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Colossus on Feet of Clay


As Russia fell behind the rate of development of other nations, so its foreign policy became less successful, declining from the tremendous triumph over Napoleon to the disaster of the Crimean War (1853-56). The empire of the tsars failed to keep pace with other European countries. By the middle of the nineteenth century it appeared to many “a colossus on feet of clay.” 

British bombardment of the fortress Bomarsund (Aland Islands) during the Crimean war. Drawing from 1854

The Crimean War demonstrated Russia’s military and economic weaknesses to the Russian government in a humiliating fashion. In the war an isolated Russia was opposed by the British, French, Turks, and Piedmontese. The war showed Russia to be militarily inferior to the more industrialized countries of Western Europe. The Russians’ weapons and military equipment proved obsolete. Their infantry’s small arms were no match for modern Western European rifles, which could open fire at four times the distance of Russia’s antiquated handguns. The Black Sea fleet, composed of wooden sailing vessels, could not compete with the steam-propelled warships of the allies. In addition, the country’s transportation system failed to serve adequately the needs of the war. Unlike their stand in 1812 against Napoleon, in the Crimea the Russians were unable to defend their own territory against outside invasion.

Russia’s defeats in the Crimean War seriously undermined its military prestige and dealt a severe blow to national self-esteem. The catastrophe of the war underlined the pressing need for fundamental reforms. It was one of the causes of the series of important internal reforms that were carried out by Nicholas’s heir, Alexander II (1855-81).

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