Tag Archives: Russia

Remembering History: Battle of Kursk (4-13 Jul 1943)

On 13 July 1943, the largest tank battle in history came to an end when the Russian Army repulsed the German offensive. Both Germany and Russia had concentrated their forces near the city of Kursk in western Russia. The Soviet Union held a 150-mile-wide pocket into German lines. The German attack began on 5 Jul with 38 divisions of which half were tanks moving from south and the north. The Soviets had better tanks and air support by this time, unlike previous battles. The fighting was bitter and intense, but the Soviet antitank artillery managed to damage or destroy nearly 40 percent of the German armor. Some of the tanks destroyed were the newer class Mark VI Tiger tanks. After six days of warfare, German General Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge called off the offensive. The Germans retreated to their original positions by 23 Jul making it a decisive victory for the Russians, though a very costly one.

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Remembering History: Napoleon Invades Russia (24 June 1812)

Remembering History:
Napoleon Invades Russia (24 June 1812)

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812
Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia on 24 June 1812 in retaliation for Czar Alexander I not accepting Bonaparte’s Continental System. Napoleon assembled the largest fighting force up to that time called the Grand Armee. With over 500,000 soldiers and staff, it marched into Russia seeking a quick victory. It was not to be. The Russian Army under General Mikhail Kutuzov was in retreat refusing a full-scale engagement against the powerful French. As Russia troops retreated, they burned everything leaving nothing for the French to find.

By September, Napoleon had engaged the Russians at Battle of Borodino. The battle was indecisive but resulted in large losses on both sides. On 14 September he arrived in Moscow to find it empty as the people had evacuated. The Russian Army too had left leaving the city to Napoleon. With winter approaching, Napoleon decided to rest and use it for his winter quarters. Russian partisans though set fires in the city the next day resulting in the quarters he had selected destroyed. He waited for a month hoping for a surrender which never came. Now with winter closing in, Napoleon decided to leave. The retreat though was more difficult than they could have imagined.

Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia by Adolph Northen (1828-1876)
Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

An early winter set in making it harder on his troops and food was rationed. The Russians, it seems, had not fully retreated, and began attacking the troops in the rear. Cossacks with very sharp lances attacked ruthlessly. They made it to the Berezina River in November but found Russians waiting for them. Using makeshift bridges, Napoleon and his troops started crossing but the Russians attacked. Napoleon burned the bridges stranding over 10,000 on the other side to be captured or killed by the Russians. Napoleon, in a hurry to return to Paris, would eventually leave his troops behind. The remaining force would eventually return home but fewer than a 100,000 made it back home. The loss of over 400,000 was staggering and called into question his leadership of the French Empire.

Aftermath

The disastrous invasion of Russia has long been studied by historians and military strategists. His basic idea of invading was sound, but he underestimated how long it would take and the will of the Russians to make him pay dearly for every inch he gained. Napoleon thought it would be a quick victory, but it turned into a long painful retreat with an early winter, few food supplies, and his army being attacked by Russians. If you read accounts of those who survived, it is truly horrific the conditions they had to retreat under. Dead animals used for fuel; bodies stacked in windows for insulation. If you recall Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back scene where Han Solo rips open his now dead ride so they can crawl inside it for warmth, this happened for real here.

His defeat in Russia strengthened his enemies. Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Sweden would now ally with Russia against Napoleon. British forces under Wellington were slowly but steadily pushing the French out of Spain. While Napoleon would have some victories, two defeats hurt his reign enormously. The Battle of Vittoria in Spain on 21 June 1813 would end French domination of Spain. His brother Joseph that he had put on the throne, was forced to flee for his life. Sadly, the royal crown worn by Spanish kings was lost in the melee of the retreat and never to be found again. And in October 1813, he suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Leipzig. Paris would fall the following March forcing him into exile. He would briefly return in 1815 but be defeated again in the Battle of Waterloo

Invading Russia has not proven successful for any conquering general. You might get initial successes, as Hitler did, but it seems to always turn around against the invader. Hitler, like Napoleon, thought the campaign would be quick. Instead after their initial victories, Operation Barbarossa ran into real problems. General Franz Halder realized he had sorely underestimated how many divisions the Russians could field. And because of the long distances involved, it became very hard for Germans to hold their lines. Moscow was in at sight at one point, but they never got there due to the long expanse of territory, supply issues, and underestimating the strength of Russia. Like Napoleon, the German forces were stalled. Halder believed without a powerful lightning strike, there was little chance for success. Owing to policy and strategy differences with Hitler, he was dismissed. The damage was done and the losses substantial. The Russians would push eventually the Germans out of their country and follow them all the way back to Berlin.

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Remembering History: Japan Defeats Russia at Battle of Tsushima Strait (27 May 1905)

Admiral Togo on the bridge of the Battleship Mikasa.
Tojo Shotaro (1865–1929)
Public Domain-US/Wikimedia Commons

On 27 May 1905, the Russian Baltic fleet engaged the Japanese navy at Tsushima Strait, which lies between Korea and Japan. The battle was a decisive win for the Japanese with the Russians losing 34 ships. It shifted the balance of power in Asia for years to come.

