The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 was a significant conflict in history as it was the first time in modern history that an Asian country defeated a major European power. Besides the war's immediate repercussions, it also sparked off a wave of Asian nationalism that eventually led to the independence of many Western colonies in Asia.
It was also from this war that Japan continued on its militaristic path that eventually led to its participation in the two World Wars, while for Russia, the humiliating defeat was a key factor in the weakening of the Tsarist regime and its eventual downfall at the hands of the Bolsheviks.
Through this series of articles, the background and immediate causes of the conflict, as well as the conduct of the war itself, will be examined from both perspectives of Russia and Japan.
(1) The road to war - Russia's perspective
(2) The road to war - Japan's perspective
(3) The road to war - Immediate causes
(4) The conflict chronology
(5) Russia's view of the war
(6) Japan's view of the war
Russia's road to war
1. The Tsarist regime
Tsarist Russia was the most authoritarian regime in Europe in the 19th century. Large numbers of Russians lived under the absolute control of the Tsar. Even in 1848 when revolutions and uprisings swept the rest of continental Europe, Russia was relatively untouched by these political changes. A rigid mechanism of repression held the nation in captivity to the will of the Tsar.
Under the feudal system, the Tsar ruled in complete absolutism from the capital, St. Petersburg, while the nobility ruled in the country areas, and the vast majority of the population endured a life of crippling serfdom.
The economy was almost entirely agricultural, with relatively poorly developed industry and commerce. Productivity was low as methods did not change much from those used for centuries.
Intellectually, Russia was largely cut off from Western influence. The 1789 French Revolution had led to a fear within the ranks of the Russian royalty and nobility that Western political ideas could contribute to the undermining of their system. During the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), Western publications were banned. Moreover, the illiteracy of the vast majority of the Russian population also ensured a censorship more effective than that imposed b the Tsarist decree.
Under Tsar Alexander I, there was a brief period of liberalisation, as he removed the ban on foreign travel, permitted the import of foreign publications and relaxed the hold of the security police on the lives of the Russian people. The victory over Napoleon's France in 1814 also marked Russia's emergence as a Great Power.
However, following the 1848 political changes in Europe, Tsar Nicholas I, Alexander I's successor, proceeded to impose a repressive regime such that Russia was effectively cut off from the rest of Europe. The nobility was also no longer permitted to exist as a privileged leisured class, but rather pressed into the service of the State as members of a ruthless bureaucracy.
Tsar Alexander I
2. The fragile state of Russian society
There were about 500,000 nobles and government officials (who were mainly recruited from the nobility), who controlled all aspects of the administrative machinery and used their official positions to indulge in corruption, extortion and misappropriation of funds. The most powerful of the official organisations was the security police force.
Unlike Western European countries, such a class scarcely existed in Russia. Towns were not particularly important in this predominantly agricultural society. Commercial activity was also on a small scale. While there was an intellectual middle class, the regime's repression has stifled much intellectual enthusiasm and activity. The industrial bourgeoisie, which emerged in the late 19th century, was a conservative force, often allying itself with the landowners in a bid to forestall change.
Industrial working class
By the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution had barely touched Russia. In 1855, there were about half a million industrial workers, which were too small in number to be of much influence.
The huge Russian army was so vast that it constituted another class in society. Serfs were often drafted into the army at the command of the Tsar. The length of serve was about 25 years. A soldier's wife was in effect that of a widow, and the children were raised in a military orphanage to become soldiers in the future. Under Tsar Nicholas I, the army of 1.5 million was controlled by a cruel system of brutal punishment.
Russian society, at that time, was based on the institution of serfdom. About 50-60 million peasants worked as serfs under a system of bondage akin to slavery. Some 11 million serfs were owned by the landed nobility and worked on estates, while over 12 million serfs, who were state-owned, worked on the Tsar's estates. Cruel floggings and deportation to Siberia awaited any serf daring enough to oppose his master. In addition to the peasant serfs, there were about 1.5 million house serfs who worked in domestic households.
3. The Crimean War and its consequences
Since the Napoleonic wars, Russia's status as a great power has not been put to test in terms of a conflict with another great power. It was only in 1853 when Britain and France, determined to prevent the extension of Russian power into the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, decided to support the Ottoman Empire against Russia. While both sides were marked by gross inefficiency and incompetence, the Russian army's performance was even more dismal. After a virtual stalemate for a long period of time, the Russian forces abandoned Sevastopol in September 1855, marking a humiliating defeat. According to the 1856 Treaty of Paris, Russia was forced to agree to the "neutralisation" of the Black Sea and was deprived of the right to maintain a Black Sea fleet.
This painful experience precipitated a debate within Russia on the best course to follow for the achievement of national regeneration. There were two camps, with one side advocating the adoption of Western ways and the other a re-focus on Russia's own cultural background. Another consequence of the defeat was the general consensus that the system of serfdom has to be abolished as it was seen to be undermining the national strength. This was accomplished by Tsar Alexander II, who was subsequently called the "Tsar Liberator" as his Edict of Emancipation released more than 50 million serfs from bondage.
However, given that many of these serfs now became defenceless wage-labourers whose plight worsened, their initial support for the Tsar eventually turned into disappointment and anger over the poorly implemented reform.
4. The slow progress of the Industrial Revolution in Russia
The Industrial Revolution only picked up speed after the mid-19th century. By the 1880s, encouraged by the huge increase in coal and iron productions in the preceding decades and the great growth in railway construction achieved under Tsar Alexander II, the small businesses and commercial class in Russia began to expand their activities. Large-scale capital also started to flow into Russia from Western Europe.
However, a key feature of Russian capitalism was that the government played the main role in promoting manufacturing industry and it was the needs of the state, rather than the profit motive, that determined the foundation of an industry. Under Tsarist rule, most industries were state-owned.
With the development of industry and urban life came the emergence of the proletariat or working class. By the start of the 20th century, the number of proletariats had reached about 2.25 million. These workers often had to work in overcrowded, unhygienic and squalid conditions. Not only were they not protected against exploitation, they also had no rights to strike or form trade unions. This made them very receptive to socialist or communist ideologies that became prevalent at the time.
5. The leadership of Tsar Nicholas II
Against such a backdrop in Russia, Tsar Nicholas II assumed the throne in 1894, taking over an empire torn by internal discontent and dissent. While the empire remained tightly controlled under an impregnable autocratic rule, both internal and external forces were already beginning to shake the foundation of the Tsarist regime.
Tsar Nicholas II continued the policies of expanding commerce and industry, partly to increase the military might and prestige of the Russia state and to expand the tax base. However, the social inequities remain unaddressed with many of the big landowners enjoying favourable tax concessions while the main burden of taxation was borne by the peasants and industrial workers. This added to their bitter grievances against the government, and increased calls for political reforms. To many of the Russian people, a revolution seemed to be the only way to better conditions.