Around the late 19th to early 20th century, Russia was in a bad state of affairs. By this point in time, Russia had established the pattern of being on the wrong side of history when it came to military engagements. While the Tsars of Russia were hesitant to change, Alexander II was by Russian standards quite liberal and saw reforms were necessary to modernize his empire and avoid another Crimea War styled defeat.
Unfortunately for the Russian Empire, that would not be the case. Because Russia wanted to establish itself as a modern imperial nation, it sought to expand its power and influence in the East. The Empire of Japan saw this as a threat to their interests and, after failed negotiation attempts, decided to go to war.
In a move that bears resemblance to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japan attacked the Russian Pacific fleet stationed at Port Arthur 3 hours before the Russians received a formal declaration of war.
To put things into perspective, no European power had ever lost a war against a non European nation. The fact that the Russians were getting thrashed by Japan, who was perceived to be an underdog going into the war was a huge insult to Russia. Russia was badly losing another war, and this combined with other woes that the Russian people faced lead to discontent which built up to a full revolution in 1905 on the home front.
At this point, the revolution and the military blunders seemed to reinforce one another. The decisive naval Battle of Tsushima (known as the Sea of Japan Naval Battle to the Japanese) set morale within the Russian military at an all time low. On the Russian battleship Potemkin, the spark that set off a mutiny was when the crew was served food consisting of rotten meat infested with maggots.
It wasn’t that the food was bad that led to the mutiny, but rather when the ship’s executive officer, Ippolit Giliarovsky, threatened to shoot crew members for refusing to eat the tainted meat.
The mutineers wrested control of the ship, hoisted up a red standard that had become synonymous with the revolution, and even actively participated in aiding striking workers rebelling in the city of Odessa.
Eventually, the Potemkin, and the revolution as a whole would fail. However, Tsar Nicholas II would only delay his fate by another 12 years.
Freeze, Gregory L. “Revolutionary Russia 1890-1914.” Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. 249. Print.
How Togo Won the Battle. (1905, Jun 02). New York Times (1857-1922)
Believes Mutiny has Ended. (1905, Jul 02). New York Times (1857-1922)
Ivan beshoff, Last Survivor of Mutiny on the Potemkin. (1987, Oct 28). New York Times (1923-Current File)
This was an extremely interesting and informative post! I appreciated the explanation for the reason why Russia was at war with Japan. It was also interesting to learn that no European country had ever been defeated by a non-European country. It is understandable to see why the loss for Russia was so devastating. It was interesting to read about the Potemkin and the mutiny as this shows how the revolution was affecting many different groups of people in Russia, even the military.
I agree with Kelly — this post lays out the main issues of the Russo-Japanese war really nicely. But what really intrigues me is the article you found about the last survivor of the mutiny on the Potemkin. You’ll have to tell us about that!
Really interesting article. I knew about the Russian military’s poor performance in the Russo-Japanese War and the consequential low morale that was rampant throughout the Russian military, but I never knew something like this occurred. After writing about the battle of Yalu River, another Russo-Japanese battle in which it seemed the commanding officers on the Russian side were very incompetent, I am now wondering if poor leadership by Russian officers was a common theme during this war. I am definitely going to have to research this myself.
I feel like few events capture the spirit of Russian revolutionaries like the Potemkin mutiny. I’m glad you decided to cover it. Conscription was (and even continues to be) an important duty to the state in Russia, and the fact that sailors were, for the first time in over 200 years, fed up to this point really shows how much of an issue Russia was having just in having it’s legitimacy recognized.
I love the story of the Potemkin. It really shows the true power and passion of the Russian people. It created a great symbol for the rest of the revolution.
This post was really interesting. There was a lot of information that i didn’t know previously, such as the surprise attack,no European power previously losing a war, and about the mutiny. Telling interesting facts instead of reciting the common knowledge was refreshing.
I love that you pointed out a riot besides the one on Bloody Sunday. It shows that this was so much more than just a concentrated movement. You are definitely right that the Russian losses against Japan show very clearly how the reforms of Alexander II were not working (probably in part due to the counter-reforms of Alexander III). You put this riot in good context.