Part 1: Russia in the Post-Napoleonic World

  By David Veevers, 15th October, 2007; Revised

What were the causes of Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War?

David Veevers, United Kingdom [this article is based on research conducted by the author while an Undergraduate Student, University of Kent]

Abstract: The Crimean War was fought over many areas of Europe, involving many countries. But the most important events centred on the Crimean peninisula between 1854 - 56, where a series of bloody modern battles was fought between the Russian Empire on one hand, and the Alliance of France, Great Britain, Pedimont and Turkey on the other, ending in the successful siege of Sebastopol. Russia, France, Great Britain and Ottoman Turkey were Great Nineteenth Century Powers with massive Empires covering two thirds of the earth. The Crimean War was one of the major events of the Modern Period, the consequences of which were extensive. Russia's defeat was the victory of Capitalism over Feudalism, of Liberalism over Conservatism, of Modernism over Medievalism, of the West over East. Of course, these generalisations are merely that, but they served to show the Tsar, as well as the people of Russia, that the illusion of power must be accompanied by the sinews of power to survive on the Great European stage. Russia's defeat left a power vaccum that aided the German Wars of Unification, enabled the Ottoman Empire to linger on, confirmed British and French supremacy of the seas and ultimately set Russia on the course of Revolution in the following century. The causes of Russia's defeat, therefore, are imperative to the understranding of the Great Power struggles of the nineteenth century.

In 1814, the Russian emperor, Tsar Alexander I, entered the gates of Paris behind his brigades of marching Cossacks, with crowds lining the streets shouting ““Vive l’empéreur Alexandre!”(1) As the Russian army swept across Europe on the heels of Napoleon’s Grande Armee, all were overawed by its might and power. In the post 1815 world, Russia gained unprecedented prestige for its part in defeating Napoleonic France(2). Its subsequent victories over a multitude of foes, from the Persians to the Turks, only served to reinforce this image. When revolutionary flames swept out from France in 1830 and again in 1848, setting Europe ablaze with uprisings and toppling monarchs, Palmerston noted that “Russia and Britain are the only two powers that are standing upright.”(3) More than that, when Habsburg power was threatened by a Hungarian revolt, the Tsar dispatched three Russian armies to crush the rising, having threatened revolutionary France with the same treatment(4). At the head of a Holy Alliance against liberalism and reform, the Tsars of Russia really were the “gendarme of Europe”, protecting the sacred order in the post-Napoleonic world(5). It is no wonder, then, that when Russia was defeated in the Crimean War, it came as a resounding shock. Defeated on all fronts, Russia had lost not only control of the Danube and Black Sea, but also almost half a million men. With the economy in the doldrums and state finances ruined, many came to the same conclusion of Gorchakov, that Russia was, in fact, “a great and powerless country.””(6) We must, therefore, determine and consider the factors that contributed to the dismal failure of the Russian effort which brought about a humiliating close to the Crimean War.

When war erupted between Russia and the allied powers of Ottoman Turkey, France, Britain and Sardinia-Piedmont, over the supposed possession of rights over Christian subjects within the ailing Ottoman Empire, Tsar Nicholas I informed his generals that “it is extremely desirable to prove to our foreign enemy, and even Russia itself, that we are still the same Russians of 1812 - Borodino and Paris Russians!”(7) The problem was that they proved exactly to be the same Russians of 1812. One of the main causes of Russian defeat during the Crimean War was the outdated and backward nature of the Russian army. While the rest of Europe had witnessed a rapid advance in military arms and techniques, the Russian war machine had stagnated, bloated on its prestige from the early half of the nineteenth century. Miliutin, a professor at the General Staff War Academy, was one of the few people who had realised this before the war: “On paper we are completely prepared! But awesome shortcomings in everything will be revealed at our first battle movements.”(8) This was never more accepted than under Nicholas I, who was obsessed by the tradition of perfect manoeuvres and military parades, the overawing legacy of the Russian army during the Napoleonic War. In 1854, during the height of fighting on the Danube, Prince Gorchakov pleased the Tsar with his reports on the army in battle: ““The alignment and formation of these troops in the ceremonial march by squadrons and in close columns was so fine and so exact that the men appeared ready for a parade”(9). Indeed, Miliutin again put it correctly when he commented that “everything is just great for parades, and just terrible for war.”(10) Russian reliance upon parade-ground manoeuvres guaranteed it defeat in almost every set-piece battle during the war. While Western powers had adopted techniques such as marching in line to utilize their overwhelming firepower, Russians still paraded around the battle field in thick, dense columns. “We had never before seen,” recalled a Polish soldier, “troops fight in lines of two deep, nor did we think it possible…to be able to attack in this apparently weak formation our massive columns.”(11) And yet, throughout the war, the Russians were to find that their encumbered columns, which not only severely reduced their firepower but also made them much more vulnerable, were to prove far inferior to the ‘thin red line’’ of the allies. A Russian soldier in the Crimea recollected that “each shot of the enemy caused tremendous casualties, having plunged in to the thronging crowd.”(12)

