Letter From Crimea: the Many Sieges of Sevastopol

by Matthew Stevenson

This is the fourteenth in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.


A map showing the theatre of war in Crimea for the siege of Sevastopol 1854-5. The Allies made the decision, after attacking from the north, to swing around south of the port and besiege the city. The Light Brigade went into action north of the Balaclava, the port used to resupply British forces. Mount Inkerman is southeast of the harbor.

Even though the fighting in 1853-56 had aspects of a pan-European war—there were battles fought in the Baltic, the Balkans, and Turkey, in addition to Crimea—the first Crimean War was fought for control of the Russian port of Sevastopol (sometimes spelled as Sebastopol), a natural harbor on the southwestern side of the peninsula.

On many levels, the same can said for the current Ukraine-Russia war that has seen action in Kyiv, the Donbas, and around the Azov Sea, but which in the end may come down to a fight to see whether the West or Russia controls Sevastopol—of which Leo Tolstoy wrote in his Sebastopol Sketches: “Long will Russia bear the imposing traces of this epic of Sebastopol, the hero of which was the Russian people.” (But among the Russians were many Ukrainians, and at the time the peninsula was largely Tatar muslim.)

Keep in mind that Russia lost the first Crimean War, but still came away with Sevastopol; Putin’s more recent war might well end with the same outcome.

Approaching Sevastopol

Like the British and French expeditionary corps in 1854, I approached Sevastopol from the north. I had set off from the Alma on my bicycle, but quickly became discouraged going up and down long hills in the rain and riding with trucks on a narrow, busy road.

Eventually I spotted a parked bus that appeared headed in the direction of Sevastopol, and after paying a fare of less than $3 I had the bicycle stowed in the luggage compartment and my wet jacket drying on the empty seat next to me.

In less than an hour, I was on the north shore of the harbor, close to a ferry terminal where small boats were taking commuters across the water, as the downtown part of Sevastopol is along the southern shore.

Had it not been raining hard when I arrived at the ferry landing in Sevastopol, I might have detoured on the bicycle over to the Star Fort, so named by the 1854 allies for the octagonal form of the fortress ramparts that guard the northern shore of Sevastopol harbor.

Instead I folded up the bicycle and carried it aboard a ferry, for which the fare for the fifteen minute ride across the harbor was about $1.

Normally, on a summer evening in June, the crossing should have been lovely, as Sevastopol has features as dramatic as Sydney Harbour, with many inlets and endless docks for naval and cruise ships. All I saw on this particular afternoon was a slanting rain lashing against my poncho.

By chance, my ferry docked next to the Black Sea cruise ship Prince Vladimir, built in 1971, which I had come across when researching Crimea and ways to get there.

Before the war it sailed weekly from Sochi and made stops in Novorossiysk and Yalta, all places that interested me (although my wife lost whatever mild enthusiasm she might have had for a Crimean tour when she saw photographs of Prince Vladimir’s breakfast buffet and floor show).

Dancing in the Rain

Of all the bike rides of this trip, none was stranger than my search in Sevastopol for the Art Hotel. Given that my phone did not have coverage, I had printed out directions and knew generally in which direction to ride, but on the way I decided to stop in the offices of some tour operators and see if there might be an organized trip to the land battlefields of the 1854-56 Crimean War.

Most of the travel companies were located along the waterfront in Sevastopol, but after stopping in at three, I came to the conclusion that neither the military careers of Lords Raglan and Cardigan, nor the Charge of the Light Brigade, held much local interest.

Then with the rain splashing off my helmet, I decided to head for the Art Hotel by riding along the sidewalk of the main street in Sevastopol. While searching for my hotel, I had just passed the Black Sea Fleet History Museum when a drunk woman, wearing a white sequined dress (but no raincoat) and carrying a bottle of champagne, tried to knock me off my bike by grabbing my handlebars.

She had appeared from nowhere and latched onto my bicycle while I managed get a foot on the ground and fend off the champagne bottle, which was swaying (as was its owner).