Background

The Russia-Japan War of 1904-1905 was the first major war of the 20th century. Russia was large territorially but due to harsh winters needed a warm water port for its navy to operate. They expanded into both China and Korea to acquire resources and establish a naval base at Port Arthur ( Lüshunkou District today) in Liaodong Peninsula in China. Japan was not happy with Russia expanding into these areas and that it had supported the Chinese during the 1894 conflict. Japan tried to work out a deal to allow Russia access to Korea under Japanese control. The Russians did not agree, and Japan decided to attack Russia. Since international law at the time did not require a declaration of war prior to an attack, they delivered notice on the very day of the attack to the Russians.

Japan had quickly modernized and westernized once it opened for trade. The arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853 put pressure on Japan to open to the world. It was still ruled by Tokugawa shogunate (military rule) which had begun in the 1600’s. Foreigners were not allowed though a Dutch trading post was allowed owing to special connection created by William Adams. He was an English navigator for Dutch fleet that sailed to Japan. Williams became an advisor to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and stayed in Japan for the remainder of his life. He was the basis for the fictional John Blackthorne in the novel Shogun. He did become samurai, a rare honor for a foreigner and Hatamoto.

By the mid-19th century though the shogunate was showing its age. While it controlled contact with foreigners, many had been exposed to Western technology and ideas. Internally things were starting to come apart. A series of famines led to unrest and the belief the shogunate was unable to cope. Also, the fact they were bullied by other nations (particularly the United States) to open their borders for trade led to the fall of the shogunate in 1867. This led to a period called the Meji Restoration where power was restored to the throne. It brought about an end to the feudal system and a cabinet style of government. Trade with the west ramped up along with the desire to create a military that would not only defend them but make them a power as well.

The surprise attack on 8 February 1904 shocked the world. The Russian military did not believe Japan would attack, and if it did would be easily repelled.  Under the command of Admiral Togo Heihachiro, the Japanese fleet sank ships and bombarded the city. While Russian ships further in the bay were protected, the Japanese bombarded the city and attempted to blockade (this proved difficult). However, the Japanese did not give up and ultimately kept pounding the city for months preventing any military aid (from land or sea) to aid the Russians. The city would surrender formally in January 1905 when General Anatoly Stessel surrendered to the Japanese seeing it was no longer worth defending (it surprised his superiors in St. Petersburg). His surrender was controversial as he still had large stores of ammunition available to him. He would be court martialed later for cowardice and sentenced to death (later changed to 10 years imprisonment). He would be pardoned later by Czar Nicholas II.

Believing the Russian navy could still defeat the Japanese, the Czar created the Third Pacific Fleet and joining with the Second Fleet would become the Baltic Fleet that would sail 18,000 miles from Kronstadt (St. Petersburg) to meet the Japanese at Tsushima Strait. Admiral Togo had plenty of time to prepare to meet the Baltic fleet. Togo had already wiped out the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. A naval squadron from Vladivostok had proven its effectiveness by sinking Japanese transports. However, in August 1904 a confrontation with Japanese forces resulted in the sinking of one heavy armored cruiser. The other two ships had been severely damaged and had to return to port unable to fight again for a long while. During the interim, Togo sent many of his ships back to their home ports for repairs. And he spent time training the crews for the upcoming battle.

This meant the Russians were facing well rested and trained crews, along with ships that had been repaired and ready for battle. Togo’s plan was to trap the Baltic fleet in the Tsushima Strait and to engage them in several operations. On the Russian side, Admiral Rojestvensky and his staff argued on the best course to attack the Japanese. Ultimately, he decided on Tsushima on May 17 and ordered the fleet to proceed. Togo had built watchtowers all over the area and manned to watch for the Russian arrival. Over 70 ships, many converted commercials vessels, were sent out to watch and report of any Russian movement. Early on the morning of 27 May, confirmation was finally made of the Russian fleet and that it was headed for Tsushima Strait.

The battle would last for two days and was decisive. Of the 38 Russian ships that were in battle, 34 were sunk or captured (some were interned in neutral ports). One transport and two destroyers managed to get to Vladivostok; one cruiser managed to get all the way back to Kronstadt. Togo lost three torpedo boats, but the Russian Pacific fleet had been destroyed. It is considered one of the greatest naval victories in modern history.

Aftermath

The destruction of the Russian Baltic Fleet astonished and shocked Europe and America. Japan now was a major force in Asia to be reckoned with. President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States negotiated a peace treaty between the two in August 1905 (Treaty of Portsmouth). The balance of power in Asia was a central issue since the war involved (directly and indirectly) China, Korea, Europe, and the United States. Russia would give up its claims in Korea and China and recognize Japan as the dominant power in Korea. The colonial powers in Asia were now on notice. Japan was now in the game, and you ignore it at your peril.

Anti-Japanese sentiments would grow because of the war. In California, the Alien Land Act was passed in 1913. This law prohibited the ownership or leasing of land by those banned from citizenship under federal law. Many Japanese immigrants had bought agricultural land to raise crops, so the law was to target them (it also effected Chinese and others as well). To get around it, many Japanese put their American born male children as owners. Such laws were common in many Western states. And legislatures enacted restrictions on that later as well. The U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws constitutional and would remain in force until the 1950’s. Then they were either rescinded or made invalid when the Supreme Court ruled that they were unconstitutional (Oyama v, California (1948) and Fuji Sei v. State of California (1952). During the time they were in place, many Japanese Americans were forced to give up their farms and relocate elsewhere.

Russian prestige was hit hard by the disastrous military defeat. Other powers (Britain, France, Germany and to a lesser extent the United States), no longer viewed Russia as a strong military power. Russia was already considered a backward country where much of its population was agrarian with a thin industrial strata of industrial workers. They had serfdom-where landless peasants were forced to serve nobility who owned lands-until 1861. The large cities by 1900 had become overcrowded with industrial workers who were not paid very much. A combination of costly wars starting in the last century, periods of famine, and general resentment against the monarchy all contributed to the Russian Revolution of 1905. While the Czar did implement reforms to placate the populace, the entry of Russia into World War I in 1914 resulted in even more unrest due to food shortages, ruined economy, and military defeats. The Communists would ultimately topple the regime in 1918.

 

Sources:

The Battle of Tsushima, 1905 (Naval Historical Society of Australia)
History.com
Immigrationhistory.org
Portsmouthpeacetreaty.org


Remembering History: The Bolsheviks Seize Power in Russia (7 Nov 1917)

Lenin making a speech in the Red Square, May 1919
Public Domain (Wikipedia)

On 6 November 1917*, the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin (real name Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov) launched a coup d’ Etat against the Russian provisional government. With their allies, the Bolsheviks occupied key government buildings in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) and formed a new government within two days with Lenin heading the new state. Bolshevik Russia, later to be formally called Union of Soviet Socialist States, was the first Marxist state in history.

Russia had allied with Britain and France in fighting Germany and the Central Powers in World War I. The war had gone very badly for Russia. They had sustained massive casualties and the economy had been devastated by the war effort. Food and other necessities had become scarce leading to unrest. Troops had been demoralized by defeats and ineffective military leadership. With riots breaking out and unrest spreading, trust in Tsar Nicholas II had evaporated even among the ruling class. He was forced to abdicate on 15 March 1917 (called the February Revolution since it took place in February under the Julian calendar). A Provisional Government was put in place which shared power with councils of soldiers and workers committees. However, the new government choose to keep Russia in the war setting the state for the next phase.

Russia in the 19th and early 2oth centuries tried to portray itself as emulating Europe with its art, science, and music. However, this culture represented a small fraction of Russian society at the time. Three quarters of the population were agrarian and lived in a whole different world that had little or no contact with Western civilization. They were not all farmers, but land was important to each of the communities. They were tied to the Russian Orthodox Church and to the monarchy. Nor did they believe they were oppressed. They were not fertile ground for revolution as the they wanted to be like their wealthy neighbors.

Industrialization began late in Russia in the 1890’s. This helped form the social democracy movements that would arise the address this issue. Russia was moving fast and would soon acquire capitalism. Violence had failed to topple the regime (it actually made people turn against them) so the movements focused on peaceful and focusing on industrial workers. The goal was to first get rid of the aristocracy and create a weak government. Then the second goal was to overthrow this government and implement a socialist regime. The movement split into two factions: the Mensheviks who believed this could be achieved without violence and the Bolsheviks (Lenin’s group) who believed in revolution. The two factions would never reconcile.

Lenin was born in 1870 to a conservative family. His father was devout Orthodox and a school inspector. The high rank of his father qualified both him and his offspring for membership in hereditary nobility (this was not uncommon in old Russia). Many children during this time felt guilt over their status and became radical in college. Lenin’s brother Alexander was executed in 1887 for his involvement to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Lenin’s sisters got into trouble as well and went to prison. As the brother of an executed terrorist, Lenin was expelled from the University of Kazan. His anger and hatred at the regime that had executed his brother and imprisoned his sisters would drive him to want to bring it down.

He was able to attend school again in 1890 and obtained a law degree. Moving to Petrograd, he associated himself with revolutionary Marxist circles. He worked to organize Marxist groups and enlist workers. But in December 1895, he and other leaders were arrested and jailed. And then he was exiled to Siberia for three years. After that between 1900-1917, he would spend most of his time abroad working further develop his revolutionary ideals and fight those internally who opposed his goals.