Another factor that helped to retard the performance of the army was Russian military doctrine of bayonet over musket, used so successfully during the Napoleonic War. “A bayonet,” the troops were told on the eve of the Battle of Balaklava, “is the main instrument to achieve certain and quick success.”(13) When the French began to storm the heights of the Russian position at Alma, allied superiority became all too apparent. Wielding outdated muskets and relying as always on the bayonet, the Russians failed to make almost any impression upon the French, armed with the latest Minie rifles, with a range of 1,200 yards. One Russian soldier noted that “the Brest regiment had nothing to do on the ledges they occupied. They were armed with old firelocks, which couldn’t fire more than 250 paces. The Brests suffered many casualties without causing any damage to the enemy at all.”(14) The Army of the Caucasus even continued to use flintlock muskets until 1855(15). Inferior in shooting range and always trying to close in with the enemy to use the bayonet, Russian armies continuously suffered more heavily in fighting, one of the biggest contributing factors to defeat. “At about midday English rifle bullets began to fly overhead,” commented one Russian soldier, “soon afterwards we began to feel the terrible effects of his rifle fire.”(16) By the time of Inkerman, allied rifles had caused such fear that Russian troops were often reluctant to even face them, being cut up at such long-range without even seeing the enemy(17). Furthermore, the reliance on the bayonet meant that the musket was ludicrously neglected, so much so that troops gained an inadequate amount of training in the actual use of powder and shot. When conflict in the Crimea loomed, Prince Menshikov protested to Moscow that he refused “to attack the enemy with our infantry, which in a year has received only two ball cartridges.”(18) Support for the musket had been so poor that commanders often gave the men bullets of clay to train with(19). It is no wonder that, within a year of the allied landings in the Crimea, the Russian field force was all but useless, leaving the besieged garrison of Sevastopol to struggle on alone(20). Clearly, the Crimean War had served notice that the army was no longer an adequate force for the protection of the country. While the Russian army had been successful against Poles and Caucasian tribes, these victories were often pyrrhic in nature. In the Caucasus, the mighty Russian machine was held at bay for years by tribesmen with only little Turkish aid(21). As Miliutin stated, the Russian army was only impressive on paper, and although 800,000 men is a dwarfing number, most troops were on garrison duty across the vast empire(22). During the Crimean War, for example, over 200,000 had to be stationed idly around the Baltic to guard against other threats(23). Yet if the army failed spectacularly to even defend Catherine the Great’’s “best pearl” in her crown(24), it was not alone in contributing to defeat during the Crimean War. Indeed, the failures of the army were merely a reflection, not only of the incompetence of the regime, but of the economic and technological backwardness of the country as a whole.

At the end of the war, Grand Duke Konstantin lamented: “We cannot deceive ourselves any longer…we are both weaker and poorer than the first-class powers.”(25) The Crimean War, as Kennedy suggests, showed Russians that they had lost ground in technology and economics to the West at an alarming rate since the Napoleonic War(26). When Britain hosted the Great Exhibition in 1851 at the Crystal Palace, every country was invited to show off its industrial innovations. Significantly, Russia had not been able to offer a single thing for display(27). That is not to suggest, however, that the Russian economy had declined during the inter-war years. On the contrary, it showed signs of healthy growth. The iron and textile industries multiplied in size, and industrial enterprise grew almost seven fold by the 1860’s, while steam engines, modern machinery, and even railroads began to emerge(28). Yet while this all created an illusion of modernization and prosperity – and to some, an industrial revolution – growth in the West dwarfed the Russian experience. Despite being by far the largest state in Europe, by mid-century Russia’s lead in GNP, especially on per capita terms, trailed behind the leading Western powers – a third of Britain’s by 1850(29). Russia’s industrial growth, too, when seen in a wider context, becomes modest and sluggish. Russia’s iron production may have doubled by mid-century, but Britain’s had experienced a thirty-fold increase. Though industry had grown tremendously, most factories were small and lacked mechanization(30). Furthermore, the impressive innovations in the technical field were merely imported from the West, and made small impact upon the Russian landscape. Steamships, for example, were only used to export wheat to Britain, in an effort to afford further imported innovations, while the railway system was limited to a mere 500km by 1850(31). That Russia was poor, there was no doubt. Her biggest asset, literally the vast swaths of agricultural holdings that ran across the Eurasian landmass, were badly cultivated and yielded very little produce. Indeed, the average size of a peasant’s allotment in Russia was five times as large as that in France, and yet productivity remained about two-thirds the French level(32).