Had it been late on a Saturday night, I might have expected such a Russian street scene, but this was a rainy afternoon, when it is hard to imagine that nightclubs were even open.

All I could think to do was shout in English for her to desist. My yelling produced from a nearby doorway her male companion (he was wearing what looked like a zoot suit) who somehow managed to drag her away from my bicycle, which lay on its side, having been christened with local champagne.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

I had booked myself into the Art Hotel because it was centrally located and across the street from the park that encircles the Great Redan, one of the fortresses that protected Sevastopol during the 1854-55 Crimean War.

My room was nothing special, although there was space for my bicycle, but the breakfast buffet was lavish. Strangely, the hotel had no taxis parked out front, nor did the desk clerks have any idea how to call one on the phone.

I was searching for a taxi because the drenching rain made it impossible to get around on the bicycle. Rivulets of water and mud were cascading down many main streets.

With neither a bus tour nor a taxi available, I was stuck my first morning in downtown Sevastopol at the Black Sea Fleet museum, which is a collection of ship models and charts, showing how Russia had become since 1783 the dominant sea power in Crimea and in the Black Sea. (It also makes the point that wars have been fought over Crimea ever since, notably in 1854-5, 1941-44, and today.)

Even more useful, for my purposes, were the numerous maps of Sevastopol during the long siege of the 1854 Crimean War, during which redoubts around the city held off the Allies for almost a year.

I took pictures of the siege lines, hoping that if the sun ever appeared I might be able to bike along the contours of the trenches, which made Sevastopol almost impregnable, as to the north there was the harbor and in the southern suburbs numerous hilltops lent themselves to entrenched fortifications.

Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches

After the 1854 battle of the Alma, the Allies swung around Sevastopol to the east, marching their forces toward the small harbor of Balaclava, which opens to the Black Sea. (Look carefully at the bottom right of the map above.)

The goal was to attack Sevastopol from the south, although that meant having to clear the hills above the Inkerman Bridge (southeast of the city) and getting through the line of Russian bastions that protected the harbor.

Leo Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches is largely about the fighting in the redoubts, as that’s where he served during the war (which, more than his three-day visit to Borodino in 1867, is what informed his prose when he was writing War and Peace).

The doomed Charge of the Light Brigade—celebrated in film, poetry, and literature—took place in the open farmland that lies between the Inkerman high ground and the port of Balaclava.

It wasn’t a particularly decisive battle, but it came to symbolize everything that was noble and futile when sending horsemen against the cannons of modern warfare. Of the 700 who charged, only about 200 remained alive or unwounded, in a war that saw 500,000 casualties on all sides.

Eventually the Allies captured Sevastopol, although by then most of the fighting nations had lost their appetite for glory, and in 1856, after the Treaty of Paris, the Allies withdrew from Sevastopol, having ensured for a while the continuity of the Ottoman Empire and that Russia would not dominate either the Holy Land or the Danubian Principalities. (Had no war been fought, they might have negotiated similar terms.)

In The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848 – 1918 (although in truth still going on), A.J.P. Taylor writes: “If Russia was indeed the tyrant of Europe, then the Crimean war was a war of liberation. This liberation delivered Europe first into the hands of Napoleon III, then into those of Bismarck.”

I hope the current war doesn’t deliver Europe into the hands of someone like the thuggish Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán.

Malakoff Redoubt

From the museum I found a taxi stand not far from where the cruise ships dock, and after the most convoluted negotiations (the Treaty of Paris probably took less time), I hired a car and driver for four hours of Crimean War touring, even though I could tell (as happened on the Alma) that once the driver had put in a little time, I would be abandoned somewhere on the battlefield next to a decaying memorial.

We began at what is the called the Malakoff Redoubt, now a hillside park, which the French captured in September 1855 after a siege that lasted months and claimed thousands of lives on both sides.

