Wars in Russia and Japan, 1904 – 1921

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Wars in Russia and Japan, 1904 – 1921

It is often forgotten that these two vitally important countries, one massive in size, the other massive in resources and armed might, were in one way or the other involved in fighting wars with each other during a period of eighteen years at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904 – 05)

This was a savage battle fought between Russia and Japan with territorial pretensions in mind. The Bear wanted Manchuria and Korea; so did the Rising Sun. The Japanese started the war by launching an unexpected attack on Russian warships anchored in the naval base at Port Arthur (the latter’s name has now changed to Lüshun). Port Arthur is in Manchuria, and the well-timed assault was made by Japan without bothering to declare war.

Japan’s excuse to use her powerful navy was that the Russians had reneged on their promise to withdraw troops from Manchuria. While there is nothing new in Russia breaking a promise or pact, the Japanese announced they were mortally offended by the chicanery, and took Port Arthur. In passing, they also attacked and held the capital of Manchuria, Mukden
Russia, in reply, sent her Imperial Baltic fleet 28,000 kilometres from its base in the East China Sea. This was a very long way, probably too long for the morale of the Russian sailors, who had traditionally been badly treated for centuries. Later, in the Revolution, historians noted the deeply felt hatred of ordinary sailors for their officers, who were mostly thrown overboard to fend for themselves when the Revolution broke out.

When the Russian fleet arrived at the Tsushima Straits, Japanese admiral Togo Heihashiro (1846 – 1934) was waiting for it. After the sea battle almost all the Russian fleet had been sunk, with the usual appalling loss of life concomitant with fighting at sea.

This was the first time Japan had defeated a (Western) foreign power, both on land and sea. The debacle was humiliating for Russia, and the war ended with the signing of The Treaty of Portsmouth. Such was the humiliation that historians have decided that this war and its final treating contributed a great deal towards the commencement of the first Russian Revolution of 1905.

First Russian Revolution

This conflict took place between the government of Tsar Nicholas II and industrial workers, armed forces and peasants. Heavy taxation of the working classes, especially in the agricultural sector, had brought increasing discontent and distress to the poor. Ordinary Russians were also insulted and offended by the results of the Russo-Japanese War. The details of the Treaty of Portsmouth did much to aggravate discontent.

At a peaceful demonstration in St. Petersburg troops of the Imperial forces were foolish enough to open fire on unarmed workers and peasants, and their families. As a direct result, mutiny broke out on the battleship Potemkin. This was the moment chosen by the sailors to shoot their officers or cut their throats, before hurling them overboard. It also inspired Russian film director Eisenstein, some time later, to make the legendary film Battleship Potemkin.

Unhappy soldiers, sailors and peasants combined to form the first Soviet, in St. Petersburg itself. The Tsar was sensible enough (rather rare for him) to yield to certain demands for reform, which included the proposal to form a legislative Duma. The newly gathered political party called the ‘Social Democrats’ decided however to continue to opt for a complete overthrow of the imperial governmental system. They met with increased and reactionary opposition from the government. Across the huge country there were terrible reprisals – certainly not forgotten by the workers and their Soviet when the Second Revolution broke all bounds of civilisation in 1917.

The (second) Russian Revolution (1917)

This revolt was wholly successful. It overthrew the government, caused the murder of the Emperor and his family, and changed world history. It was organised by the Bolsheviks under a variety of leaders, chiefly Lenin, Trotsky and Kerensky.

The revolution was completed in two stages, a liberal (Menshevik) uprising in March, which duly overthrew the government of the Tsar, followed by a socialist (Bolshevik) revolution in November. A lengthy period of unrest, aggravated by oppression, mixed with the reluctance of the Russian people to continue the apparently interminable fighting in the First World War (1914 – 18), led to a series of violent confrontations. Revolutionaries were divided between the liberal intelligentsia, who wanted a Western-style, democratic, properly elected Republican government, and the socialists, who (as always) were prepared to use every means, including extreme violence, and unabated public dishonesty to establish a Marxist proletarian state in Russia. Of course they won, mostly because intelligent liberals rarely know how to use guns, or are frightened by them.
In the March Revolution strikes and organised riots in the newly named Petrograd (St. Petersburg), supported willingly by imperial troops, led to the abdication of the Tsar, ending nearly 300 years of Romanov rule.

