Tsushima and Tsar Nicholas

10 January 2003: In January, 1904, Japanese torpedo boats attacked and sank Russian warships at Dairen, Russia's outpost in China (then known as Port Arthur). Not until May of the following year did a second Russian fleet arrive in Asian waters in defense. Very little of the intervening time was spent in motion. The Second Pacific Squadron, a ramshackle and poorly-coordinated collection of old and new battleships, cruisers, torpedo boats, and transports, headed by Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhdestvensky, left Kronshtadt (the naval port of St Petersburg) in at the end of August, 1904 - but it didn't leave the Baltic until the beginning of October. Then, having stirred up an international crisis in the Dogger Bank, it dithered its way around the coast of Africa from the end of October until the middle of December, only to languish at Nosy Be, Madagascar, from December 16 until 3 March, 1905, when at last it set out across the Indian Ocean. This protracted pause, which Rozhdestvensky expected would cost him the coming battle, gave Admiral Togo of Japan plenty of time to put his fleet in tiptop shape. When the enemies met, off Tsushima Island in the Korea Strait, it took but a few hours for the Japanese to sink the Russians. Only three of the thirty-eight Russian ships ever made their way to Vladivostok, while the Japanese lost only three destroyers.

The tale told in The Tsar's Last Armada: The Epic Voyage to Tsushima, by Constantine Pleshakov (Basic Books, 2002), is anything but epic. Exotic, perhaps, at least from the standpoint of the sailors, to whom the climate, flora and fauna of Africa were new. (There is perhaps a little too much information about the various pets that officers adopted along the way.) But most of Pleshakov's material is pathetic rather than tragic, a Gogolian story of incompetence from the top down. I have never encountered a less attractive portrait of Nicholas II, who more than anyone else was responsible for the length of Rozhdestvensky's stay in Madagascar. The Admiral himself appears to have been a capable man, saddled with an impossible job. Nepotism and garden-variety corruption infected not only the naval command but the decisions about which ships to dispatch. Thanks to the Tsar's father, Alexander III, Russia had enjoyed peace for a generation, and most of the sailors in the Second Pacific Squadron had never heard the sound of battle. Because shells were scarce, Rozhdestvensky could not give his fleet sufficient exercise, and when maneuvers were attempted the results were a fiasco. Although the Russian gunners fought with a dogged persistence that amazed the Japanese, their aim was rarely true. It is easy to dismiss the entire episode as a step toward the revolution that would topple the Romanovs in the following decade. There was a mini-revolution in 1905 as it was.

Mr Pleshakov, moreover, is not my idea of a historian. He writes rather as an enthusiast - as someone to whom all the facts are equally compelling. This lack of perspective makes his decision to jump into the action without any preliminary chapters an unfortunate one. Chunks of essential background information disrupt the narrative on almost every page. There is also a great deal of repetition, which a firmer sense of organization would certainly have reduced if not eliminated. And yet it all comes right at the end. Mr Pleshakov's handling of the aftermath of the Russian disaster springs to life, probably because his story returns to Russian terra firma. Along with most of the other surviving officers, Rozhdestvensky was put on trial, but he insisted that he alone was responsible. This led, by peculiarly Russian logic, to his acquittal. He died, unexpectedly, a few years later, after celebrating New Year's Eve with his family. I couldn't help liking him, and for that I can only thank the author of this very uneven book. 


Copyright (c) 2004 Pourover Press

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