One hurdle that Lenin had to overcome was standard Marxist doctrine that mandated stages in which the final revolution would take place. Russia was barely an industrial state compared to the West. Marx argued that you needed a “bourgeois” stage in order for the revolution to occur. Lenin argued this was unnecessary and that Russia was already in the throes of capitalism. This change would encourage revolutions much later in countries that had little or no industrial sector. He also formed alliances with groups he would not normally align with to bring about the revolution in Russia.

Winter Palace in Petrograd after Bolshevik Seizure of Power in 1917
Public Domain

With the outbreak of World War I, Lenin opposed citing it as an imperialistic war. The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II opened the opportunity to take Russia out of the war. Germany allowed Lenin and his lieutenants passage through Germany in a sealed railway car from Switzerland to Sweden. The thinking was by allowing anti-war Socialists to Russia would help undermine the Russian war effort. Lenin immediately called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and was called a German agent. He had to flee to Finland but the call for “peace, land, and bread” was very popular. And it resulted in the Bolsheviks getting more support and a majority in the Petrograd council (called soviet). He returned secretly to Petrograd on 6 November led the coup that overthrew the Provisional Government.

Aftermath

Lenin would the supreme leader of the first Marxist state in the world. Russia, despite objections from Britain and France, made peace with Germany. The new state would nationalize all industry and seized all land (the peasants had everything seized, including farming tools, and had to get permission from the commissar to do anything on their former farms). Civil war erupted in 1918 against Tsarist forces that ended in 1920 with their defeat. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was proclaimed in 1922. The USSR did promote revolution activity in India and Afghanistan but were thwarted by British agents. Russia suffered a devastating famine from 1921-22 due to the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Russia had to accept help from European and American relief efforts to help alleviate the severe conditions the famine caused. When Lenin died in 1925, Stalin became leader and would remain so until 1953. The Communist regime did not fulfill the Marxian hope of government withering away to allow people the fullest possible freedom. Instead it became an oppressive totalitarian society complete with massive internal police to monitor its citizens. During Stalin’s tenure, the infamous purges and show trials took place. It was no joke to wonder if you might be picked up and never return home at the end of the day.

*Russia was still using the Julian calendar at this time, so it took place on October 25, 1917 in Russia. That is why it is also called the October Revolution.

Sources:
This Day in History (History.com)
Russian Revolution (Brittanica.com)

 

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Remembering History: Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854)

 

Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr.
The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr, 1894
Public Domain (Wikimedia)

From 1853-1856, Britain and France were at war with Russia. Russia had sought to pressure Turkey in supporting its goals, but sent troops to take control. This threatened British commercial and strategic assets in the Middle East (and to a smaller extent France). France used the tension to bolster an alliance with Britain and to bolster its military power. The allies landed in the Crimea in September 1854 to destroy both Sevastopol and the Russian fleet. The Allies, after taking two weeks to set things up, started bombarding Sevastopol on 17 October. The Russians were well prepared but tried to break the siege attacking the British supply base in the fishing village of Balaclava. The Russians were repelled but occupied the Causeway Heights outside of the town. Lord Raglan, the British Commander-In-Chief, wanted to send in both Heavy and Light Calvary supported by infantry to get to the Russians and get back any British artillery they may have taken. Raglan wanted them to move immediately (meaning send in the calvary with the infantry to follow later). However the calvary commander George Bingham, the earl of Lucan,thought the order meant both calvary and infantry together. This caused a delay as they had to wait for infantry to arrive. Raglan issued a new order to advance rapidly to stop the Russians from taking any guns away. Bingham did not see this happening. He asked Raglan’s aide where to attack, and he pointed in the general direction of the Russian artillery at the far end of the valley. Lord Lucan conferred with his brother in law, James Brudenell, the earl of Cardigan who commanded the light brigade. Neither liked each other and apparently they were not respected by those under them. Both decided to follow Lucan’s order without checking first to confirm it.  670 members of the light brigade drew their sabers and lances and began the infamous mile and a quarter charge into the valley.

