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Peter Carl Faberge

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On this day: Russia in a click

26 January

On January 26, 1904, ten Japanese destroyers attacked a Russian squadron near the Port-Arthur fortress on the Liaodong peninsula in the Yellow Sea. Two days later, Japan officially declared war on Russia.

The reason for the war was the clash of Russian and Japanese economical and political interests in Korea and in China. At the beginning of the 20th century, development of the Far East became an important part of Russia’s internal politics. Nicholas the Second considered the reinforcement of Russian influence in Eastern Asia one of his main aims, and Japan was obviously going to become the obstacle in his way. The Japanese hand in that region was quite strong – Japan had subjugated China in 1895, and was eager to conquer Korea.

In 1898, Russia made China grant the Liaodong Peninsula on lease to Russia and situated a military base there. In response, Japan started a new wave of militarization. The motto of militarization – “sleep on a board with nails” – meant that the Japanese were ready to bear any hardships in the name of future victories.

In 1900, Russia, among other countries, brought troops into China to suppress the uprising. When the Russian troops based in Manchuria, Northern China, were not withdrawn when order had been re-established, Japan was outraged.

The Russian government underestimated Japan and was sure the country would not dare to attack them. In addition, people in Russia were displeased with Nicholas, and many political leaders thought that a short victorious war could restore the nation’s trust in the tsar.

The Russian army was many times bigger than the Japanese. However, Japan had no problems with bringing armaments, food and fresh troops to the line. In Russia, only one railroad led to the scene of operations – the Trans-Siberian Railroad – which spanned thousands of kilometers across undeveloped Siberia.

On January 27, a day after the attack at Port-Arthur, two Russian ships – the cruiser “Varyag”, under the command of Vsevolod Rudnev; and gunboat “Koreiets” – fought against the Japanese. In a losing battle, the Varyag and Koreiets managed to destroy one of the Japanese mine-carriers and damaged four cruisers. When it became clear to the Russian sailors that resistance was futile, they scuttled both their ships. Japanese propaganda often promoted the story of the Varyag. The Russian mariners were deemed to have behaved as samurais, in that they preferred death to captivity.

There is, however, another account to the Varyag encounter. According to it, after the battle, both the Varyag and Koreiets, pursued by Japanese ships, retuned to the port of Chemulpo on the Korean Peninsula. The Russian sailors did not kill themselves, but they blew up the evacuated Koreiets, and then ran away, leaving a sinking Varyag to enemy. At first the official order was to bring Rudnev to justice for doing so, but in a turnaround actually awarded him for his bravery.

The defense of Port-Arthur was the longest battle in the Russo-Japanese War. In July, 1904, the Japanese army, under the command of General Nogi, disembarked on Liaodong and besieged Port-Arthur. General Anatoly Stessel headed the defense. The fortress was not fortified enough, but the Russian garrison repelled three attacks in a raw. The fourth attack crippled the Port-Arthur squadron and, on December 10, Stessel surrendered Port-Arthur, though he had an opportunity to maintain the defense. In 1906, the military tribunal sentenced Stessel to death for the surrender.

There were only 23,000 soldiers in Port-Arthur’s garrison, but 110,000 Japanese soldiers died fighting against them. In one of his letters, Nogi wrote about Port-Arthur: “I can feel only sadness and shame when I think about that battle.”

The war had been fought not only in the sea, but also on dry land. One of the main battles took place near Mukden in Manchuria. In February 1905, 17,000 Russian and 24,000 Japanese soldiers died there.

The biggest sea battle and the last big battle of this war was the Tsushima battle. On May 14-15, 1905, a Russian squadron, under the command of Vice Admiral Zinovy Rozhdestvensky, suffered a defeat from Japanese squadron under the commandment of Admiral Togo. The majority of Russian vessels were sunk, and only four of them reached Russian ports. More than 5,000 of the 14,000 Russian mariners in action died in the battle.

Japan was exhausted, and a revolution started to arise in Russia, so on August 9, 1905, the countries signed the peace treaty. According to it, Russia gave up Korea and transferred Liaodong and Sakhalin to Japan. Russia also had to pay reparations, but refused. Four hundred thousand Russians and 300,000 Japanese were killed in this war.