The Russo-Japanese War was a disaster for Russia in many senses - not just military. The Russo-Japanese War showed up Russia as it was - as a nation living on past glories and blind to the chronic problems that were developing in agriculture and industry.
The concept of diverting your people’s attention away from difficult domestic issues with a successful war is nothing new. In Russia, such a war was to have the opposite effect – the war against Japan was meant to rally the people around the Tsar in a display of patriotic fervour. Ultimately, it was to create a divide between Nicholas and his people.
The war was never popular in Russia. The public had not been prepared for war. It suddenly happened and it did not lead to an outbreak of spontaneous patriotism. Why?
The war was fought in the very far eastern reaches of the country. The bulk of the population lived many hundreds of miles from the war and must have felt removed from it. Those in Moscow and St. Petersburg were 7,500 miles from the war zone. As news was slow to reach from one side of the nation to the other, there was little public enthusiasm for it as it felt too remote.
The new political parties felt that there was no justification for the war. The Social Revolutionaries indulged in terrorism while the Social Democrats agitated in the factories for strikes. The Liberals restricted their actions to petitions and verbal protests.
The acts of violence reached a climax on July 28th 1904, when Plehve was assassinated. Shortly after this, Grand Duke Sergius was also murdered.
The actual war was a disaster for Russia. Even a successful long drawn campaign was likely to be disastrous for Nicholas. However, the campaign was long but it was also a military disaster.
The Russian’s naval ‘might’ was destroyed at Tsushima Bay and Port Arthur, Russia’s only all year naval base in the Far East was captured in January 1905.
When news of these disasters did reach the likes of Moscow and St. Petersburg, it acted as a stimulus for further social unrest. Years of repression combined with a failed military campaign could only be bad for Nicholas. A strong and decisive leader may have coped with this scenario. Nicholas appointed Prince Mirsky to be Minister of the Interior. It was a disastrous appointment. Mirsky’s only claim to fame was that he had been one of the favourites of Alexandra. He believed in his own importance – he must, in his mind, be able to be appointed by the tsar to such an important position. In Mirsky’s first press conference, he asked for the people to be confident in the government and to those present seemed to offer the chance of reform. This led to him being reprimanded by the tsar but the damage had been done. Many now expected reform and would accept nothing less. Ironically, Mirsky’s statement seemed to unite the political parties that were opposed to the government. In Paris, the leadership of the Social Revolutionaries and the Liberals met in the self-titled Union of Liberation. They decided on a common programme of action. Their programme would best be headed, they decided, by the zemstvo. On their behalf, the president of the Moscow zemstvo, Shipov, called for a national conference of all zemstvo. Mirsky agreed to this. He informed Nicholas that he saw no harm in allowing people to talk:
“It may draw the revolutionary sting
out of these windbags.”
In fact, Mirsky’s lack of political experience was exploited here. In the past, a tsar had refused all calls for any form of a national meeting to discuss “issues”. Such a meeting might lead to calls for a national assembly. The fact that Mirsky did allow such a meeting to go ahead, was a sign that autocracy was starting to be challenged – and effectively challenged.
The national conference of zemstvo met from November 19th to the 22nd in 1904. It called for nothing unusual: freedom of speech, freedom of person, freedom of the press, civil rights etc. Nothing of this was new.
Nicholas responded to these demands in two ways. First, he asked the men in the zemstvo to keep out of politics. Secondly, Nicholas announced his own intention to introduce reforms. However, he announced no time limit to these suggested reforms and he made no mention of a national assembly which could discuss national issues.
What he said pleased no-one. Those who believed in autocracy saw what he said as a sign of weakness. Those who believed in reform were not impressed with what they heard.
The national conference dispersed after its allotted three days. However, it had set a marker. Those in professions (lawyers, journalists etc) started to organise themselves. They were excluded from the zemstvo and many of them also failed to get into government as they were not from the right background. Industrial workers also started to organise themselves. Small cells of Social Democrats had started to organise the workers in places such as the Putilov steelworks in St. Petersburg. Combined with a 35% increase in bread prices in 1904-1905, the ingredients were there for turmoil.
The workers were still disastrously organised. Curiously, they could be in a trade union called the Zubatov Unions, after Zubatov, the prefect of Moscow’s police. He believed that if the workers wanted to be in a trade union, they should be in one – a state trade union! Any union founded by the state was bound to be infiltrated by Zubatov’s spies, so it was an obvious tool for keeping a close eye on revolutionary movements within industry. Despite the fact that the Zabatov unions were an obvious tool of the government, the workers seemed blind to this. Zabatov had a simple formula. Plehve would condemn trade unions, and he would create them. When they were banned, he would resurrect them under a different name. The public side of the government was one of condemnation; the covert side of it was the creation of that said unions in an attempt to find out who was doing what in the revolutionary movements. Zabatov occasionally had to arrest union leaders in a show of government strength, but the Zabatov unions continued, despite their change of names. The main link Zabatov had with the unions was Father Gapon. His role in 1905 is still far from clear and it is likely that it will never be clarified. Was he a man of the workers? Or was he a government agitator who gave information to Zubatov?
Gapon did lead the 1905 Revolution. He was a well-respected man at the Putilov steelworks and it seemed fitting that he should lead a protest in front of those he represented. The protestors called for a fair wage and more bread. As they marched to the Winter’s Palace they sang patriotic songs. Soldiers at the Winter’s Palace, confronted with such a large crowd, understandably panicked and fired on the protestors. Over 200 were killed and many more were wounded. After this event, Nicholas II was no longer called the ‘father of his people’