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

The Russians began shooting at them from three different angles (not at the same time though). Onward they rode though they took severe casualties. Descriptions of survivors reported horrors of horses covered in blood, arms and heads being carried off by gunfire or artillery, and human brains on the ground. The area was so thick with smoke from Russian gunfire that some said it resembled a volcano. Amazingly the Light Brigade reached its destination crashing the enemy lines and holding it for a brief time. They were forced back and Russian artillery fired from Causeway Heights. The Heavy Brigade had been turned around before it went further into the valley. When it was all over, 110 were dead and 160 injured and 375 horses were lost. 60 were taken captive. Reaction from many was to admire the bravery and honor of the calvary who were in the charge, but not so much their commanders that had ordered the attack. It took three weeks for it to be reported in Britain and recriminations would fly. Raglan blamed Lucan and Lucan was angry at being made a scapegoat. Raglan would argue that Lucan should have used his discretion while Lucan argued he was obeying orders. Cardigan blamed Lucan for giving the orders. Cardigan returned home a hero and was promoted. Lucan continued to defend himself in public and parliament and escaped blame as well. However, he never saw active duty again though promoted to general and later field marshal. In short recalled, promoted, and sent to the rear where he could do the least harm. The charge is still studied today of what happens when military intelligence is lacking and orders unclear. The Russians would claim victory despite never taking Balaclava and paraded the captured weapons in Sevastopol. However, the Allies in 1855 were able to cut Russian logistics and force them out of Sevastopol when it fell between 8-9 Sept 1855. Other battles in the Baltic in 1854 and 1855 had not gone well for the Russians either. The British appeared to be ready to destroy both Cronstradt and St. Petersburg in 1856 using naval forces. The Russians accepted defeat and sought peace in early 1856. Russia had lost 500,000 troops in the war (not from battle but apparently from diseases and malnutrition amongst other things) and its economy was ruined. They also lacked the industrial infrastructure to build modern weapons. The Peace of Paris on 30 March 1856 formally ended the Crimean War. Britain got what it wanted: the independence of Ottoman Turkey. The Black Sea was made a neutral zone (no warships allowed to enter), and the Danube opened to all commercial shipping. Bessarabia became part of Moldavia along with Walachia to become autonomous states (later Romania). Russia in 1870 would repudiate the Black Sea neutrality to rebuild its naval fleet. Tennyson’s Poem The Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote an evocative poem called The Charge of the Light Brigade which was published on 9 December 1854. He praises the brigade while mourning the futility of the charge.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” he said. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!” Was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldier knew Someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell Rode the six hundred.

Flashed all their sabres bare, Flashed as they turned in air, Sabring the gunners there,Charging an army, while All the world wondered. Plunged in the battery-smoke Right through the line they broke;Cossack and Russian Reeled from the sabre stroke Shattered and sundered. Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them, Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, While horse and hero fell. They that had fought so well. Came through the jaws of Death, Back from the mouth of hell, All that was left of them,Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered. Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!   

Sources:

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Battle of Kursk (4-13 Jul 1943)

On 13 July 1943, the largest tank battle in history came to an when the Russian Army repulsing the German offensive. Both Germany and Russia had concentrated their forces near the city of Kursk in western Russia. The Soviet Union held a 150-mile-wide pocket into German lines. The German attack began on 5 Jul with 38 divisions of which half were tanks moving from south and the north. The Soviets had better tanks and air support by this time, unlike previous battles. The fighting was bitter and intense but the Soviet antitank artillery managed to damage or destroy nearly 40 percent of the German armor. Some of the tanks destroyed were the newer class Mark VI Tiger tanks. After six days of warfare, German General Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge called off the offensive. The Germans retreated to their original positions by 23 Jul making it a decisive victory for the Russians, though a very costly one.

 

 

 

Sources:

History.com
Today in WW2 History

Remembering History: Japan Defeats Russia at Battle of Tsushima Strait (27 May 1905)

Admiral Togo on the bridge of the Battleship Mikasa.
Tojo Shotaro (1865–1929)
Public Domain-US/Wikimedia Commons

On 27 May 1905, the Russian Baltic fleet engaged the Japanese navy at Tsushima Strait, which lies between Korea and Japan. The battle was a decisive win for the Japanese with the Russians losing 34 ships. It shifted the balance of power in Asia for years to come.

Background

The Russia-Japan War of 1904-1905 was the first major war of the 20th century. Russia was large territorially but due to harsh winters needed a warm water port for its navy to operate. They expanded into both China and Korea to acquire resources and establish a naval base at Port Arthur ( Lüshunkou District today) in Liaodong Peninsula in China. Japan was not happy with Russia expanding into these areas and that it had supported the Chinese during the 1894 conflict. Japan tried to work out a deal to allow Russia access to Korea under Japanese control. The Russians did not agree, and Japan decided to attack Russia. Since international law at the time did not require a declaration of war prior to an attack, they delivered notice on the very day of the attack to the Russians.

Japan had quickly modernized and westernized once it opened for trade. The arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853 put pressure on Japan to open to the world. It was still ruled by Tokugawa shogunate (military rule) which had begun in the 1600’s. Foreigners were not allowed though a Dutch trading post was allowed owing to special connection created by William Adams. He was an English navigator for Dutch fleet that sailed to Japan. Williams became an advisor to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and stayed in Japan for the remainder of his life. He was the basis for the fictional John Blackthorne in the novel Shogun. He did become samurai, a rare honor for a foreigner and Hatamoto.

By the mid-19th century though the shogunate was showing its age. While it controlled contact with foreigners, many had been exposed to Western technology and ideas. Internally things were starting to come apart. A series of famines led to unrest and the belief the shogunate was unable to cope. Also, the fact they were bullied by other nations (particularly the United States) to open their borders for trade led to the fall of the shogunate in 1867. This led to a period called the Meji Restoration where power was restored to the throne. It brought about an end to the feudal system and a cabinet style of government. Trade with the west ramped up along with the desire to create a military that would not only defend them but make them a power as well.

