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The Tsar's Last Armada: The Epic Voyage to the Battle of Tsushimaby Constanti Pleshakov
"The First Ball of the Tsar," 1890-1904
A telegraph's incessant clicking intruded into the frozen stillness of the northern gloom. The thin, tattered tape started uncoiling ominously on the operator's table. The man must have read it in panic and disbelief. In all likelihood, he was the first person in the vast empire of the tsar to learn the dreadful, top secret news. Dispatched by the Viceroy of the Far East, Admiral Alexeev, from Manchuria several hours earlier, the telegram brought word of a great disaster:
Petersburg. TO HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY Humbly reporting to YOUR IMPERIAL MAJESTY. Around midnight January 26-27th, Japanese torpedo boats undertook a sudden attack on our squadron stationed at the outer roadstead of the Port Arthur base. The battleships Retvizan and Tsesarevich and the cruiser Pallada have been ruptured; the degree of damage is being determined. Will report details to YOUR IMPERIAL MAJESTY later. General-Adjutant Alexeev
That night, January 26, 1904, the sovereign was not at home. The long-anticipated New Year season of balls and entertainments had recently begun, and Tsar Nicholas II was presiding over an elite audience, listening to an opera at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater.
The Mariinsky looked like an oversized gilded cake. Designed to impress, it symbolized the empire's wealth, might, and grandeur. Like a nesting doll or a Fabergé egg, the big cake contained a smaller one?the royal box. Elaboratelyornate and conspicuously large, it served as an august podium for the Romanov dynasty. Like precious jewels, the tsar and his family sat there for everybody to see?to adore, or to hate. The sovereign was not popular in the capital, and the looks he received at Mariinsky were mostly cold, hostile, or condescending. But that night the tsar was enjoying himself thoroughly.
The shining lake of diamond-encrusted evening dresses and gold-embroidered military uniforms bobbing beneath the royal box was unsettled this night. Admirals, generals, ministers, industrialists, bankers, foreign ambassadors, spies, and their wives and children kept turning to the royal box, scrutinizing the impervious handsome face of the tsar. Everybody was agitated and anxious. Three days earlier the Japanese mission had left the Russian capital, having made a point of burning their archives. The tsar was known to have said, "War?so be it, peace?so be it, but the current uncertainty is really bothersome."
The Mariinsky company was having a hard time. Completely ignoring the performance, hundreds of eyes scanned the gilded box where the autocrat of the one-sixth of the earth, Tsar and Emperor Nicholas II, sat. That night the tsar was like the sun, commanding the attention of sunflowers on an immense field. He was finally savoring the taste of power, opiate and sweet.
After the opera, not in a hurry to get home, he accompanied his mother to her palace, the Anichkov, and had late tea there. The Dowager Empress was anxious and once again warned her son about the perils of his reckless Far East venture. Polite and noncommittal, the tsar listened to everything she had to say and then left quickly. Throughout the whole day he had been in an excellent mood.
It took him just a few minutes to reach his main residence, the opulent Winter Palace on the Neva River. The magnificent Nevsky Prospect, straight as an arrow and barren on a cold winter night, provided a convenient shortcut between the two royal homes. In the Winter Palace the tsar was handed the viceroy's telegram.
He was relieved. The uncertainty of the past few weeks had come to an end. Also, he could now feel good and self-righteous; the Japanese had attacked without warning, proving that his utter contempt toward the "macaques" was well deserved. "God will help us!" the tsar said hopefully.
Before going to bed, he sent copies of the telegram to the foreign and war ministers. The courier had orders to wake up the dignitaries if necessary. The minister of foreign affairs, Count Lamsdorf, was indeed fast asleep, but the minister of war, General Kuropatkin, was nervously shuttling between various parlors; two hours earlier, at 10:30 P.M., he had received unconfirmed news about the attack from a private source in Port Arthur and was now desperate to verify it.
The next morning brought more news from Manchuria. The Japanese had bombarded Port Arthur. The Russian and Japanese fleets had engaged in their first battle, and four Russian ships were damaged.
It was the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War. The tsar issued a war manifesto, blaming Japan for having "challenged" Russia. "Pursuing peace, so dear to Our heart," the tsar solemnly declared, in the best tradition of autocrats speaking in august plural, "we have done everything to maintain tranquillity in the Far East." Necessary to satisfy the public taste for justice, this statement made insiders smile sarcastically. The sovereign's policy in Manchuria had been anything but pacifist.
