The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, had the effect of accelerating the already revolutionary zeitgeist in Imperial Russia at the time. What I find interesting, is how this little-known and geographically distant war from the center of power in Moscow had such an impact on Russia. Not only militarily and economically, but on the political discourse at the lower levels of Russian society.
It is an interesting image that this conflict conjures up, of a newly industrial and imperial power in East Asia, having undergone a tumultuous transition from feudalism, to being able to challenge a vast European empire. Not only did they challenge Russian hegemony in Manchuria and Korea, but they embarrassed the Russians and forced them to concede vital ports on the Pacific and resource-rich regions in Asia. As John Steinberg points out “The idea of a small and rising Asian power engaging in a conflict with an established and huge European colonial power captured the imaginations of everyone.”¹
The conflict was due in part to Russia’s increasingly aggressive and expansionistic foreign policy in Asia, which butted against the growing power of Japan and their ambitions to dominate China and the Pacific. The primary object being Russian insistence on Manchuria as within their sphere of influence and their refusal to allow the Japanese control of Korea. Port Arthur, on the Liaodong peninsula in Manchuria was highly valued by the Russian Navy for its use as a warm-water port that was operational year-round, the Japanese were willing to allow Manchuria to fall under the Russians, but insisted on Korea as theirs. They chose to reject the Russian counter-offer of a neutral zone north of the 39th parallel in Korea, and instead surprised the Russian Eastern Fleet at Port Arthur in a move that stunned the Russian Tsar Nicholas II. The Japanese insisted upon Port Arthur, and were determined to deny the Russians access, blockading them effectively until the Russian Baltic Fleet could arrive. It was here that the Russians suffered their great defeat, at the Battle of Tsushima where their Baltic Fleet was annihilated, effectively ending the war. The Japanese had fielded superior armies that were well equipped and much more advanced naval ships. The Russian Tsar elected to sign a peace treaty rather than escalate hostilities in an increasingly unpopular and embarrassing war.
The embarrassment of the Russian Army and Navy, and the reaction of the government to its defeat is reminiscent of the reforms enacted after the defeat in the Crimean War. Another conflict which showed the ineffectiveness of the Russian government, and their inability to reform and modernize effectively to new threats. The difference in this case was that Russian society in 1905 was far more radicalized and revolutionary than it had been in the 19th century. The defeat had again shown just how antiquated and ineffective the government was, and how the imperial elite had time and again shown themselves to be reactionaries, only reforming when it became absolutely necessary. The conflict had the effect of not only justifying much of the revolutionary sentiment in Russia, but shifted the discourse in an even more radical trajectory. As Freeze puts simply “That war, and especially its glaringly unsuccessful conduct…served to raise the level of political unrest in almost every layer of society…pushing Russian political dialogue several degrees to the left.”²
1 John W. Steinberg “Russo-Japanese War”. In Oxford Bibliographies in Military History, http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/view/document/obo-9780199791279/obo-9780199791279-0053.xml (accessed 30-Jan-2017).
2 Freeze, Gregory L. 1997. Russia: A History. Oxford;New York;: Oxford University Press. (249)