A Committee of the Duma (Parliament) appointed early in the Revolution a Provisional Government under, strangely enough, a Prince – Lvov – but he did not last long. He handed over the reins of power to Kerensky, a true socialist revolutionary. But Kerensky faced rising opposition from the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Socialist Deputies (typical socialist nomenclature).

The October Revolution under Lenin’s overall command provided a nearly bloodless coup by the Bolsheviks. Workers’ Councils (Soviets) took over control in all the major cities and ports, and the newly found government sought peace with the Germans. There was a ceasefire. A Soviet Constitution was announced in July 1918. Lenin transferred the government HQ from Petrograd to Moscow. But the Russian Civil War continued for three more years, ending with the supremacy of the Bolsheviks and the establishment of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The Russian Civil War

Sometimes referred to as the War of Allied Intervention this was a conflict between the staunchly anti-Communist White Army (mildly supported by some Western powers), and the Soviet Red Army. It was fought between 1918 and 1921.

Counter-revolutionary forces began an organised resistance to the Bolsheviks in December, 1917. They clashed with a makeshift army hastily organised by Trotsky. In north Russia a force made up from French, British, German and US units landed at Murmansk, and occupied Archangel (1918 – 20).

Nationalist revolts in the Baltic States led to the secession of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Finland. Meanwhile a Polish army, with some French support, advanced the Polish frontier to the Russian Ukraine, thus gaining territory that was not to be re-occupied by the Soviet Union until World War II.

In Siberia, US and Japanese forces landed, and white Admiral Kolchak acted as Minister of War in the anti-Communist ‘All Russian Government’. With the help of the Czechs, this force gained control of some sections of the Trans-Siberian Railway. However, Kolchak was betrayed by the same Czechs and murdered. Command passed to General Denikin, who tried to establish a ‘United Russia’, purged of the Bolsheviks.

In the Ukraine, Denikin mounted a major offensive in 1919, but was driven back to the Caucasus, where he held out until March, 1920. In the Crimea, General Wrangel fought on until November, 1920. The anti-Communists were aided by a famine, which caused peasants to rise against them. Meanwhile there was a mutiny (again) of sailors at Kronstadt, but this was bloodily suppressed by the Red Army. To win the war, Lenin imposed the ruthless policy of ‘war communism’ (summary convictions and wholesale murder).
At last, inevitably, the counter-revolutionary forces failed, and with their collapse came the beginning of eighty years of inexorable and apparently indefatigable Russian-style Communism. Students of modern history might note that socialism, which is communism under a benevolent name, has been tried in many Western countries, with varying degrees of success. The ideology behind the movement is not to be condemned; it is in the practice of Communism that the usual failings of the human being – lust for power, pride, dishonesty, inability to accept criticism etc. – that more liberal conservatives find fault. Examples are plain to see; Soviet Russia herself, China, Vietnam, Cuba, France and Italy (very nearly) in the Fifties, and now Venezuela. More moderate forms of socialism have been seen (and are being seen) in Germany and Great Britain. Modern intellectuals and professional liberals in Spain who seek to convert their country into a soviet-style socialist republic, must illogically believe that a regime that founds a Communist State by the inexplicable assassination of an entire family including five teenagers and two pets – is something worth striving for.


By | 2010-10-18T11:46:51+00:00 October 18th, 2010|Asian History, World History|1 Comment

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

One Comment

  1. Roman July 5, 2013 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    Nice synopsis of the Russian timeline from early nineteen hundred to the civil war – without reading an entire book to get the same information, well done.

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