Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

Russia Loses Her Prestige

St. Petersburg


When, in February, 1894, the world was startled by the Japanese guns in the harbor of Chemulpo (Korea), one of Russia's well-known diplomats, speaking in defense of his country, said: "Ours has been a peaceful absorption." Another statesman, pleading for sympathy, remarked pathetically: "We were unprepared for war." The two advocates of Russia's cause spoke the truth, but they did not proclaim the whole truth.

Ever since Muravieff Amoorsky began the peaceful absorption of Manchuria by seizing the coastline of that province, Russia has extended her dominions using no other weapon than her prestige, that is, the dread inspired by her name, power, and resources. Repeated protests from Great Britain remained unheeded, because the czar's government was convinced that they would not be emphasized by a resort to arms. The semi-civilized tribes of Central Asia were unable, of course, to oppose the Russian advance; and China was justly afraid of defying the great northern power. Thus the peaceful absorption continued with such ease that the Russian tchinovnik ended in believing in their country's prestige. Herein lies the principal cause of the astounding history of the war with Japan.

Although Russia repeatedly agreed to evacuate Manchuria, her actions in the construction of railways and other roads, the opening of mines, the enormous capital expended in creating a commercial emporium in Dalny, and her jealousy in excluding foreigners from that territory,—all this was ample evidence that nothing short of compulsion would cause her to withdraw. Besides, Alexander Pavloff, the Russian Minister in Korea, was anxious to emulate Count Cassini, his former chief at Peking. He was constantly plotting to secure a foothold in the Peninsula. In 1903, it was announced that a Russian company had obtained a timber concession on the Yalu River. A few months afterwards, some American newspaper correspondents with the Japanese army discovered the ruins of a Russian fort on that river, securely screened from indiscreet eyes, but in a fine position to control the passage. That was the timber concession.

Russia's policy, therefore, was a serious menace to Japan. But Japan did not purpose to draw ridicule by unavailing protests. Feverishly the preparations for more emphatic action were continued; in the latter part of 1903, Japan was ready. Safe from a possible European intervention by her treaty with Great Britain, Japan reminded Russia of her promise to evacuate Manchuria on October 7, and requested an explanation for not keeping the pledge. Russia, with a blind faith in her prestige, replied that the affair did not concern Japan but China, whereupon Japan made a proposition concerning Manchuria and Korea which would be acceptable. With studied contempt replies from the czar were held back beyond the time permitted by international courtesy. Moreover their tenor was not only unsatisfactory, but was also calculated to exasperate the proud Japanese. When the final preparations were made, Japan instructed her minister to St. Petersburg, to demand his passports,—an act equivalent to a declaration of war.

The tchinovnik doubted their senses. Russia maintained that a severance of diplomatic relations did not necessarily imply an appeal to the sword, when the news flashed over the wires that the Russian war vessels Varyag  and Koreyetz  had been blown up at Chemulpo to escape being captured. The world was still marveling at Japan's audacity when it was informed that three other Russian war vessels had been disabled owing to a night torpedo attack under Admiral Togo.

Why was the Russian fleet, numerically superior to that of Japan, divided? The answer is found in that fatal word: prestige. Pavloff in Korea had requested the presence of the two doomed ships, to keep the Japanese in awe. Admiral Stark lay under the guns of impregnable Port Arthur, trusting to the prestige, when the illusion vanished. There was still the Vladivostok squadron; it made an effort to induce Togo to leave Port Arthur by making a raid upon the north coast of Japan, but in vain. Beyond sinking a few unarmed merchantmen, nothing of importance was accomplished.

The czar's choice to restore Russia's naval prestige, fell upon Admiral Makaroff. At about the same time, General Kuropatkin, the former Minister of War, was charged with punishing Japan for her insolence. His departure for the Far East was theatrical. After many genuflections before sacred eikons, he promised to restore Russia's prestige by dictating terns of peace in Tokyo.

Makaroff was less enthusiastic, and perhaps more in earnest. It is asserted that he restored discipline in a sadly demoralized fleet. He was enticed out of Port Arthur's shelter by a small fleet of the enemy's cruisers sent out as a decoy. When he discovered Togo's iron-clads he returned to port, but his flagship struck a mine at the entrance to Port Arthur and sunk. The Admiral, as well as his guest, the noted battle painter Verestchagin, perished.

With Togo blockading Port Arthur and Admiral Kaminura guarding Vladivostok, the Japanese secured the freedom of the sea, and began to pour troops into Korea. This was greeted with acclamation by the tchinovnik who, after their naval misfortunes, claimed that the situation would soon be reversed by the army. Some Japanese soldiers were landed openly at Chemulpo, but the bulk went ashore in a well-concealed harbor south of the Yalu River. General Kuroki was in command.

Meanwhile Kuropatkin was in Manchuria busy organizing the army when not obstructed by Viceroy Alexieff. Such troops as he found were capable of rendering good service in hunting down Chinese brigands, but, as the sequel proved, the army had also been nurtured upon that most indigestible material, prestige. To the wonder of Europe,—and to a less degree of America,—Kuroki crossed the Yalu and sent the czar's dreaded soldiers flying before him. (May 1, 1904.)

Once more, and for the last time, did the Russian fleet at Port Arthur attempt a sortie. It failed, and its fate was sealed.