All of these economic and technological factors combined to make Russia, during the Crimean War, an impoverished, backward, dominantly agrarian country by Western standards. They each contributed equally to the country’s defeat in the war in allowing the allies a superiority such as that which existed in the military field, which in most cases was also a direct result of Russia’s ebbing economic power. The most prominent factor to contribute to Russia’s defeat was its ultimate inability to finance the war-effort. Russia relied overwhelmingly on imports of modern manufactures from industrialized countries such as Britain and France, crucially lacking the infrastructure to supply herself with those necessities needed to maintain the war effort, such as guns and ammunition(33). “At the beginning of the war 1 million guns had been stockpiled; [at the end of 1855] only 90,000 were left. Of the 1,656 field guns, only 253 were available… stocks of powder and shot were in even worse shape.”(34) Furthermore, the British blockade stifled the trade of raw materials that Russia exported to industrial countries, which in itself not only strained the economy, but also robbed the Tsar of vital funds necessary to keep the war going. Trade with Europe had dropped from 137 million rubles in 1853 to 27 million rubles in 1855(35). Inevitably, this meant heavy borrowing on the international markets, mostly in Amsterdam and Berlin. While Britain increased military expenditure seven-fold with ease, by 1855 Russia had a deficit of 800 million rubles(36). Toward the end of the war, inflation had risen 100% on essentials such as flour, while for major commodities such as cotton and woollen goods it had risen 50%. Luxuries such as sugar, wine and spirits had almost completely disappeared due to the naval blockade(37). Borrowing, meanwhile, had so ruined the currency that Tsar Alexander had to resort to printing paper money to keep the war effort afloat(38). It is no wonder that the Crown Council was warned in early 1856 that if Russia continued its fruitless struggle, the state would go bankrupt(39).

Yet for all Russia’s money problems, one of the most concerning factors was that of transport and logistics. The Crimean War was fought on the periphery of the Russian empire, some 1,600km from Moscow. Having little utilized expensive and imported innovations such as the railroad, Russia was at a severe disadvantage in supplying and reinforcing its armies. Unbelievably, Russia had not a single railroad south of Moscow, and therefore supplies were ox-drawn, covering a speed of one and a half miles per hour(40). The result was that the armies were constantly undersupplied, as noted by a Russian gunner, “our artillery fire, which began so brilliantly, had to be stopped at the very beginning! ...there was a lack of shells!”(41) More crucial than supplies were reinforcements, that took so long to reach the front that Russian armies were always inferior in size to their counterparts. When war broke out in 1853, the Tarutin Regiment left Nizhnii-Novgorod for the fighting along the Danube. By the time it had reached its destination, fighting had moved to the Crimea, where it finally arrived, having taken a full year to get to the front(42). In stark contrast, the allies could ship reinforcements from France and Britain within three weeks(43). When Tsar Nicholas I died, the news reached London eight days before Sevastopol(44). Reitern, as finance minister, was justified in declaring that, “without railways and mechanical industry Russia cannot be considered safe even within its own borders.”(45) Its economic and technological backwardness ensured its inability to continue the fight with the allies, so that, for each passing year, Russia became ever weaker, while her enemies grew stronger. And yet, her military and economic failings were ultimately controlled by a higher power that also proved its ineptitude to the task at hand. As Grand Duke Konstantin concluded, Russia was “poorer not only in material but also in mental resources, especially in matters of administration.”(46)

