118 years ago, Russia wanted to distract its people from internal problems, inciting a “small victorious war” with Japan. It ended in defeat and revolution, and the phrase became a meme ― a story in archival photos

Serhii Pyvovarov
Евгений Спирин
118 years ago, Russia wanted to distract its people from internal problems, inciting a “small victorious war” with Japan. It ended in defeat and revolution, and the phrase became a meme ― a story in archival photos

The Japanese escort captured Russian soldiers, May 1905.

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At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was on the verge of an economic and political crisis. The standards of living were going down, civil rights and freedoms didnʼt exist, levels of corruption and impunity of officials and the royal family members were growing, the conservative monarch was not going to share power with anyone, and rejected proposals to create a parliament. To distract the people from these problems, one of the ministers proposed to arrange a “small victorious war.” The cause was already there: contradictions with Japan in the Far East were growing at the time. Nobody considered the Japanese a serious opponent. But Russia lost the war and concluded a peace treaty. A revolution began in the country and attempts to suppress it by shooting peaceful demonstrations finally undermined the prestige of the autocracy. "Babel" recalls the events of the Russo-Japanese War and the first Russian revolution in archival photos.

“To keep the revolution going, we need a small victorious war,” said Vyacheslav Plehve, Russian Minister of the Interior and chief of the Gendarme Corps, in one of the conversations at the beginning of 1904. This phrase is mentioned by his contemporaries in their memoirs. Though, some historians doubt whether Plehve really said such words.

In any case, the expression “a small victorious war” has become a historical aphorism or, to put it simply, a meme. It is used in cases where the country engages in a war in order to divert the nationʼs attention from local problems, cause patriotic hysteria, and thus raise the governmentʼs popularity. And often it is Russia that unleashes such wars.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were more than enough problems in the Russian empire. The country was trying to catch up with industrial progress. Grain remained the main export commodity, but its prices began to fall rapidly in Europe. A crisis began in the agriculture industry, deepened by bad harvests. As a result, the peasants, who made up more than 70% of the population, lived half-starving.

Russian emperor Nicholas II and Kharkiv peasants, early 1900s.

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The peasants tried to escape to the cities with factories and plants. But the situation there wasnʼt any better: 12-14 hour working day, low wages, no trade unions to defend the workersʼ rights.

Politically, Russia remained a conservative monarchy, while the progressive countries of Europe and the United States had long ago moved to a system of parliamentarism. Growing corruption, bureaucracy, negligence and impunity of officials, total censorship, lack of civil liberties ― all this undermined both the countryʼs international authority and the peopleʼs confidence in the viability of current state of affairs. At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia plunged deeper and deeper into an economic and political crisis.

Collective portrait of the Russian Imperial Romanov family. The future Emperor Nicholas stands in a row of men, 4th from the left. The photo was made in 1892.

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The prestige of the Russian autocracy was often raised by wars. And this time, too, an opportunity presented itself ― in the Far East, Russiaʼs contradictions with Japan were just growing. The last Chinese empire, Qing, gradually fell into decay. Japan, France, Britain, Germany and the United States, as well as Russia, claimed its territory and natural resources.

China's division by the European states and Japan. French cartoon from 1890s.


Having lost the war to Japan in the 1890s, China asked for help from Russia, Germany and France. They forced the Japanese to leave the captured Liaodong Peninsula. But instead of them, it was actually occupied by the Russians. And in two strategically important ports that did not freeze in winter ― Port Arthur and Dalniy ― they brought their warships.

Unwilling to put up with this, Tokyo launched a new wave of militarization. At first, the Japanese offered the Russians to divide China into zones of influence: Korea should entirely go to Japan, Manchuria ― to Russia.

View of the harbor of Port Arthur, 1900.

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But Emperor Nicholas II not only considered the occupied Chinese territories his own, but also thought about seizing new lands. In 1902, Russia signed an agreement with China on the withdrawal of its troops from the territory of Manchuria, but almost immediately ceased to fulfill it. In 1903, Russia began to act on the tactics of a hybrid war. The country got a lucrative deforestation contract in Korea. But under the guise of lumberjacks, soldiers and officers were sent there. They began to build fortified facilities ― in fact a military base. The Russian government answered all questions in the style of “there are no our troops”. The Japanese realized that an agreement would not work, and began to prepare for war.

Japanese soldiers with national flags in a train car on their way to Manchuria, early 1900s.

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Russia did not consider Japan a serious adversary. Therefore, Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav Plehve proposed to arrange a “small victorious war” to distract the nation from internal problems. In the propaganda press, they began to write about how “we will defeat these macaques by just throwing hats at them, and sign their surrender in Nagasaki”.

Such a scenario suited Nicholas II quite well. Especially since he already disliked Japan because of an old incident. In 1891, when the 23-year-old future tzar arrived in Japan as part of his round-the-world tour, he was hit on the head with a sword by a fanatic policeman who opposed any contact with foreigners. The wounds turned out to be not serious, the Japanese side apologized, and the incident was quickly hushed up. But the bad memories remained.

Soon-to-be tsar Nicholas in Japan, 1891.


Japan was significantly inferior to Russia in military and economic terms. The Russians were sure that the Japanese would not attack first, so they gradually transferred forces to the East and prepared to start a war on their own terms.

But Japan did not wait for Russia to bring up additional forces and decided to attack. On January 24, 1904, they announced the severance of diplomatic relations with the Russians. And on the morning of January 27, the Japanese attacked the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, knocking out several large ships.

Russian ships damaged by the Japanese in the harbor of Port Arthur, 1905.

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On the same day, 14 Japanese ships attacked the Varyag cruiser and the Koreets gunboat, which were stationed in the Korean port of Chemulpo. In Russian propaganda, this was presented as a heroic battle with superior enemy forces. Japanese propaganda, for its part, spoke of a grandiose victory won in a difficult battle.

