Once Upon a Time: War in Crimea

Eight years before the Civil War nearly tore the United States in two, the imperial armies of Russia, Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire met on the battlefields of the Crimean peninsula for what would become the first truly modern war.

By the start of the conflict, in 1853, the industrial revolution had arrived, creating mass urban landscapes, new methods of manufacturing, and vast gains in productivity. But with the rise of industry also came a revolution in warfare. Trains transformed logistics, the telegraph sped up communication, and modern rifles and other weaponry enabled slaughter on a whole new scale. The battlefields of the Crimean War bore witness to this ugly fact; some 25,000 British, 100,000 French, and as many as a million Russians died.

The carnage was magnified by the fact that military advances had not spread equally to the warring parties. In the Crimean war, men with swords and lances fought men armed with rifles and artillery, marking a bloody baptism for the modern world and a morbid funeral for the pre-industrial era. The disparity in capabilities is one reason why the Crimean War has gone down in history as a monument to military incompetence. Officers wantonly sacrificed the lives of unprepared and ill-equipped soldiers to much better-armed adversaries -- a travesty immortalized in Tennyson's poem "Charge of the Light Brigade," which chronicles a suicidal frontal assault on a Russian artillery regiment by a British cavalry unit. Few episodes illustrate more profoundly the folly of Crimean War battles than a group of swordsmen on horseback charging into a hailstorm of cannon fire:

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

And, unlike wars past, the home front was not sheltered from such battlefield horrors. The Crimean War was the first conflict to be covered in real time by journalists, who sent their dispatches by telegraph back to London, Berlin, and Paris. The very citizens whose sons bore the war's cost were therefore kept abreast of developments on the front, including the astounding incompetence and mishaps of their militaries.

This news came not only in words, but also in pictures.

Technically, the first battlefield photographs were taken during the Mexican-American War. But it is British photographer Roger Fenton who is considered the first war photographer, a distinction he gained for pictures he took in Crimea.

Fenton was only in Crimea for a few months, from March 8 to June 26, 1855. But, according to the Library of Congress, he managed "to produce 360 photographs under extremely trying conditions." Fenton took his photographs using "large format glass plate cameras ... which required long exposure times -- [of] up to 20 seconds or more."

During his time in Crimea, Fenton extensively photographed the landscape and took portraits of soldiers and officers, but he did not capture the embedded view of combat we are accustomed to today. "There are no actual combat scenes, nor are there any scenes of the devastating effects of war," the Library of Congress explains. Not only did Fenton work with a big, bulky camera that required long exposure times, he also had to travel with a large mobile darkroom -- a "converted wine merchants' wagon" -- and immediately process the images. Fenton's view of Crimea is more still -- it is calm and quiet. By capturing the moments in between the fighting, Fenton left us with a striking but nevertheless incomplete visual memory of the Crimean War -- it is often bleak, but it is bereft of all its bloody, senseless misery.

Today, Crimea, the peninsula that juts from southern Ukraine, is back in the news. After pro-European revolutionaries overthrew Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Russian forces seized the regional parliament in Crimea and have threatened to secede. Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed Ukraine's pro-Russian factions, located predominantly in the eastern part of the country, and he has deployed Russian forces to Crimea, where they have seized control of two strategic airports. On Saturday, the Russian parliament officially granted Putin the authority to deploy Russian troops in Ukraine, raising the prospect of another war in Crimea -- one we would, again, be able to watch in real time.

Here is FP's look back at the work of Roger Fenton:

At the top of this post is a view of Balaklava harbor, on the southwestern tip of the Crimean peninsula, photographed by Fenton in 1855. In addition to the ships, there is a view of the "bell tents." In the foreground, along the shore, there is a pen filled with horses.

A cityscape showing buildings and residences of Balaklava; men and horses in the foreground and military installations in the background.

A view from a hillside cavalry camp showing people, horses, and tents on the plains of Balaklava.

A group of officers from the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars, a regiment formed in 1693 that fought in the Charge of the Light Brigade during the 1854 Battle of Balaklava -- the ultimately disastrous engagement that was immortalized in Alfred Tennyson's poem.

The 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, a cavalry regiment established in 1685, also fought in the 1854 Battle of Balaklava -- part of the "heavy brigade" that complemented the light brigade's charge. Here, soldiers from the 4th relax in camp, with a goat and a horse.

A photograph of Balaklava's harbor, with railway stores in the distance.

Fenton's famous shot, "The Valley of the Shadow of Death," which was determined to have been taken on April 23, 1855, in a battle-worn ravine (though not, as noted by Susan Sontag, in the same location that the Light Brigade made its fateful charge). In recent years, there's been much debate over whether or not Fenton staged the shot. Some have suggested he took cannonballs strewn alongside the road and moved them onto the road, where they would come into fuller view in the picture's frame, and re-shot the photo. 

An example of the portraiture taken by Fenton during the Crimean campaign, this photograph shows Fenton himself, dressed in a borrowed uniform of the Zouave, a French infantry regiment.

Marcus Sparling, Fenton's assistant, seen seated atop their mobile darkroom, a repurposed wine merchants' wagon.

