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First Day of the Third World

National Post, 13 April 2002

Book Review
The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima, by Constantine Pleshakov
Basic Books, 416 pages

The Tsar\'s Last Armada: The Epic Voyage to the Battle of TsushimaOn a hazy spring afternoon in 1905, just off the coast of Korea, the Russian and Japanese navies faced off in one of the twentieth century’s most momentous battles. It was over almost before it began. Within half an hour, Japanese shells had transformed the Suvorov, the flagship of Russia’s formidable thirty-eight-vessel armada, into a burning wreck. Two-thirds of the Russian fleet were eventually sunk, and most of the rest captured. It was the greatest naval catastrophe in Russian history, and it would change the course of world history.

But as Constantine Pleshakov points out in his engaging new book, The Tsar’s Last Armada, the battle of Tsushima and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 have been “largely forgotten in the West, ousted by memories of another military holocaust-World War Two.” Historians should always be cautious in making such comparisons. (Pleshakov is a professor of International Relations at Mount Holyoke College.) But consider this: when Russian troops battled the Japanese for the Manchurian city of Mukden in February 1905, over 160,000 men were lost in what was then the largest and bloodiest battle in history. For Russians and Japanese, the wounds of war remain fresh. Even today, Pleshakov points out, Russian ships travelling through the Korea Strait throw wreaths upon the waves.

Russia’s imperial ambitions in the Far East inevitably led it to clash with another growing imperial power – Japan. In February 1904, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian naval base at Port Arthur in Manchuria. Tsar Nicholas II ordered Russia’s Baltic fleet – stationed 30,000 kilometres away – to sail for Port Arthur and take revenge on what he considered the Japanese “monkeys.”

Pleshakov’s story begins here, and he focuses his tale on the doomed fleet’s commander, Zinovy Rozhestvensky. Rozhestvensky “inspired immediate awe” in his colleagues with his handsome appearance and fearsome temper. “Everybody agreed that Rozhestvensky was one of the most capable admirals in Russia,” writes Pleshakov. So how did such a capable man come to lead such a disastrous mission?

Shortly after Rozhestvensky’s fleet set sail in August 1904, the admiral became convinced that Japanese torpedo boats were waiting to ambush the Russian fleet on its way through the North Sea. As he passed the Dogger Bank, just off the English coast, Rozhestvensky detected some shapes in the darkness and ordered his ship to open fire. When the smoke cleared, the Russian Baltic fleet had decisively crushed its adversary – a fleet of English fishing trawlers. Two fishermen perished, and a handful of trawlers were damaged or sunk. The Russian cruiser Aurora came under “friendly fire,” killing the ship’s Chaplain. Curiously, Pleshakov mentions the Russian fatality, but not the English ones. Rozhestvensky soon realized his error, but continued blithely on, leaving, in his own words, “the injured to the care of their comrades.”

This is incompetence of an impressively high standard. But Pleshakov defends his admiral, insisting that “spies” had “led him to disaster at Dogger Bank.” There’s no need to agree with Pleshakov’s judgement in order to appreciate the magnificent job he’s done in detailing the hilarious ineptness of “Russian intelligence.” Almost all the information reaching the Russians turned out to be wrong: when spies weren’t warning of torpedo boats in the English Channel, they claimed that a Japanese ambush in the Suez Canal or Red Sea was imminent. Paranoia infected the Russian fleet. Meanwhile, the Japanese navy patiently waited for its prey: its own spies, aided by English intelligence, kept them well informed of the Russian fleet’s movements throughout the entire nine-month journey.

Pleshakov tells the story of this journey with exquisite attention to detail, recreating the sordid, depressing life of Russian sailors travelling to their doom. Many perish from heatstroke shoveling coal into the ship’s massive holds. Off the coast of Africa, they are afflicted by mosquitoes, sweltering heat, and mysterious rashes. In Madagascar, brothels and booze provide sailors with some traditional comforts. Pleshakov’s prose is filled with American colloquialisms delivered in an appealing native Russian accent, as when he refers to one woman as “a lioness and a femme fatale looking for a sympathetic shoulder and handsome face.”

This style works well in telling a story; it is less effective in providing historical context. Japan’s Meiji reforms, which enabled its naval supremacy, merit a sentence. Russia’s domestic turmoil is only hazily sketched. Discussions of imperial politics are cartoonish. Of one dispute, Pleshakov writes the “two monarchs were competing in politics like boys comparing who can do more push-ups or whose genitals are bigger.”

Historical context matters, because Tsushima is not just a dramatic tale, but an event of world importance. It led directly to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. It redirected Russian attention back to the Balkans, which contributed to the outbreak of World War I. Most important of all, the Japanese victory over Russia – the first time an Asian power had defeated a European power – inspired nationalist resistance throughout Asia, sparking the decades-long process of decolonization. In a very real sense, history was changed that hazy afternoon.