(TURN of the CENTURY IMPERIALISM – continued)

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The Russo-Japanese War

Imperialism in 1904 produced the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese were offended by Russian commercial interests having moved into the Korea's north. There was rivalry too over Manchuria.

Tsar Nicholas II did not want war with Japan, but he believed in his empire's commercial future in the Far East. Some in his inner circle had commercial interests in the Far East, and they persuaded the tsar that Japan would never go to war against the great empire of Russia. They were convinced that Japanese "monkeys" were no match militarily for the civilized Russians. They failed to see that their military was antiquated. Russia's soldiers were not well armed and commanders were ineffectual cronies. It was the same kind of delusion that would contribute to their role in creating World War I a decade later. At the moment, however, it contributed to their opposition to any accord with the Japanese. They claimed, moreover, that a war with Japan would unite the nation in patriotism and still labor unrest.

Japan offered to recognize Russian control over northern Manchuria in exchange for recognition of Japanese control over southern Manchuria. But the Japanese began to see futility in negotiating with the Russians. An opinion arose among the Japanese that war was coming, and they welcomed it and moved to take advantage of a surprise attack. At night, on February 8, 1904, without having declared war, Japanese torpedo boats struck against Russian ships at Port Arthur (now Lushan, China). The following day the Japanese landed troops in Korea, at Inchon, and from there they started north to the Yalu River, intending to do battle in Manchuria against the Russians.

Bloody Sunday, St. Petersburg, 1905

St. Petersburg, January 9, 1905, "Bloody Sunday," staged for the 1925 Soviet film, Ninth of January.

No objections against Japan's "sneak attack" were made by the United States or by Great Britain. President Theodore Roosevelt admired Japan's military capabilities and Britain favored the actions of their Japanese ally. Russia was known to have interests in the direction of Tibet, and with Russia distracted by the Japanese, a British expeditionary force moved into Tibet and forced the Dalai Lama there to sign a treaty with Britain – a treaty that granted trading posts in Tibet to the British and guaranteed that Tibet would not concede territory to any other foreign power.

In Manchuria the ground war between the Japanese and the Russians was a sign of what war would be like in Europe, with heavy artillery, trenches, barbed wire, machine guns and ineffective cavalry. Western military observers looked on, but failed to apply any lessons from the fighting to what they could expect should war break out in Europe.

On January 2, 1905, the Russians at Port Arthur surrendered to the Japanese. Japan took control there and the rest of the Liaodong peninsula. Russian defeats produced upheaval in Russia and ethnic slaughter through much of 1905. January 9 was bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg. Unarmed crowds, led by Father Gapon, tried to serve Tsar Nicholas with a petition. As timid men do, the tsar overreacted. Afraid, he ordered his soldiers to shoot. Something like 200 are reported to have been killed and many more wounded. Their petition was for an end to forced overtime, fairer wages, an eight-hour working day, universal suffrage and an end to the war with Japan.

Strikes and demonstrations erupted across the Russian empire. There were calls for an end to the war. In Baku, then a part of the Russian Empire, Azerbaijani Muslims set upon Armenian Christians, the Azerbaijani having long resented Armenian wealth and success. For five days, writes Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his book Young Stalin, "Azeri [Azerbaijani] gangs killed every Armenian they could find, with the frenzied hatred that comes from religious tension, economic jealousy and neighborly proximity." note7

Pogroms against Jews erupted across the Russian empire. In Georgia a young Marxist to be known as Stalin was back after having escaped from his exile to Siberia in late 1902. Stalin believed that the promised proletarian revolution was underway. He had been making a name for himself among revolutionaries as a leader in organizing workers in the Caucasus region. A pamphlet distributed by Stalin's group warned that the Tsar was using "pogroms against Jews and Armenians" to "buttress his despicable throne on the blood, the innocent blood of honest citizens, the groans of dying Armenians and Tartars." note8

Soon, Armenians, led by the well-armed Dashnaks, were to avenge the slaughters of February by massacring Azerbaijani villagers.

Between February 20 and March 10, 1905, near Mukden (today Shenyang) in Manchuria, a Japanese army of 27,000 defeated a Russian army of 276,000 – the last major land battle before World War I. The battle ended with a Russian retreat that turned into a rout, the Russians abandoning their wounded, weapons and supplies. The Russians are reported to have suffered around 90,000 casualties during the battle, the Japanese 70,000.

Then in late May the Japanese navy defeated the Russians at the Battle of Tsushima. A Russian fleet that included 11 battleships had departed from a Baltic Sea port in mid-October, 1904, to help the Russian cause in the Far East. The Japanese navy had in the strait between Korea and Japan, the Russians intending to slip undetected to their port at Vladivostok. The Japanese had effective high explosive shells and advanced rangefinders and destroyed two-thirds of the Russian ships. The Russians suffered 4,380 killed and 5,917 captured, including 2 admirals and 1,862 taken as prisoners. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats, 117 killed and 500 wounded. Russia lost all its battleships and most of its cruisers and destroyers.

Following the loss of his navy, Tsar Nicholas chose to negotiate an end to the war and concentrate on internal matters. The war between Russia and Japan ended in September and decided whether Russia or Japan was to control Manchuria and Korea. After the war the Japanese forced Korea's emperor to annul his government's recent agreements with Russia and to sign an alliance with Japan. Japan promised to safeguard Korea from encroachment by any other foreign power in exchange for its ability to give "advice" to Korea regarding foreign affairs, military matters and police. And Japan took control of Korea's postal, telegraph and telephone services. Korea had become a Japanese protectorate.

Russia's defeat further destabilized Europe while in Japan a spirit of patriotism and confidence had been enhanced. Japan's success in the Russo-Japanese war emboldened its military to pursue more glory such as the domination of China and elsewhere in Asia.


China: a New History, by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, 1998

Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, 2007

William Scott Ament and the Boxer Rebellion: Heroism, Hubris, and the "Ideal Missionary," by Larry Clinton Thompson.

Additional online reading

Russia's inept navy sails from the Baltic to the Far East. "Voyage Of The Baltic Fleet, (1904-1905)"

Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.