The Uses of History, 21 – Russia the Long-Suffering, 3 – 1904-1917

(Photo Credit – Imperial Museums Greenwich)

Many historians see 1905 as the last chance of the Tsarist regime in Russia to avoid the coming inevitable catastrophe that had been brewing for almost a century beneath the apparently stable autocratic surface of the immense Russian Empire. That Empire bestrode the whole great stretch of northern Asia from the Urals to the Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean, and from Finland, then a Russian province, in the West to the farthest tip of Siberia in the East along the Arctic Ocean shore.

As we have seen, the seeds of upheaval had been sown by the Enlightenment’s ripples reaching into the small but gradually growing educated intellectual set, and it was exposure to the actual effects of such ideas taking hold throughout Europe via the great surge of the French Revolution that created a glimmer of hope in Russia that things could change. And, as we also saw, those hopes were quashed by repression and exile administered to those who dared to challenge Tsarist power, aristocratic oligarchy, and the Orthodox Church’s cultural grip.

Nevertheless, things change because it is impossible to block ideas from finding a way to leak into even the most closed societies, and Russia was far from as closed under Tsarism as it would become under Stalinism. Tsarist repression was still restrained by some qualms of conscience that came from the glimmering light of Christianity giving enough people an uneasy conscience to forestall the future horrors of the Gulag system, for example. Foreign travel was not closed off, and contact through trade and education and social intercourse inevitably reinforced the ideas of reform and change percolating elsewhere in Europe and making their way into Russia.

In 1904-5, the greatest shock to Russia’s slipping position among the Great Powers was administered by the least likely source – the Empire of Japan which the Europeans still considered with some disdain as a pretentious upstart nation, despite its recent humbling of China. Since the Europeans had been humbling China too throughout the 19th Century, Japan’s victory over its chief Asian rival was given less weight. But what happened in 1904-5 was of an entirely different order.

Interestingly, the British had better foreseen Japan’s rise to a position of prominence before any other Great Power. After all, the British had coached the Japanese navy in building and equipping a modern fleet. In 1902 Britain had made a twenty-year alliance with the Land of the Rising Sun which guaranteed Japanese naval protection for British outposts in the Far East, while ensuring British cooperation with Japan in questions of mutual interest and in case of war in which both became engaged with another power.

In 1904 Japan’s resentment of Russian interference in its bid to become a major player in China’s affairs came to a head over the railway concession in China’s huge north-eastern province of Manchuria. Japan deeply resented Russia’s (supported by Germany and Britain) humiliation of her in 1895 in forcing Japan to abandon the Liaodong Peninsula. Russia then took over Japan’s newly won conquest by offering China “a deal they could not refuse”. The Russians claimed all rights to railway development in Manchuria, which China also conceded along with the right to station troops there. Russia refused a compromise proposal from Japan in which Russian rights to exploit Manchuria would be accepted if they recognized full Japanese domination of Korea. In short, Japan faced another humiliation by Russia unless she was willing to fight.

The Japanese response was such as would foreshadow a much greater event 37 years later in December 1941. The Imperial Navy sailed in secrecy from its home bases. On February 9, 1904, the Japanese struck, damaging the Russian Pacific Fleet at anchor in Port Arthur. By April, Russia’s Pacific Fleet was completely bottled up in its port, and Japanese troops lay siege to the fortress. Expectations that the Japanese army would lose against a major European army proved delusional. Even though they failed, the Japanese assaults on the fortress demonstrated the fierce combat spirit of Japanese soldiery, trained under the Code of Bushido and organized and tutored by German mentors. Guided by artillery spotters communicating by telephone, Japanese long-range heavy artillery bombarded the battleships in the harbor from a well-protected position behind screening hills and eventually sank all of them.

One Russian admiral had been killed when his flagship struck a Japanese mine and sank, and the main Russian fleet sortie to try to reach Vladivostok in August had resulted in a Japanese naval victory in the Battle of the Yellow Sea. The Russian commander had died in the battle, and the idea of once again sortieing to go down fighting had been rejected by the survivors who limped back into Port Arthur. The siege lasted till December, and all Russian attempts to lift the siege from Manchuria had been repulsed. Port Arthur surrendered on January 2, 1905.

Meanwhile, the Japanese army had proven itself formidable in open-field combat in Manchuria, outfighting, outmarching, and outmanoeuvring Russian forces. In March 1905, Mukden fell to them after desperate fighting which resulted in the disintegration of the Russian forces in Manchuria.

The war should have ended at this point, and President Roosevelt of the USA offered to mediate, but Tsar Nicholas II was unwilling to have his nation and imperial reputation humiliated by defeat at the hands of an “inferior race”. The last major Russian naval force was sent from the Baltic Sea to restore some dignity to Russian pride in an attempt to inflict a naval defeat on the so-far invincible Japanese navy. After an epic voyage through the eastern Atlantic, across the Indian Ocean, and into the Pacific to reach the theatre of war, the two fleets met at Tsushima Straits between Korea and Japan. The Japanese had only half as many battleships as the Russians, but Japanese intelligence, aided by their British allies, told them the Russians were coming and when to expect them. A Japanese spotting ship found the Russians at night, communicating with the new-fangled “wireless” with fleet headquarters. On May 27-28, the Japanese fleet under Admiral Togo “crossed the T” in a very Nelsonian tactical fashion and almost all the Russian fleet was sunk. It was an absolutely shattering victory which astonished even the British.  

Russia’s humiliation was complete. President Roosevelt’s offer of mediation was accepted, and a peace was signed in Portsmouth, Maine, on September 9, 1905.

Back in Russia, Revolution had long before broken out in January 1905. The bankruptcy of the Tsarist system seemed obvious, and civil unrest exacerbated by a disastrous and unpopular war underlined how wretched the ordinary people were and how bereft of merit the government had become. Only severe repression, including using troops to massacre citizens, as one Bloody Sunday (Jan. 9, 1905) prevented a takeover in St. Petersburg.

Despite promises to do better and to allow some reforms with an elected Duma (Parliament), it became obvious within a few years that the Tsarist regime did not really intend to share power. Only the military saw significant reforms instituted. The mass of the population remained unheard and struggling in their misery.

For Japan, the victory had been astounding, perhaps less to the Japanese, but most certainly to the leading Western powers. Japan had won the right to be accepted as a modern Great Power, the only non-Western state to own that status. The success of its modernization had been amply demonstrated. It had won its bridgehead into China, now controlling the development of Manchuria, although not outright annexing it. Korea was firmly in the Japanese sphere, and would be annexed to the Empire in 1910. Taiwan was already an Imperial Province since 1895 and the victory over China. Japanese concessions at other points in China, alongside those the Europeans and the US, as in Shanghai, could no longer be denied.

For Russia, the defeat had been beyond shocking. The humiliation opened the door to think the previously almost unthinkable. The need for real and deep reform in the social, political, economic, and military realms was flagrantly obvious. Whether the willpower to accept and do what must be done could be mustered and sustained remained to be seen. Given enough time, perhaps it could happen without another revolutionary outbreak.

However, locked into an anti-German alliance with France since 1894, the threat of a much greater war loomed with every major European political crisis. If, or more likely when, such an event erupted, could the Russian Empire survive it?


Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

2 thoughts on “The Uses of History, 21 – Russia the Long-Suffering, 3 – 1904-1917

  1. The story continues to be fascinating!



    Sent from my iPad


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