At 3:30 P.M. all the Romanovs present in St. Petersburg assembled in the Golden Hall of the Winter Palace. Led by the head of the family, the tsar, they gravely made their way through the dense, cheering crowd to the palace chapel where a special mass, a prayer for victory, was sung. Younger people had never heard this beautiful but belligerent tune before. Nicholas's father, Tsar Alexander III, had secured an unprecedented twenty-five-year peace for Russia. The chapel was packed like the rest of the palace, mostly with army and navy officers. Thrilled and moved, they cried a deafening "Hurrah!" to the dynasty and its imperial cause. The Romanovs, appropriately enthusiastic and pleased, returned to the Golden Hall, where Grand Duke Alexei, one of the patriarchs of the clan, commander of the Imperial Navy, and now even more full of self-importance than ever, pompously read to awed relatives the recent cable reporting more casualties in Port Arthur.
In the next few days, St. Petersburg saw multiple patriotic demonstrations. For a while, people rallied around their monarch?something not seen during the nine years of Nicholas's reign. Even students, notorious pro-revolutionary troublemakers, marched to the Winter Palace to sing "God Save the Tsar." Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, watched them from the window and, deeply touched, bowed. In the last days of January 1904, it looked like the sore gap between the rulers and the ruled was being filled with patriotic sentiment. Things finally began looking brighter for the Romanov monarchy.
Nicholas felt that the wave of patriotism was his personal success. At last, people were with him. And the ill-wishers, all those haughty know-it-all advisers skeptical of his Far Eastern policy who had been humiliating him for years with their seemingly overwhelming expertise, had been proven wrong. The tsar had always felt his glory would be earned in the Pacific. Now the moment had come.
Passing in a carriage by the house of Sergei Witte, the former minister of finance, fired for his antiwar warnings several months earlier, the tsar looked up at his window. To his delight, Witte was there, sulkily watching the triumphant sovereign, the true heir of Peter the Great. The tsar put on his best new nonchalant victorious look, as the face of his enemy disappeared from sight.
Nicholas had first heard about the wonders of Asia twenty-three years earlier, in 1881. He had been thirteen and doing studies with tutors at home, as heirs to the throne were disqualified from attending any?even military?school.
The year 1881 had been a terrible one for the family. On March 1, Tsar Alexander II was killed by a terrorist's bomb. The adolescent Nicholas was present at the terrifying death of his grandfather and had seen the convulsing body lying in a puddle of blood. The ensuing long state funeral was accompanied by the stench of quickly decomposing torn flesh. Though the boy was not particularly sensitive or fragile, he was nonetheless shaken by the violent, cruel, and undeserved death of Tsar the Reformer. Further aggravating his depression, his father, the new Tsar Alexander III, moved the family, for security reasons, away from the capital to the remote, gray, and gloomy Gatchina Palace in the suburbs. The new tsarina, Maria Fedorovna, watched her children with anxiety. She vowed to use every possible chance to brighten up their lives. Always abreast of the latest trends, be it fashion, jewels, or geography, she invited Nikolai Przhevalsky to Gatchina in May 1881.
In 1881 Przhevalsky was the rage of the day. Explorer of Central Asia, Tibet, and Western China?and employed by the Russian government as a spy?Przhevalsky would disappear for months at a time into the mountains and deserts to collect specimens of previously unknown flowers and animals?and pieces of invaluable strategic intelligence. He became one of the senior players in the Great Game?the fierce struggle between Britain and Russia over Central Asia, full of covert operations, secret expeditions, treacheries, bribery, and murder.
A man like Przhevalsky was exactly the kind of person who could impress an adolescent screened by privilege and a loving family from the real world. Adventurous, chivalrous, and reckless, Przhevalsky was the perfect model of the great explorers and manipulators of the imperial age?men like Cecil Rhodes and Lawrence of Arabia. The area that Przhevalsky had chosen for his exploits was even more appealing to the general public than South Africa or the Middle East; Tibet and Mongolia were wilder than Arabia and richer culturally than Rhodesia. His journeys were spectacular, and so was his presentation of himself and his numerous accomplishments. In 1881 he was at the peak of manhood and behaved like a self-assured conquistador, a modern nomad, the demon of the steppes.
Of course, Przhevalsky was unique. Boastful (he had named at least twelve new specimens of plants and animals after himself), daring, and industrious, he had acquired a unique knowledge of continental Asia, home to ancient kingdoms and improbable beasts. He also was quite familiar with teenagers; preparations for months in the wilderness normally started with a discreet search for a young male, preferably a sixteen-year-old, to lure into adventure and to teach to skin animals and dry plants?and to share his tent at night.
Przhevalsky's charms worked on the young and shy heir to the throne. Nicholas immediately fell for this powerful character and, more importantly, for the lands described in his thrilling tales. However, his fascination with Asia would probably have remained unfulfilled if it hadn't coincided with a nationwide drive toward the Pacific.
Russia was born in the western corner of the great Eurasian forest. As late as the seventeenth century, a squirrel could easily have traveled from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean without ever having touched the ground. Though perfect for beasts, the forest rejected humans. Transportation there was virtually impossible. The forest was too dense and full of treacherous swamps. Here and there inaccessible mountains fortified it. The famed Silk Road?the only land artery connecting East and West?never dared go north; a desert is a much better avenue than a forest.