The first article of the Fundamental Laws of the Empire declared the Tsar to be “an autocrat and unlimited Monarch”(47). Ruled by an absolutist, the Russian state was very much a puppet on strings. The Tsarist autocratic regime intervened in every part of the Russian machine, from the arts to the army. Though the Fundamental Laws proclaimed that the empire was governed “on the firm basis of…laws”, these ultimately came from the absolutist authority of the Russian emperor(48). As the “gendarme of Europe”, the Tsars felt most threatened by the social upheavals of the first half of the nineteenth century, pioneering a Holy Alliance of harsh, absolutist regimes, opposed to liberalism and progression. In response to the dangerous uprisings in France, Germany, Hungary and, most significantly, Poland, the Tsar used his power to ensure that things were kept in line, and that his throne would remain secure and unthreatened by socialist ideas(49). This stifling and rabid grip upon the echelons of power was the biggest obstacle to success during the Crimean War. As Boris Chicherin, professor of Law at Moscow University, criticized, “the autocratic monarch is accustomed to looking at people simply as pieces which can be moved at his will and which can be pushed to one side at the first sign of the spectre of independence…In these conditions, a deep contempt of people becomes established.”(50) One of the most impeding consequences, contemporaries agreed, was the institution of serfdom. Established as a way to control the peasantry which were spread across the entire Eurasian landmass, the Tsar retained immediate control over half the population, some 25 million serfs(51). In such a way, autocracy inhibited the emergence of a more mobile and free workforce, preventing any sort of industrialisation, and denied the army a sufficient number of reserves to uphold its burdensome duties. Contemporaries were all too aware that serfdom was one of the main obstacles to success during the Crimean War. ““Serfdom,” exclaimed a Western enthusiast, “is a shackle which we drag around with us, and which holds us back just when other people are racing ahead unimpeded.”(52) As serf’s could gain their freedom in times of war by serving in the armed forces, the Tsar was forced to use other means of maintaining manpower, as autocracy demanded that the serfs remain shackled to the land. Even as the war was ending, peasants streamed down to the Crimea, demanding to join the army, as “the Tsar sits in a golden chamber and gives freedom to those who come, but those who do not or are too late will remain as before, serfs to the lords.”(53) Determined to deny serfs their freedom, the Tsar’s armies were left continuously short of reinforcements. The besieged in Sevastopol made a desperate plea for help as the war dragged on: “Is it not possible to give us sufficient reinforcements which would allow the Crimean army to make some sort of attempt to advance?”(54) The Tsar’s reluctance to even create militia regiments from the peasantry meant that large portions of the army were pinned idly down across the empire.

As notable as serfdom was, however, there were of course other shackles attached to the state through the Tsars absolutism that contributed to defeat and disaster in the Crimean War. Over-centralization as a result of autocratic dominance meant that the provinces were governed extremely poorly, with governors and viceroys never able to utilize resources to the effect required. Fear of delegation by the Tsar meant that, according to McCauley and Waldron, government officials were grossly overburdened with work, being responsible for 100,000 pieces of paper annually(55). Paranoia about independent behaviour meant that the governor was denied sufficient support and resources for his province. For every one thousand people within his jurisdiction, he had only one public employee at his disposal, as opposed to four in Britain and five in France(56). In Yaroslavl, for example, which covered 22,400 square kilometres, with a population of 1 million, the governor had a mere 244 policemen, 200 of which were confined to urban areas, effectively leaving the countryside, where 90% of Russia’s population presided, ungoverned(57). By the time of the Crimean War, then, the Russian state was a fateful paradox. Though the autocrat wielded immense centralized power, at the local level his control was fragile and ineffective, denying him access to Russia‘s full potential while the provinces remained chronically ungoverned. Serfdom continued to exist as a form of control upon the mass of peasantry, yet not only did it prevent the existence of a free and mobile work force to stimulate industry and commerce on a scale that would allow Russia to compete with its enemies, but it also denied access to a potentially massive pool of manpower, while simultaneously pinning down the majority of the army on internal garrison duties.

A noted Slavophile, writing immediately after the Peace of Paris in 1856, was right in concluding: “We were defeated not by the external forces of the Western alliance but by our own internal weakness.”(58) The defeat not only showed up the inadequacy of the army and economy, then, but also of the highest symbol of the Russian state, the autocrat. The Tsar, by his own doing, had come to embody Russian power so much so that defeat of his armies was, effectively, the defeat of his regime. In the wake of disaster, Tsar Alexander, Nicholas’ successor, realised that, to remain on the throne and to become acceptable to his people, he would have to reform the state, or suffer the consequences. By 1856, it had become clear to everyone that Russia must reform to continue as a great power on the European stage. Russia’s backwardness when compared with the innovation of the Western powers, its antiquated army, stagnant economy and autocratic regime, all contributed to its defeat during the Crimean War. When a maid of honour to the Tsar’s Court was heard to be complaining about the impending collapse of Russian resistance, the Empress snapped back: “The tragedy is that we cannot tell our country that this war was begun in error owing to a tactless and unlawful event, the occupation of the Principalities, that it was conducted badly, that the country was not ready for it, that there were neither guns nor shells, that all the branches of administrations are badly organised, that our finances are exhausted, that our policies had been flawed for some time, and that all these led us to the present situation. We can’t say anything, we can only keep silent.”(59)

