It is late 1854, and Nicholas I, Tsar of all the Russias, has had a bit of a reverse. His military adventure against the Ottoman Empire, an attempt to conquer the Balkans and become a Mediterranean military power, had turned into a fiasco. Russian ambitions had been quickly thwarted by the Turks. But needing something to do, the British and French had decided to capture and destroy Russia's military base at Sevastopol.

So now, instead of Russian armies occupying Constantinople, the Black Sea Fleet is blockaded in Odessa and his garrison in Sevastopol is under siege from British, French, and Turkish forces. Nicholas's troops are armed with muskets and the British and French with rifles. Nicholas has no railroads and cannot supply his troops, but the besiegers can be supplied by sea.

Nicholas has just learned the hard way why military commands should be given to professionals and not relatives: His commander, Alexander Menshikov, allowed the Allied troops to land, even though the landing took five days. And news has just arrived of Menshikov's defeat at the Battle of Alma.

But Nicholas believed he would still drive out the invaders. Recalling the devastating attrition the Russian winter wrought on Napoleon's Grande Armee, and on the army led by Sweden's Karl XII a century before that, he says:

"I have two generals who will not fail me: Generals January and February."

Nicholas's prediction will be borne out to some extent: Lord Lucan's indescribably stupid use of cavalry at the Battle of Balaclava meant that the fall of Sevastopol will have to wait awhile. The Allied troops will certainly be miserable during the Crimean winter. And the British government which had made the decision to take Sevastopol will fall.

But the Crimea is far, far south of St. Petersburg, and winter there is not nearly as deadly (Besides, the Allies had Florence Nightingale). General February will smite Nicholas instead, and Sevastopol will fall the following September.