Tolstoy was one of the Russian soldiers who saw the siege fighting first-hand. In dialogue that hints of the narrative structure of War and Peace, Tolstoy describes a conversation after one of the battles that saw the allies in the redoubts:

‘Well, at least we got out of there alive, thank the Lord,’ said Vasin.

‘It’s a shame, though.’

‘What’s a shame? Do you think he’s [meaning the French forces] going to have the place all to himself? Not on your life! Just you wait and see, our lads’ll take it back again. Won’t matter how many of them will have to die…you can bet your boots the Tsar will give the command and we’ll take it back again! You think we’ll just leave it to him? Never! Here you are,’ he said, addressing the French now. ‘Here’s the bare walls, but we’ve blown up all the trenches. All right, so you’ve got your flag up on the Malakhov. But you’ll never dare poke your noses into the town. You wait, we’ll settle your hash, just give us time.’

The rain had let up some as I walked around the pristine park, which has a circle of cannons facing south, parts of the redoubt walls, and numerous maps that show the disposition of the attacking and defending troops. Looking south, I could see the rolling hills of Inkerman, but not the port of Balaclava, which is about eleven miles from Sevastopol.

The High Ground of Inkerman

Back in the taxi, I could tell that the driver was losing interest in my historical searches. When I showed him on a map where I wanted to go on the Inkerman heights—they had names such as Cossack Mountain, Shell Hill, Quarry Ravine, and Georgievsky Ravine—he seemed to shrug indifferently, as though maybe the tour could be done with a quick drive down to Balaclava. After all, he said: “There’s not much to see.” (Life lesson: never pay a Russian cab driver up front.)

I cajoled the driver to cross over the Causeway or Inkerman bridge—it’s east of Sevastopol harbor—and then to wind up into the hills that saw so many bloody (yet inconclusive) battles during the Crimean War.

Not all of Cossack Mountain—as the Russians call it—has been subsumed into the Sevastopol suburbs, but the main roads are dreary thoroughfares that evoke five-year plans more than colonial battles.

Here and there the driver stopped so that I could get out of the taxi and take my bearings (as though maybe Lord Raglan was waiting for my report), but in the end all I really saw was the fog of war, spread out across sharp, once deadly, ravines.

The First Crimean Stalemate

It wasn’t until I got home and read through a number of histories of the Crimean War that I could appreciate what I had seen in the rain (from the backseat of a taxi driven by what felt like a conscientious objector).

In his history Crimea, Trevor Royle writes about Inkerman:

There was a conviction, in the British and French press, that Inkerman would stand out as the decisive victory of the campaign. And so, in a sense, it does – but not as the newspaper editors saw it in November 1854, for Inkerman was soon recognized as a negative, defensive success rather than a memorable triumph. The outcome of the battle settled two questions: the Russians, despite their reinforcements, could not eject the French and the British from their commanding positions above Sebastopol; and, although they were slow to admit it, the allies did not have the men or material to come down from the Heights and capture the city before Christmas. Inkerman imposed a stalemate on the opposing armies.

For months, the opposing armies fought an endless series of skirmishes and rearguard actions that prevented the Allies from attacking Sevastopol and the Russians from crushing the invading forces outside their supply base at Balaclava harbor. Hence the word stalemate, until the Russians gambled all at Inkerman on November 5, 1854, and the Allied regiments held. (Perhaps Kherson is the Inkerman of the current war?)

Nominally, Inkerman was an Allied victory, in that it allowed them to approach the redoubts around Sevastopol, but such was the misery in the lines during winter 1854-55 that no side could really claim victory.

For me Inkerman evoked aspects of southern California—the sharp ravines reminded me of many around Los Angeles—but in a military sense the fighting there must have felt like the Hürtgen Forest, which in World War II near Aachen chewed up endless Allied and German divisions in forested ravines. Or perhaps Inkerman was akin to Daniel Boone’s Kentucky, that which he knew as “a dark and bloody land”.

Next: Balaclava and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.