The surprise attack on 8 February 1904 shocked the world. The Russian military did not believe Japan would attack, and if it did would be easily repelled.  Under the command of Admiral Togo Heihachiro, the Japanese fleet sank ships and bombarded the city. While Russian ships further in the bay were protected, the Japanese bombarded the city and attempted to blockade (this proved difficult). However, the Japanese did not give up and ultimately kept pounding the city for months preventing any military aid (from land or sea) to aid the Russians. The city would surrender formally in January 1905 when General Anatoly Stessel surrendered to the Japanese seeing it was no longer worth defending (it surprised his superiors in St. Petersburg). His surrender was controversial as he still had large stores of ammunition available to him. He would be court martialed later for cowardice and sentenced to death (later changed to 10 years imprisonment). He would be pardoned later by Czar Nicholas II.

Believing the Russian navy could still defeat the Japanese, the Czar created the Third Pacific Fleet and joining with the Second Fleet would become the Baltic Fleet that would sail 18,000 miles from Kronstadt (St. Petersburg) to meet the Japanese at Tsushima Strait. Admiral Togo had plenty of time to prepare to meet the Baltic fleet. Togo had already wiped out the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. A naval squadron from Vladivostok had proven its effectiveness by sinking Japanese transports. However, in August 1904 a confrontation with Japanese forces resulted in the sinking of one heavy armored cruiser. The other two ships had been severely damaged and had to return to port unable to fight again for a long while. During the interim, Togo sent many of his ships back to their home ports for repairs. And he spent time training the crews for the upcoming battle.

This meant the Russians were facing well rested and trained crews, along with ships that had been repaired and ready for battle. Togo’s plan was to trap the Baltic fleet in the Tsushima Strait and to engage them in several operations. On the Russian side, Admiral Rojestvensky and his staff argued on the best course to attack the Japanese. Ultimately, he decided on Tsushima on May 17 and ordered the fleet to proceed. Togo had built watchtowers all over the area and manned to watch for the Russian arrival. Over 70 ships, many converted commercials vessels, were sent out to watch and report of any Russian movement. Early on the morning of 27 May, confirmation was finally made of the Russian fleet and that it was headed for Tsushima Strait.

The battle would last for two days and was decisive. Of the 38 Russian ships that were in battle, 34 were sunk or captured (some were interned in neutral ports). One transport and two destroyers managed to get to Vladivostok; one cruiser managed to get all the way back to Kronstadt. Togo lost three torpedo boats, but the Russian Pacific fleet had been destroyed. It is considered one of the greatest naval victories in modern history.

Aftermath

The destruction of the Russian Baltic Fleet astonished and shocked Europe and America. Japan now was a major force in Asia to be reckoned with. President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States negotiated a peace treaty between the two in August 1905 (Treaty of Portsmouth). The balance of power in Asia was a central issue since the war involved (directly and indirectly) China, Korea, Europe, and the United States. Russia would give up its claims in Korea and China and recognize Japan as the dominant power in Korea. The colonial powers in Asia were now on notice. Japan was now in the game, and you ignore it at your peril.

Anti-Japanese sentiments would grow because of the war. In California, the Alien Land Act was passed in 1913. This law prohibited the ownership or leasing of land by those banned from citizenship under federal law. Many Japanese immigrants had bought agricultural land to raise crops, so the law was to target them (it also effected Chinese and others as well). To get around it, many Japanese put their American born male children as owners. Such laws were common in many Western states. And legislatures enacted restrictions on that later as well. The U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws constitutional and would remain in force until the 1950’s. Then they were either rescinded or made invalid when the Supreme Court ruled that they were unconstitutional (Oyama v, California (1948) and Fuji Sei v. State of California (1952). During the time they were in place, many Japanese Americans were forced to give up their farms and relocate elsewhere.

Russian prestige was hit hard by the disastrous military defeat. Other powers (Britain, France, Germany and to a lesser extent the United States), no longer viewed Russia as a strong military power. Russia was already considered a backward country where much of its population was agrarian with a thin industrial strata of industrial workers. They had serfdom-where landless peasants were forced to serve nobility who owned lands-until 1861. The large cities by 1900 had become overcrowded with industrial workers who were not paid very much. A combination of costly wars starting in the last century, periods of famine, and general resentment against the monarchy all contributed to the Russian Revolution of 1905. While the Czar did implement reforms to placate the populace, the entry of Russia into World War I in 1914 resulted in even more unrest due to food shortages, ruined economy, and military defeats. The Communists would ultimately topple the regime in 1918.