All photos via the Library of Congress


Yanukovych Emerges From Hiding and Promptly Makes a Fool of Himself

If Marx, riffing on Hegel, is right that all world-historical persons appear twice -- first as tragedy, again as farce -- then on Friday ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych claimed his place among the world's pantheon of delusional and deranged deposed strongmen.

Just last week, Yanukovych established himself as one of the more tragic figures in his country's history, when a brutal crackdown turned from simply violent to downright murderous and security forces opened fire on protesters in Kiev, killing more than 80. And we didn't have to wait long for Yanukovych to make it from tragedy to farce. In a press conference Friday in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, about 125 miles from the Ukrainian border, Yanukovych emerged from hiding and delivered a scathing denunciation of his enemies in Kiev, the revolutionaries who have stripped him of power and proceeded to roll back his government.

Over the course of a rambling conversation with the assembled media, Yanukovych argued that he remains the legitimate leader of Ukraine and that he has been deposed in "a bandit coup" carried out by "a handful radicals."

"It is time for me to say that I'm going to continue fighting for Ukraine's future against those who try to conquer it with fear and terror. I was forced to leave Ukraine because of an immediate threat to my life and the lives of people close to me," Yanukovych said. "The power was taken in Ukraine by pro-nationalist youths, who represent an absolute minority. As you know, Ukraine was seized by pro-fascist activists."

That's what's called throwing the kitchen sink at your opponents, and Yanukovych now bears all the hallmarks of a leader whose political career is all but over. He has been denounced by his own party and largely abandoned by his patron in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Events in Ukraine have now largely overtaken Yanukovych, and the crisis' central flashpoint has shifted to the Crimean peninsula, where soldiers -- reportedly belonging to the Russian equivalent of Blackwater -- have deployed to secure the airports near Sevastopol and Simferopol. Gunmen have also seized the regional parliament, which has voted to hold a referendum on whether the region will break off from Kiev.

Ukraine's acting president, Oleksander Turchinov, sharply criticized the moves by forces that he believes are acting on the behest of Russia to provoke a war. "Russia has sent forces into Crimea ... they are working on scenarios which are fully analogous with Abkhazia, when having initiated a military conflict, they started to annex the territory," he said, referring to the breakaway Georgian provinces Russian forces moved to protect during the 2008 invasion of that country.

Despite the stirrings of a conflict that could result in the breakup of Ukraine, Yanukovych is still clinging to the notion that he remains a crucial player in the drama.

For a portrait of a deluded autocrat on the run, just have a look at these snippets from Yanukovych's press conference. (The transcript, courtesy of the Kyiv Post, is available here.)

His car was shot at as he escaped

Q: Are you ashamed of anything?

"I would like to say sorry to the veterans, to the Ukrainian people that I did not have the power to stop the chaos that is happening in Ukraine right now. First of all, I have to say I did not run, I moved from Kyiv to the city of Kharkiv. During my move I was shot at from automatic weapons. The car that covered me was effectively shot at from all sides."

He doesn't understand why Putin has remained so silent

Q: What is the role of Russia in this conflict?

"I think Ukraine [Editor's Note: He obviously meant to say Russia] is our strategic partner. The agreements between Ukraine and Russia, within the framework of those agreements Russia has a right to act. I think Russia must act, and knowing the character of Vladimir Vladimorich Putin, I am surprised that he is so restrained and silent. Those agreements we have with Russia, Russia has a right to act."

That fancy house of his? He doesn't really own it

"There was an offer to buy it. I paid. That house was too old, I had to repair it. Then there was a decision for me to buy it. I paid $3,200,000. The rest does not belong to me. Part of the premises i rented to fulfill my duties as a president. This is a campaign to discredit. I have never had any property. I have never had any foreign account. There are real owners, you will hear from them, and international lawyers will be going to court, because this property is not under Ukrainian ownership."

He never gave the order to shoot

"I never gave orders to shoot. As you know the police were not armed until the last moment when they were attacked. And as you know they protect themselves with arms under the law. I am remembering 2004, when the situation was similar, when my supporters arrived to the railway station, around 40 000 people, and on Maidan there were so-called Orange Revolution people. I went to the train station, and stopped people from bloodshed.

"I told them your mothers, your wives will never forgive you if there are deaths and if there is bloodshed."

He plans to return to Kiev

Q: Are you going to continue your political career?  How are you going to fight for Ukraine?

"As soon as I have a real opportunity and conditions are created and guarantees of my security, including from international mediators, I will immediately go to Ukraine. I can see the way to regulate the crisis.

"Primarily it's the agreement that was signed and not fulfilled on one side. The non-fulfillment of this agreement is fully to blame on the West, hich sent envoys, agreed on all conditions, and discussed all clases at the council that gathered on that day in Brussels.

"I don't think there is a single person in this hall who would derive pleasure from what'a going on in Kyiv. You understand my condition and the condition of my like-minded people and the people who suffer as a result of terror and chaos in the country. I have addressed and would like to address again all participants."

For the curious, here's the full video of his press conference: