THE MODERN WORLD WAS BORN AT THE TURN OF THE LAST CEN-tury. Correspondence gave way to telephone conversation. Electric lights added spirit to the most despondent dumps. Steel and steam ousted wood and sail. The globe became united not by roads but by cable—international telegraph, the initial prototype of the World Wide Web. No element remained unconquered; planes conquered space, submarines the deep sea.
There were also more sinister accessories of modernity. In South Africa, the British built the first concentration camps. Physicists in Paris were exploring radioactivity. Narcotics, until then available only in the Orient and to the unhappy few in the West, began spreading worldwide. Means of manslaughter—gun shells, bombs, mines, and torpedoes—multiplied in a fierce arms race. Theoreticians of totalitarian terror, like Lenin, developed strategies of political cannibalism.
It was at the turn of the last century when the Russo-Japanese War occurred. It went on for twenty months in 1904–1905 and resulted in unprecedented human losses and material destruction. Hundreds of thousands were killed, dozens of ships were sunk, hundreds of settlements were raided, looted, and devastated. It was the first war of the modern age.
It is largely forgotten in the West, ousted by memories of another military holocaust—World War Two. When in 2000 a British poet published a long poem about the battle of Tsushima, a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement wondered why the poet had chosen such a subject. At most, the newspapers might report on an exhibition in Washington, D.C., of the Japanese propaganda woodblock prints related to that war or on the treasure hunt involving one of the sunken Russian ships in the Sea of Japan. Shares of a bankrupt South Korean construction company surged 41 percent in one week after the company spread a rumor about its intent to salvage the Dmitri Donskoi cruiser, having generously ascribed her with the most impossible hoard of gold, 14,000 metric tons. The latter story is quite exemplary. Boldly exploiting the shroud of oblivion surrounding not only the humble cruiser but also the whole war in question, the company hadn’t bothered to check the Dmitri Donskoi’s specifications. In fact, she was a very old and slow ship, one of the notorious clunkers with which the Russian sailors were so frustrated—a very unlikely candidate to be entrusted with transporting a tenth of all the gold ever mined in the world, not to mention that even though Tsar Nicholas II was rather thickheaded, he would never have ordered the transport of such a large amount of gold by ship from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok when he had the Trans-Siberian Railroad at his disposal.
But if the rest of the world forgot about the 1904–1905 war, Japan and Russia did not. The victory of the former and the defeat of the latter shaped the two countries’ histories. To Japan, the war of 1904–1905 delivered hegemony in continental East Asia, which lasted until 1945. This victory also boosted the Japanese national ego enormously; 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; peasants and workers rebelled against the government, which kept sending them into the hellish furnace of war without the slightest prospect of winning it, while defiantly exhibiting the two worst features of autocracy—ineffectiveness and corruptness.
The naval battle at the Tsushima Islands in the Korea Strait, separating Japan from mainland Asia, was the pinnacle of that war. It stands among the top five naval battles of human history, equal to those of Lepanto, Trafalgar, Jutland, and Midway. The admiral who led the Japanese fleet at Tsushima, Togo Heihachiro, is still unanimously praised as an unsurpassed military genius—not only in history books but also on the Internet, where numerous sites reverently describe him and his battleship, the Mikasa. As for Russians, ships traveling through the Sea of Japan still put wreaths on the waves when passing through the Korea Strait. The remains of thousands of Russian sailors are lying on the sea bottom there, within and around the battered hulls of battleships, cruisers, and torpedo boats.
At some point, an author is invariably asked how and why he became interested in the subject. The origins of my interest are pretty conventional. Thirty years ago, as a boy growing up in the coastal town of Yalta on the Black Sea, I discovered an old book in my grandmother’s closet. Like everything else in that murky comfortable space, it smelled of cherry preserves and dust. It was a book about Tsushima. It had been published in the 1930s and contained wonderful pictures of ships, layered with sheets of thin, sheer paper. I read and re-read it. Even then it struck me as incomplete. It was a Soviet account of the event with obvious political biases, which are too boring to be discussed here. Much later, after having moved to America, I started checking other volumes; even those that had been conscientiously done were still weak, relying exclusively on printed sources. Gradually, my research commenced.
The Russian and British archives that I have used allow one to tell the story of Tsushima with some hope of being objective and complete, yet, I know that my research is deficient. I do not read Japanese, and without Japanese archival evidence it is not possible to write anything truly comprehensive about the war. So this is the story of Tsushima told from a Western perspective, as it was seen through Russian, British, French, and German eyes—nothing more, but also, hopefully, nothing less.
Two more disclaimers are due. By definition, historical sources contradict each other. However, in modern naval battles, destruction is so overwhelming and instantaneous that witnesses are particularly unreliable. At the time of Tsushima, no black boxes existed; navies of today do not carry them either. Therefore, for practically any evidence, there is counterevidence. In the process of selecting the probable from the improbable, a writer can be guided chiefly by common sense—and also, perhaps, by what he has learned about his characters. It should be emphasized that no matter how rich the archives may be, the story of Tsushima will always remain subject to interpretation.
Readers familiar with the military history of the twentieth century may be confused about certain dates in this narrative. Until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Russia had used an old calendar; in the twentieth century it lagged thirteen days behind its more advanced Western counterparts, hence the disparity in dates. However, I thought it would be extremely awkward to switch to the Western style; this would have resulted in phrases like, “on Christmas Day, January 7.” The Russia described in this book was a very peculiar country, but not to that extent. (Loc.104)
“The Tsar’s Last Armada:” The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima” by Constantine V Pleshakov.
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