While the wreckage of Russia's once proud fleet lay concealed in Port Arthur's inner basin, the Japanese, after scouring the waters to clear them from mines, landed troops on the Liao-tung Peninsula, claimed by Japan after the war with China, but despoiled of it by Russia's peaceful absorption. In 1814, Port Arthur was taken in a day from the Chinese: the Russians defended the impregnable fortress for six months. "Our prestige demands that the enemy shall not capture Port Arthur," cried the tchinovnik, and Kuropatkin was ordered to General Stoessel's rescue. The attempt failed, and General Yogi could pursue the siege without being disturbed. ( June 14-15, 1904.)

A stolid, ignorant, and densely superstitious people was at war with a rejuvenated nation keenly alive to the power of education. That is the secret. Man for man, Russia would have won. But the resourcefulness of the little brown man more than offset the Russian's physical superiority. As the year 1905 dawned, the fall of Port Arthur was made known to the world.

Slowly, but heralded by the marvels it would accomplish, the Baltic fleet under Rojestvensky sailed to Madagascar, welcome to whatever aid the French ally could bestow. Japan said nothing, but made a note of it. She cleaned and scraped her sea-worn, battle-scarred vessels, under the supervision of grim, silent Togo. Oyama, the Japanese commander-in-chief, reënforced by the veterans of Kuroki and Yogi, was playing with Kuropatkin until he had the game in his hand. After ten days of hard fighting, the discomfited Russians made a masterly retreat to the Sha river, after evacuating Mukden, the cradle of the present Chinese dynasty, (August 26-September 4, 1904.)

Kuropatkin deserved credit for the manner in which he extricated the remains of the czar's army. Oyama did not feel safe in following up the pursuit. His game was that of a skillful chessplayer. First make sure of the result with mathematical precision, then strike. The Japanese were deaf to the demand for brilliant clashes.

After the battle of Liao-yang, the armies seemed idle so far as news from the front went. Oyama attacked his former antagonist on the Shakhe River and drove the discomfited Russians beyond Tie pass. General Kuropatkin was superseded by his former subordinate Liniévitch who, however, accomplished nothing to warrant his promotion.

Meanwhile the Baltic fleet left the hospitable shores of Madagascar, proclaiming its search for Togo, together with the determination to punish the impertinent Japanese. In the latter part of May, 1905, Admiral Rojestvensky made a dash for Vladivostok through the Tsu channel, the southern entrance to the Sea of Japan. Togo intercepted him, and a battle followed which, in its results, stands unique in the history of naval warfare. At a cost of three torpedo boats, 113 killed, and 444 wounded, the Japanese sank 6 Russian battleships, 1 coast defense vessel, 3 special service boats, and 3 destroyers, besides capturing 2 battleships, 2 coast defense vessels, and 1 destroyer. The losses in killed were 8,550 and over 3,000 prisoners, among them Admirals Rojestvensky and Nebogatoff, were taken to Japan. As a result of this one-sided battle, Russia's naval power is broken. (May 27-28, 1903.)

While President Theodore Roosevelt seized this opportunity to approach the belligerents in favor of peace, pointing out the hopelessness of continuing the struggle to Russia and appealing to Japan's magnanimity, the world was startled by the revolt of the Kniaz Potemkin, a first-class battleship of the Black Sea squadron. The mutineers found no support, and what might have proved a serious danger to the house of Romanoff, ended by the ship being sunk in Roumanian waters. She was recovered by the Russians.

President Roosevelt's efforts toward bringing the two powers together, proved successful. Washington was agreed upon as the place for the negotiations, but the plenipotentiaries, Sergius Witte and Baron de Rosen acting for Russia, met Baron Komura and Minister Takahira, who represented Japan, at Portsmouth, N.H., where the United States acted as host.

The incompatibility of Japan's demands and Russia's concessions on several occasions brought the plenipotentiaries on the verge of rupture. With the singlemindedness born of an unselfish purpose, President Roosevelt exerted all the personal influence he could bring to hear upon czar and emperor with the result that the victor gave the world an astounding lesson in magnanimity. Japan made peace possible by withdrawing her demands for indemnity and the cession of territory beyond that of which Russia had robbed her,—the southern half of the island of Saghalien, which will be once more Karafuto for the Japanese.

The terms of the Treaty of Peace were agreed upon at Portsmouth on the 29th of August 1905. The war had lasted from the 5th of February, 1904, or 572 days. Russia paid in men 375,000, in money $1,075,000,000,—all for peaceful absorption and support of prestige. Cassini's shrewd move, ten years before, in robbing Japan of the Liao-tung Peninsula and Port Arthur, has ended in Japan's obtaining possession of that key to Peking, with the promise of holding it beyond the possibility of recapture, until China recovers its manhood. The Treaty of Peace was signed September 5, at Portsmouth, N.H.

What will be the effect of the war upon the Russian people? While the plenipotentiaries were discussing the terms of peace, autocracy launched a ukase calling for a consultative assembly. Russian thinkers, however, reflect that, so long as autocracy exists and the tchinovnik admit no other authority but that of the czar, another ukase may revoke the doubtful boon.

No one knows what the morrow will bring, either to us or to the Slav. Yet it seems absurd to suppose that, after the lessons of corruption and incompetence of the present government, the educated Russians will remain quiescent while the great empire continues on its downward course. Mediævalism has come into contact with the spirit of the twentieth century, and has been found wanting. It seems as if the dawn of a new era for Russia is at hand.