 

Sources:

The Battle of Tsushima, 1905 (Naval Historical Society of Australia)
History.com
Immigrationhistory.org
Portsmouthpeacetreaty.org


Remembering History: Napoleon Defeated and Seward’s Folly (March 30)

Napoleon Defeated (30 March 1814)

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812
Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose to power during the French Revolution and became emperor of France, was defeated when allied troops entered Paris on 30 March 1814. Since 1803, the Napoleonic War had inflamed Europe. England and other powers had united against France during this period. France had expanded its power into the heart of Europe, Portugal, Spain and the Mediterranean. His failed foray into Russia and his forces being ejected from Portugal and Spain, weakened his once powerful forces allowing for the invasion of France and the taking of Paris.

Why this Is Important

Napoleon was a major figure in European and French history. He reformed the French state after French Revolution, established and streamlined the justice system under the Napoleonic Code, and sought better relations with the Catholic Church. His military tactics (wins and loses) are still studied today in military academies around the world. The Napoleonic Code laid the basis for legal administration in France today and many of its former colonies.

Sources:

Britanica.com
Biography.com
History.com

Seward’s Folly

William H. Seward, Secretary of State 1861-69
Date Unknown
Public Domain/U.S. Library of Congress, digital id cph.3a23003

In a purchase ridiculed at the time, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia for $7 million. While it only cost 2 cents an acre, it was widely jeered in the press and politicians alike. It was nicknamed “Seward’s Folly” and other names as well. Russia had tried to sell it to the U.S. prior to the Civil War, but talks stopped when the war began. Seward believed the landmass was important for the country. Others were not so sure and took a lot of convincing to get the Senate to ratify the treaty. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on 9 April 1867 and the formal transfer was at Fort Sitka on October 18, 1867.

At first settlement was slow (getting there required taking a ship on the Pacific side and sailing up to a port) but in 1898 gold was discovered causing a rapid influx of prospectors and of course businesses to support them. Other resources were found in due course allowing Alaska to grow into a prosperous territory (albeit a cold one). Alaska would become the 49thstate when it was admitted to the union on 3 January 1959. The folly turned out to be golden instead.

Why this is Important
The purchase of Alaska expanded the territory of the United States substantially. The West Coast borders of the country were now forming up. California and Oregon were now states and Washington would soon follow in 1889. The rich resources of Alaska would also contribute as well. By the end of the 19th century, the United States had grown across a continent with cities and settlements on each end and within it.

Sources:

American.historama.org
History.com
Wikipedia


The Russian February Revolution (March 1917)

Russian February Revolution in Saint Petersburg. March 1917. The crowd is in front of the Tauride Palace.
Public Domain/Wikimedia

On March 8, 1917 (February 24 on the Julian calendar used at the time) events would begin unfolding in Russia that would bring about the end of the Czarist regime in Russia and the establishment of a new provisional government that would transition to a parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately that interim government would itself be overthrown in October (November) by the Bolsheviks that established the Communist government in Russia that would last until 1991.

Russia lagged behind the major powers of Britain, France and Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Unlike those powers which had fully industrialized and developed powerful economies, Russia was still primarily agrarian and had a very small industrial sector. Additionally it failed to modernize during this period and clung on to old social and political structures that made little sense in a more industrialized world. Capitalism was able to flourish in many places but not in Russia, where the autocracy did not allow it much room to develop. So Russia was considered a very backward nation.

Russia had disastrously involved itself in World War I. With a poor industrial sector, it was no match for heavily industrialized and better led German forces. Russia suffered heavy casualties and defeats. The economy could not absorb the cost of the war causing shortages of all kinds leading to unrest in the streets of Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg-renamed to remove any connection to Germany). Radicals and moderates united to call for change and the end of the Czar. Widespread demonstrations began on March 8 in Petrograd. By 10 March all of Petrograd’s workers were on strike and some factories had elected their own deputies to workers committees.

The Petrograd garrison was called out on 11 March and some demonstrators were killed but the demonstrations continued. Then the Czar dissolved the Duma on the same day and troops began to waver. The following day on 12 March 1917, the Petrograd regiments defected to the demonstrators giving them 150,000 new supporters. On 15 March 1917 the rule of the Czars came to an end with the formal abdication of Nicholas II (his brother declined to be Czar). The new provisional government decided to stay in the war but had major challenges such as how to resolve the food shortages and other crises as well. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Party but exiled in Switzerland, was brought back to Russia by the Germans in a sealed train. He would take charge and ultimately lead the Russian Revolution later that year that would install the first Communist government in world history.

Sources

Britannia.com
History.com

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Remembering History: The Bolsheviks Seize Power in Russia

Lenin making a speech in the Red Square, May 1919
Public Domain (Wikipedia)

On 6 November 1917*, the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin (real name Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov) launched a coup d’ Etat against the Russian provisional government. With their allies, the Bolsheviks occupied key government buildings in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) and formed a new government within two days with Lenin heading the new state. Bolshevik Russia, later to be formally called Union of Soviet Socialist States, was the first Marxist state in history.