In fact, there wasnʼt much of a fight. After a 50-minute firefight that did not cause damage to the Japanese, the captain of the Varyag ordered the cruiser to be flooded and the Koreets to be blown up. The place for flooding was chosen unsuccessfully, on the shallows. Therefore, as early as next year, the Japanese raised the Varyag, named it Soya, and included it in their fleet.

Japanese cruiser Soya (formerly Varyag) en route to Australia, 1910s.


Having achieved superiority at sea, the Japanese landed troops, captured Korea and approached the borders of Manchuria, where Russian troops were stationed. They also began the siege of Port Arthur. By December 1904, the Russians surrendered Port Arthur, as well as the Dalniy port. Its shipyards, docks and railway station went to the Japanese practically undamaged.

Japanese soldiers waiting for the attack of the Russian army in Manchuria, 1904.

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Japanese generals celebrating victory over the Russians in captured Port Arthur (colorized photo), 1905.

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Despite the defeats in the first months of the war, the Russian authorities managed to achieve the goal of distracting the public from internal problems. Mass patriotic manifestations began in the cities. Supporters of constitutional reform even initially decided to put their demands on hold.

But the patriotic upsurge didnʼt last long. By the summer of 1904, revolutionary sentiment in Russia intensified. In July, one of the initiators of the war with Japan, Vyacheslav Plehve, was killed. Student Yegor Sazonov, a member of Socialist Revolutionary party, threw a bomb into his carriage.

Gendarmes at the site of the murder of Vyacheslav Plehve in St. Petersburg, July 15 (28 according to Gregorian calendar), 1904.


At the end of 1904, the first workersʼ union appeared in Russia ― the Assembly of St. Petersburg Factory Workers. Demonstrations started: they demanded civil liberties and the establishment of parliament. At the beginning of 1905, the workers of the Putilov factory went on strike. Negotiations with the administration brought no result, so the idea arose to draw up a petition and go with it to the tzar.

Nicholas II did the same as he did in similar cases before and after that ― he just left St. Petersburg. The demonstrators in front of the emperorʼs residence ― Winter Palace ― were met by troops who opened fire. As a result, according to various sources, 130 to 200 people were killed, 300 to 800 were injured. This shooting of a peaceful demonstration went down in history under the name Bloody Sunday. These events shocked all sectors of society and dealt a serious blow to the prestige of the autocracy. And the first Russian revolution of 1905-1907 began.

Demonstration on Nevsky Avenue in St. Petersburg on the Bloody Sunday, January 9 (22 according to Gregorian calendar), 1905.

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Funeral of the Bloody Sunday victims, January 1905.

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On the world arena, Russia was left without allies. France and Germany declared neutrality, while the US and Britain openly supported Japan. At the front, the situation was also not very successful. Despite the superiority in the number of troops and equipment, the Russian army was unable to inflict a single major defeat on the Japanese.

The commanders acted inconsistently, did not know where their units were and where the enemy was. Soldiers were forced to make senseless multi-kilometer marches despite severe frosts and winds in order to “exhaust the Japanese”. And they did not navigate the terrain even on maps. For example, instead of attacking the strategically important village of Sandepa, Russians attacked the neighboring one, Baotaizi. It brought them heavy losses, so then they could not defeat the Japanese in Sandepu.

Captured Russian soldiers tied to a pillar, 1904-1905.

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Corruption in the ranks of Russian officials who were engaged in providing the army was beneficial for the Japanese. For example, building materials intended to strengthen the fortress in Port Arthur, were stolen. There were legends about bribery in the fleet under the leadership of the emperorʼs uncle, Prince Alexei Alexandrovich. According to one of them, the newest destroyer ship almost sank halfway between Kronstadt and St. Petersburg. The reason ― instead of stolen metal rivets, the holes were plugged with tallow candles.

What decided the war was the naval battle of Tsushima in May 1905, in which the Japanese fleet almost completely destroyed the Russian squadron. After that, both sides went to peace talks. The Japanese economy was severely depleted by the war, and the army was no longer able to finish off Russia. And the Russians needed time to prepare for revenge. But the country was engulfed by a revolution and the situation became tenser and tenser: the Social Revolutionaries continued to carry out terrorist attacks, labor unrest broke out in one city or another, a national movement unfolded, individual riots began to break out even in the army, especially in the navy.

Japanese Admiral Admiral Rokuro Yashiro boards the Asami cruiser, 1900s. Yashiro became famous in battles with the Russian fleet, specifically at Chemulpo and Tsushima.

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The United States mediated the negotiations, and in Portsmouth in August 1905 a peace treaty was signed. Nicholas II sent for negotiations the head of the Russian Cabinet of Ministers, Sergei Witte. An experienced diplomat, he was originally opposed to the war with Japan. He managed to achieve relatively mild conditions of peace: Russia handed over Port Arthur and the southern part of Sakhalin to Japan; recognized Korea as a sphere of Japanese influence, and Japanese fishermen received the right to fish along the Russian coast in the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea.

Caricature of the Treaty of Portsmouth, signed the Russo-Japanese War. On the left is the Japanese Emperor Meiji, on the right is Nicholas II, and the American President Theodore Roosevelt is in the center, 1900s.

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As a result, the war turned out to be neither “small” nor “victorious” at all. Instead of being distracted from internal problems, Russia received a revolution and Nicholas II had to make concessions ― allow some civil liberties, agree to the creation of a parliament, the State Duma, and finally launch agrarian reform. But all this only delayed the fall of the tsarist regime for ten years.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko

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Barricades in Odesa during the revolution of 1905-1907.

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