- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

By Constantine Pleshakov
Basic Books, $30, 396 pages, illus.

In one of history's monumental sea battles, the Japanese in May of 1905 at Tsushima smashed the Russian fleet. The collision of steam, steel and fire "shaped the two countries' histories" in this century.
"To Japan, the war of 1904-1905 delivered hegemony in continental East Asia, which lasted until 1945 … it was the first time an Asian nation had defeated a European power. To Russia, the defeat brought revolution, which eventually developed into the dark tsardom of Bolshevism," writes Constantine Pleshakov in "The Tsar's Last Armada."
Mr. Pleshakov holds a doctoral degree from the Soviet Academy of Sciences and was director of the Geopolitics Center there until 1995, then was a fellow at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies, and now lives in Massachusetts. A previous book was "Flight of the Romanovs."
During the second half of the 19th century, Japan had developed world-class industrial muscle under the Meiji Restoration. Russia, occupying a sixth of the earth, had in this period begun to look to the East for expansion; as Russia moved toward the Pacific, Germany and Great Britain were busily staking out claims in China. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, eager for an alliance with Russia, was a busy chef stirring the simmering European stew toward a boil. It was something of a family affair since the Kaiser and Russia's young tsar, Nicholas II, were cousins.
Nicholas became tsar in 1894. The newest Romanov was, as the author puts it, "a bit of a blockhead," and he presided over a vast bureaucracy that was equally corrupt and inefficient.
The Russians had fortified Port Arthur on the Yellow Sea, at the tip of Manchuria's northern peninsula, as its strategic eastern base. "Japan was enraged. It regarded China as its natural prey. Now two outsiders, Russia and Germany were controlling the naval path to Beijing, and Russia was speedily turning Manchuria into its protectorate," writes Mr. Pleshakov in this tautly told episode.
Nicholas regarded the Japanese with contempt ("macques," he referred to them), and a successful foreign adventure appealed to him as counterpoise to ominously spreading unrest in Russia. The bellicose adventure would be up to the navy to execute. "If Russia had a national pet, it was its navy," even though the navy had never been consequential in the nation's security. "The Russian empire was built not by sail, but by hoof, and was held together not by anchors, but by bayonets."
Meanwhile, the Japanese, having built a state-of-the-art navy, decided that it should strike first. Diplomatic relations were severed on Jan. 24, 1904. On the night of Jan. 26-27 (the author uses the old-style calendar, 13 days behind, which would not be reformed until after the Bolshevik Revolution), Japan struck at Port Arthur. Two Russian battleships and a cruiser were severely damaged.
Port Arthur was as much a trap as a secure anchorage. Japanese Adm. Togo Heihachiro's fleet was the cork in the bottle, and Japanese land forces were closing in on the critical heights above.
Nicholas ordered his Baltic fleet to sail to the besieged port under a reluctant Adm. Zinovy Petrovich Rozhestvensky "almost the embodiment of a savage Russian admiral" known as "Mad Dog." He was seasoned both as administrator and sailor. He did not want the job.
"It was a most audacious plan," writes Mr. Pleshakov, over vast distance and vast problems of resupply, coal to fuel the great fleet most critically. Five modern battleships, plus two older dreadnoughts, were the core of Rozhestvensky's armada; the rest of the fleet cruisers, destroyers, transports and torpedo boats was, as the admiral knew well, composed largely of unreliable vessels, undisciplined crews and "many careless captains."
The more than 16,000-mile, eight-month voyage of the Russian fleet to lift the Japanese siege was a mission that that would be frustrating, futile and, at the end, fatal for thousands of Russians.
On Aug. 29, Rozhestvensky sailed, his pessimism heightened by his fear that Port Arthur would surrender to the Japanese before the fleet could arrive correct, as it turned out. There were also persistent reports that the Japanese planned a high-seas ambush at some point.
A month into the voyage, off the Dogger Banks of the North Sea, the Russians reacted to what they believed was an attack by Japanese torpedo boats and opened fire. Half a dozen English trawlers were damaged and seven fishermen killed. It came close to war between Russia and England.
Bad quickly went to worse. There were constant mechanical breakdowns, incompetent subordinates and low morale. The Russian intelligence system was appalling, the new technology of telegraphy was slow and uncertain and, crowning the gestating calamity, was the indecisive Nicholas.
Port Arthur surrendered to the Japanese in late December. "Mad Dog's" fleet had anchored off Madagascar while Nicholas dithered over a further increment of Russian warships, the dregs of the navy which the admiral did not want. The looming question, then, was what to do with the fleet that had no one left to rescue.
Rozhestvensky was convinced that to preserve the fleet he had to steam to Vladivostok. But Nicholas in early January scolded the admiral his mission was "to master the Sea of Japan."
But that month revolution was igniting at home, with the "Bloody Sunday" massacre in St. Petersburg. Rozhestvensky decided the only sane option was to try to make it to Vladivostok.
To evade Togo's fleet or, failing that, to fight it was the only course. The wily Japanese admiral intercepted the Russians as they tried to pass through the Korean Strait, the choke-point between the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan.
In the brutal fight at Tsushima. Rozhestvensky was leading the 45-vessel fleet in his flagship, the battleship Suvorov, and it was quickly demolished by the excellent Japanese gunnery. Rozhestvensky was severely wounded and later captured.
The Russian fleet was annihilated. The height of debacle was the surrender of four Russian battleships. Only three smaller Russian ships would reach Validivostok, and three destroyers would escape to Manila.. In mid-October, the recovering Rozhestvensky and his captured sailors were permitted to return to Russia, via Vladivostok where revolutionary rioting had taken place. The government needed a scapegoat for the awful defeat, and "Mad Dog" and a number of his subordinates were it.
Rozhestvensky showed his nerve and honor: Only he should be held responsible for the calamity, he declared and he was acquitted. The admiral would live only two more years Nicholas II surviving him by less than a decade as the Bolshevik Revolution brutally triumphed.
One might demur at Mr. Pleshakov's assertion that the crushing defeat at Tsushima "brought on" the Russian revolution. The empire was already beginning to disintegrate, and the Russian defeat in the East can be viewed as another nail in the Romanov coffin and the descent of "the dark tsardom of Bolshevism."

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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