Russia had allied with Britain and France in fighting Germany and the Central Powers in World War I. The war had gone very badly for Russia. They had sustained massive casualties and the economy had been devastated by the war effort. Food and other necessities had become scarce leading to unrest. Troops had been demoralized by defeats and ineffective military leadership. With riots breaking out and unrest spreading, trust in Tsar Nicholas II had evaporated even among the ruling class. He was forced to abdicate on 15 March 1917 (called the February Revolution since it took place in February under the Julian calendar). A Provisional Government was put in place which shared power with councils of soldiers and workers committees. However, the new government choose to keep Russia in the war setting the state for the next phase.

Russia in the 19th and early 2oth centuries tried to portray itself as emulating Europe with its art, science, and music. However, this culture represented a small fraction of Russian society at the time. Three quarters of the population were agrarian and lived in a whole different world that had little or no contact with Western civilization. They were not all farmers, but land was important to each of the communities. They were tied to the Russian Orthodox Church and to the monarchy. Nor did they believe they were oppressed. They were not fertile ground for revolution as the they wanted to be like their wealthy neighbors.

Industrialization began late in Russia in the 1890’s. This helped form the social democracy movements that would arise the address this issue. Russia was moving fast and would soon acquire capitalism. Violence had failed to topple the regime (it actually made people turn against them) so the movements focused on peaceful and focusing on industrial workers. The goal was to first get rid of the aristocracy and create a weak government. Then the second goal was to overthrow this government and implement a socialist regime. The movement split into two factions: the Mensheviks who believed this could be achieved without violence and the Bolsheviks (Lenin’s group) who believed in revolution. The two factions would never reconcile.

Lenin was born in 1870 to a conservative family. His father was devout Orthodox and a school inspector. The high rank of his father qualified both him and his offspring for membership in hereditary nobility (this was not uncommon in old Russia). Many children during this time felt guilt over their status and became radical in college. Lenin’s brother Alexander was executed in 1887 for his involvement to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Lenin’s sisters got into trouble as well and went to prison. As the brother of an executed terrorist, Lenin was expelled from the University of Kazan. His anger and hatred at the regime that had executed his brother and imprisoned his sisters would drive him to want to bring it down.

He was able to attend school again in 1890 and obtained a law degree. Moving to Petrograd, he associated himself with revolutionary Marxist circles. He worked to organize Marxist groups and enlist workers. But in December 1895, he and other leaders were arrested and jailed. And then he was exiled to Siberia for three years. After that between 1900-1917, he would spend most of his time abroad working further develop his revolutionary ideals and fight those internally who opposed his goals.

One hurdle that Lenin had to overcome was standard Marxist doctrine that mandated stages in which the final revolution would take place. Russia was barely an industrial state compared to the West. Marx argued that you needed a “bourgeois” stage in order for the revolution to occur. Lenin argued this was unnecessary and that Russia was already in the throes of capitalism. This change would encourage revolutions much later in countries that had little or no industrial sector. He also formed alliances with groups he would not normally align with to bring about the revolution in Russia.

Winter Palace in Petrograd after Bolshevik Seizure of Power in 1917
Public Domain

With the outbreak of World War I, Lenin opposed citing it as an imperialistic war. The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II opened the opportunity to take Russia out of the war. Germany allowed Lenin and his lieutenants passage through Germany in a sealed railway car from Switzerland to Sweden. The thinking was by allowing anti-war Socialists to Russia would help undermine the Russian war effort. Lenin immediately called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and was called a German agent. He had to flee to Finland but the call for “peace, land, and bread” was very popular. And it resulted in the Bolsheviks getting more support and a majority in the Petrograd council (called soviet). He returned secretly to Petrograd on 6 November led the coup that overthrew the Provisional Government.

Aftermath

Lenin would the supreme leader of the first Marxist state in the world. Russia, despite objections from Britain and France, made peace with Germany. The new state would nationalize all industry and seized all land (the peasants had everything seized, including farming tools, and had to get permission from the commissar to do anything on their former farms). Civil war erupted in 1918 against Tsarist forces that ended in 1920 with their defeat. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was proclaimed in 1922. The USSR did promote revolution activity in India and Afghanistan but were thwarted by British agents. Russia suffered a devastating famine from 1921-22 due to the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Russia had to accept help from European and American relief efforts to help alleviate the severe conditions the famine caused. When Lenin died in 1925, Stalin became leader and would remain so until 1953. The Communist regime did not fulfill the Marxian hope of government withering away to allow people the fullest possible freedom. Instead it became an oppressive totalitarian society complete with massive internal police to monitor its citizens. During Stalin’s tenure, the infamous purges and show trials took place. It was no joke to wonder if you might be picked up and never return home at the end of the day.

*Russia was still using the Julian calendar at this time, so it took place on October 25, 1917 in Russia. That is why it is also called the October Revolution.

Sources:
This Day in History (History.com)
Russian Revolution (Brittanica.com)

 

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