia to have? How could Russia integrate modern military technologies into its armed forces? Finally, how could it pay for it all? In one way or another, those questions continued to bedevil Russian statesmen for the next eighty years, until Stalin finally and conclusively resolved them in the 1930s. But a first attempt to answer them came in the reign of Alexander II. It is to this subject that we must now turn.


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