In the absence of roads, Russians used rivers. Exceptionally bad navigators, they sailed primitive boats, often carved from a single trunk of a gigantic tree, normally oak. In winter they fared much better. Thick ice turned rivers into smooth highways for sleds pulled by horses. However, with very few exceptions all rivers flowed north to the lifeless Arctic Ocean, and the further they went and the wider they became, the less inhabitable their shores were.
To aggravate matters, 90 percent of the forest grew on permafrost?an uninterrupted shield of ancient ice coated by a thin layer of weak soil. Permafrost kept bodies of dead mammoths intact for millennia exactly because it was hostile to life. No agriculture was possible there. Hence, there was one more challenge to a traveler: ongoing hunger.
Other unavoidable hazards like snowstorms, floods, and predators also prevented the penetration of the immense wilderness. As a result, between 900 and 1600, the Riurikovichi, the first Russian dynasty, had only barely glimpsed Siberia. For all people knew, dragons might have inhabited the lands to the east of the Ural Mountains.
The Romanovs broke the spell of the forest. However, it was not that the new tsars were particularly ingenious or insightful they were just lucky. The ascendance of the first Romanov to the throne in 1613 coincided with a new technological age. Firearms solved the problem of bears, tigers, and wolves. They also provided great tools for hunting, and starvation became just a faint ghost. The science of cartography, developed in Portugal and Spain two centuries earlier, finally reached Moscow. Meanwhile, merchants from London and Hamburg were bringing fine gems, luxurious silks, and precious porcelain from India and China. Suddenly Russians realized that only a vast expanse of no-man's-land separated them from the treasure trove of Asia. Not a single state had to be conquered in the east?only barren space, sparsely populated by generally peaceful tribes. The great Eurasian forest was no longer just a place where people killed squirrel and mink for their furs; it became the barrier that had to be crossed to reach the riches of the East.
The tsars started sending people over the Urals. Eventually they reached the uninhabited Pacific coast, the immense foggy wasteland stretching between China and the Arctic.
The Chinese were unwilling to populate these areas, full of natural riches, but cold, barbaric, and distant. The Russians decided otherwise. Accustomed to severe climate and being children of the forests themselves, they began settling down in Siberia and the Far East at the southern border of the permafrost. Their settlements were few and small, sometimes populated by religious dissenters, the sullen Old Believers, and kept secret from authorities. However, in the absence of competition, the empire was slowly but surely absorbing Siberia and the northwestern coast of the Pacific, building military settlements, churches, and roads. The tsars also ordered the construction of prisons. Few could escape from Siberia, and the land received a new, sinister fame.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Russia had become deeply enough involved in the Pacific to provoke the British-French fleet to attack a fort in the Kamchatka Peninsula during the Crimean War. The attack symbolized a greater trend. Western powers had made up their minds to check Russian expansion in the area.
The tsars were becoming greedy. They dreamed of taking over the Ottoman Empire and reaching the Mediterranean Sea. Ten centuries earlier, Russia had received its religion, culture, and even its alphabet from Byzantium, and it regarded all former Byzantine lands as its true heritage, stolen by the vile Turks. However, the Crimean War of 1853-1856 had resulted in Russia's complete defeat, and now expansion to the Mediterranean Sea looked problematic. The idea was not completely abandoned (Russia fought a victorious war against Turkey in 1877-1878), but it was looking too risky?and too costly?to undertake.
The Great Game in Central Asia had also come to an impasse. The two spheres of influence, British and Russian, were sealed for the indefinite future in an acceptable stalemate. British and Russian officers were willing to watch each other through binoculars, but not through a rifle's target-finder. Given these circumstances, there was only one outlet left for Russia's expansion?the Pacific. If Russia was not allowed to conquer Constantinople on the Bosporus, it was going to create a new Bosporus in the Far East.
One of the best harbors in the northwestern corner of the Sea of Japan was renamed the Golden Horn by Russian settlers. The original Golden Horn, the gorgeous harbor of glamorous Constantinople, was securely fenced from them by the concerted efforts of Turkey, England, and France.
In 1860, a military outpost was founded there. It was named Vladivostok, which means "Rule the East." Soon it became the main Russian naval base in the Pacific. On May 19, 1891, the heir to the throne, Nicholas, visited the town and inaugurated the construction of the Great Trans-Siberian Railroad, which would connect Vladivostok to the imperial capital.
It was a Romanov tradition to send an heir to the throne abroad on his coming of age so that he could see the world and the world could see him. All of Nicholas's ancestors had gone to Europe. However, his father, Tsar Alexander III, decided that Asia had become important enough to be the stage of the future tsar's debut.
Copyright © 2002 by Constantine Pleshakov
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