July 01, 1997

Our Old Man and the Sea

Russian history is full of examples of vain, short-sighted rulers who treated their subjects as pawns — useful but, in the end, expendable. All too often, this official callousness has taken a heavy toll, robbing Russia of her best and brightest and leading the country to ruin.

Nowhere was this more apparent than during the Crimean War (1853-1856), in which a great many Russian commanders lost their lives. The ultra-reactionary Emperor Nicholas I began this war against Turkey merely to strengthen Russia’s position as the “Gendarme of Europe,” thinking that domination over the Black Sea, as the gateway to the East, would ensure him mastery over Europe as well.

Unfortunately, his political pretensions were not backed up either by diplomatic savvy (he counted, mistakenly, on France and England not interfering in the war) or by technical knowledge (he considered the sail fleet the epitomy of military achievement and dismissed screw motors as a passing fad). These blunders cost Russia dearly, and eventually even Nicholas saw the writing on the wall. Disillusioned and in despair, he died suddenly in 1855 after it had become clear that Sevastopol (a strategically crucial Black Sea port, which to this day is being disputed by Russia and Ukraine) would fall and that his forces would suffer inevitable defeat. When the smoke around the city cleared, there were hundreds of Russian casualties, among them the fleet commanders Istomin, Kornilov and Nakhimov.

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