The Fourth Portsmouth Peace Treaty Forum

Professor Constantine Pleshakov
The Roots of Present Conflict: Russo- Japanese War, 1904, 1905n

Exactly 95 years ago in the first days of March 1905, a Russian squadron led by Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhestvensky heading for the Far East. In the next two months of their voyage, they crossed the Indian Ocean, then passed by the British stronghold of Singapore, spent a month in Indochina and finally reached their gateway to the Sea of Japan, the Tsushima Strait where the squadron was annihilated by Admiral Togo.

Just recently I was going through the letters and cables sent by Russian officers and admirals from Japanese captivity in Kyoto. It was very instructive to see which names of cities would emerge in this correspondence.

They were mentioning St. Petersburg, Vladivostock, Manila.

But, as time went by, Russian admirals and officers started mentioning Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Their destiny depended on what was going on here in your town. They could not leave Japan until the peace treaty would be signed. Also, they were good soldiers and wanted the peace treaty to be more or less favorable for their homeland.

Both anniversaries, the defeat in the war and signing of the Portsmouth Treaty, are well remembered in Russia. Russia is a country with long history, sometimes I think with a history a bit too long: too many complications, too many perils, too many lessons. With very few exceptions Russians and Russian leaders are fascinated with history. Even people who were not ethnically Russian like Stalin, still perceived themselves Russian culturally. Probably the only Russian leader who knew nothing about history was Yeltsin. All he shared with his nation was not history but diet.

Now we are going to have a new president in a matter of three weeks. There is very little doubt that Mr. Vladimir Putin will win this election. Basically he has no competitors. So the next president for Russia -- what kind of relations with Japan will this person seek?

By and large the history of Russian diplomacy has been going in waves. First a spectacular wave of triumphs, great conquests of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and others.

Then the wave of surrenders came which started with the disastrous Crimean War, war between Russia and Japan, World War I.

Then we get the second wave of triumphs under Stalin. Then again the second wave of surrenders under Gorbachev.

Then the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So we get these waves: conquest, surrender, conquest, surrender. Russia has hit the bottom again, and now it is getting a new president.

Of course Mr. Putin is extremely unhappy about what has happened throughout the last 10 - 15 years: unification of Germany on Western terms, collapse of the Soviet empire, and so on and so forth. And of course wanting to prove to everybody and first of all to himself that he is a tough macho guy, he will attempt to put an end to this period of surrenders and start achieving victories.

As we know, the first "victory" he was able to achieve was in Chechnya. But Chechnya is very special. Technically it is still part of the Russian Federation, and in some sense it could be regarded as a domestic crisis no matter what people may think about the way the Russian Army behaves in the area.

I am absolutely sure Mr. Putin will start an assertive policy outside Russian borders as well.

As for Japan, we have no direct evidence about what he plans to do. He is very cautious in what he says, and we can only guess. But for a number of reasons, I believe that the past is very much on his mind. First of all, he is a person who was born in St. Petersburg, and it's this city which is connected with the history of Russian expansion in the Far East, not Moscow. And it was from a naval base in the vicinity of St. Petersburg, Kronshtadt, from which the squadron of Admiral Rozhestvensky started its journey to the Far East. The city, St. Petersburg, is still full of historical landmarks connected with that war. There is a monument, for instance, to the crew of the Battleship Emperor Alexander the Third which sank in the Tsushima battle with no survivors. (Eight hundred people -- all dead.)

Another thing. Sometimes people do not realize that the Russo-Japanese War was important in one more aspect. It gave birth to Russian Secret Service. The first time Russians had developed a foreign network of agents in Europe, Mediterranean, Middle East and China was during the Russo-Japanese war. So it's also a landmark for the Russian intelligence community to which Mr. Putin used to belong.

It's understandable that no matter who becomes next president of Russia, he will face a number of crises. What could Mr. Putin's solution to all this be? Of course it's too early to say. He has been just an acting president and an acting president in office for slightly more than two months. But still he did at least something which should allow us to give some forecast for the future. Twelve hours after he became acting president of Russia, he left Moscow for Chechnya. That was on the New Year Eve. He spent the New Year Day with Russian troops in Chechnya.

Almost immediately after the New Year, he began drafting reservists into the Army. He reintroduced military training in high schools. It looks like Mr. Putin's response to Russia's challenges would be militarization of the society.

I am not saying that he could take it back to the Soviet days. He is too clever for that. And after all, why should militarism in Russia necessarily wear a Soviet uniform. It could have Russian epaulets, purely Russian.

In a matter of conclusion, a few words about Mr. Putin's alleged pragmatism. I am really fascinated by the rather optimistic reports in western press. Suddenly, practically all western correspondents in Moscow seem to have become for some reason extremely hopeful. Mr. Putin is suddenly proclaimed to be a reformer and a pragmatic.

I don't know what the evidence is for that. It could be true. We all agree that we do not know enough about the man to come out with firm judgments. But all the evidence we have now refers us to militarism. Very often American reporters from the New York Times and elsewhere quote the fact that Mr. Putin, unlike his predecessors, has been exposed to the outside world, that he is more or less familiar with modern culture, that he speaks some English and beautiful German, that he even can imitate various German dialects. Again, western correspondents seem to be extremely optimistic because he likes German authors like Shiller and Guethe. But for me it's not a sufficient reason for optimism.

Speaking of Germany, I don't want to carry the analogy too far, but, imagine an American correspondent in Berlin in 1933 saying, Well, at least the guy can paint."

I like symbolism, which was used several times today, especially Professor Kimura's metaphor about the cherry blossom. He said that when Gorbachev came to Japan, he didn't see the cherry blossoms because he came too late. I thought, oh, my goodness, but at least Gorbachev saw the cherry trees. And with Mr. Putin, forget about the cherry blossoms; we will be lucky if he would ever allow himself to set a foot on Japanese soil.

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