(1)Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p.218. (2)John Shelton Curtiss, The Army of Nicholas I: Its Role and Character, The American Historical Review, Vol. 63, No. 4. (Jul., 1958), p.880.  (3)Kennedy, op. cit., p.218. (4)H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe, p.923. (5)Ian Fletcher & Natalia Ishchenko, The Crimean War, p.534. (6)Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians, p.287. (7)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.159. (8)E. Willis Brooks, Reform in the Russian Army, Slavic Review, Vol. 43, No. 1. (Spring, 1984), p.65. (9)Curtis, op. cit., p.885. (10)Brooks, op. cit., p.65. (11)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.103. (12)Ibid., p.246. (13)Ibid., p.162. (14)Ibid., p.80. (15)Curtiss, op. cit., p.887. (16)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.84-5. (17)Ibid., p.219. (18)Curtiss, op. cit., p.887. (19)Ibid., p.887. (20)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.418. (21)Curtiss, op. cit., p.88. (22)Ibid., p.880. (23)Ibid., p.889. (24)Kennedy, op. cit., p.227. (25)Ibid., p.219. (26)Ibid., p.219. (27)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.1 (28)Kennedy, op. cit., p.219. (29)Ibid., p.219. (30)Ibid, p.220. (31)Hosking, op. cit., p284. (32)Martin McCauley & Peter Waldron, The Emergence of the Modern Russian State, p.29. (33)McCauley & Waldron, op. cit., p.2 (34)Kennedy, op. cit., p.224. (35)Walter McK. Pintner, Inflation in Russia during the Crimean War Period, American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. 18, No. 1. (Feb., 1959), p.85. (36)Kennedy, op. cit., p.227. (37)Kennedy, op. cit., p.227. (38)E.M. Almedingen, The Emperor Alexander II, p.118. (39)Kennedy, op. cit., p.224. (40)Valentine Tschebotarioff Bill, The Early Days of Russian Railroads, Russian Review, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Jan., 1956), p.14. (41)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.81. (42)Ibid., p.93. (43)Bill, op. cit., p.15. (44)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.333. (45)Kennedy, op. cit., p.227-8. (46)Ibid., p.228 (47)McCauley & Waldron, op. cit., p.5. (48)Ibid., p.7 (49)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.5. (50)McCauley & Waldron, op. cit., p.61. (51)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.3. (52)Hosking, op. cit., p.288 (53)Ibid., p.286. (54)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.430. (55)McCauley & Waldron, op. cit., p.6. (56)Ibid., p.6 (57)Ibid., p.14. (58)Ibid., p.188 (59)Fletcher & Ishchenko, op. cit., p.525.


E.M. Almedingen; The Emperor Alexander II (The Bodley Head, 1962)

W. Baumgart; The Crimean War 1853-1856 (Arnold, 1999)

Valentine Tschebotarioff Bill, ‘The Early Days of Russian Railroads’, Russian Review, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Jan., 1956), pp. 14-28 
E. Willis Brooks, ‘Reform in the Russian Army’’, Slavic Review, Vol. 43, No. 1. (Spring, 1984), pp. 63-82

John Shelton Curtiss, ‘The Army of Nicholas I: Its Role and Character’, The American
Historical Review, Vol. 63, No. 4. (Jul., 1958), pp. 880-889

I. Fletcher & N. Ishchenko; The Crimean War, A Clash of Empires (Spellmount, 2004)

H. A. L Fisher; A History of Europe (Arnold & Co, 1936)

G. Hosking; Russia and the Russians, Earliest Times to 2001 (Penguin Books, 2001)

P. Kennedy; The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (Fontana Press, 1988)

Jacob W. Kipp, ‘M. Kh. Reutern on the Russian State and Economy: A Liberal Bureaucrat during the Crimean Era, 1854-60’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 47, No. 3. (Sep., 1975), pp. 437-459.

M. McCauley & P. Waldron; The Emergence of the Modern Russian State, 1855-81 (Macmillan Press, 1988)

David Moon, ‘Russian Peasant Volunteers at the Beginning of the Crimean War’, Slavic Review, Vol. 51, No. 4. (Winter, 1992), pp. 691-704.

W. E. Mosse, ‘How Russia Made Peace September 1855 to April 1856’, Cambridge Historical Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3. (1955), pp. 297-316.

Walter McK. Pintner, ‘Inflation in Russia during the Crimean War Period’, American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. 18, No. 1. (Feb., 1959), pp. 81-87