It is impossible to read this book without a sense of looming doom faced by all the Russians you’re reading about. The first bit of text visible on the cover of this book reads, HOW RUSSIA LOST THE PACIFIC TO THE JAPANESE, and from that line onward, you know that the people Pleshakov is writing about are going to fail. How sad it is to watch them set out on their journey in inadequate ships, following ridiculous commands, navigating a hostile political climate as threatening as the ocean itself — and sometimes moreso — and all the while, steaming Eastward to a battle that the leader, Zinovy Rozhestvensky, understood would very likely be a losing one.
My interest in this story was first piqued by Charles Stross, an author who mentioned it as a model for his novel Singularity Sky, which is on my to-read-soon list, in this interview:
That was exactly the naval campaign I wanted to base [Singularity Sky] on—the Voyage of the Damned is one of the weird, great anomalies of 20th-century history. A battle fleet is sent on a desperate mission that takes it three times further than any fleet has sailed before, burning insane amounts of fuel (a third of a million tons of coal exchanged at sea to keep the boilers running), fighting bizarre problems (sailors being shipped home in straitjackets, destroyers overrun by the sailors’ exotic pets), mistakenly shooting up a powerful neutral party’s fishing fleet … and then, after an epic voyage, when they reach their destination, they’re blown out of the water in the space of three hours flat by a technologically and tactically superior force.
After reading the reference, and remembering having seen this book on the subject in the English books collection of my University’s library, I decided to give it a read before venturing into the universe of Singularity Sky.
There are several object lessons which can be taken away from the narrative presented by Pleshakov: one is that older military (or other) institutions are bound to run into trouble if they do not adapt to a new environment. The Russians in part failed because they did not have up-to-date technology, but also because their navy was staffed by count and duke officers, instead of by seasoned naval men of experience; because the Russians had an inferior espionage network, in a world where information was becoming crucial for victory; the fleet had to answer to and follow the demands of the Russian Admiralty, even when the commands doomed the mission (and had to send and receive nearly all communications, regardless of how secret, through hopelessly vulnerable telegraph lines); and worst of all, the whole adventure was dreamed up by a monarch who didn’t know anything of navies or warfare, who simply had a mad obsession with colonial expansion into Asia and the subjugation of Japan as punishment for a personal mishap years before during a visit he made in his youth.
Another important lesson is that, if it comes down to a fight, better technology isn’t perfectly bound to win, but with advanced enough technology, the betting is certainly simplified. Not only did a major delay allow the Japanese fleet to repair and prepare all of her ships for the battle they knew was to come. Not only did the Japanese have excellent training with their up-to-date weapons and ships. Not only did they have fundamentally superior ammunition, perhaps the best ammunition in the world. Not only did they have this advantage, but they had the advantage that the Russians were using unprofessionally-manned ships crewed by unpracticed crews, which had just traveled half the world without proper repairs or upkeep, without access to the necessary supplies due to diplomatic complications and the technology of the telegraph. They had, in other words, an enemy that was woefully prepared for any battle, let alone a battle against an enemy with a remarkably superior level of technological and human resources.
One more lesson is that, though something may feel as if it is a great endeavour, it may well be a grand foolishness. The men on the ships, as fatalistic as they may have become eventually, must at least have rationalized to themselves that they weren’t perfectly doomed. They must, on some level, have convinced themselves that the battle would be winnable or at least survivable. They must have found some reason to keep going on the months-long journey which, sadly, culminated in a battle of a few short hours and their annihilation. Which is to say, just because everyone around you feels there is hope in some endeavour or action, doesn’t mean there is. It’s worth remembering that large groups of people can, indeed, fool themselves or be fooled into paying lip service to a belief which, suddenly, when it collides with reality, crumbles without even a moment’s notice. Reality, it seems, can be absolutely merciless.
Yet another lesson is that no matter what, someone is bound to get punished for a failure. After loyally following even the most idiotic commands of the Admiralty and of Tsar Nicholas, Rozhestvensky was called to defend his actions. Even thought the Tsar had cabled him after the battle refusing his resignation and all but acquitting him of culpability for his failure; even though (or perhaps because of the fact that) many along the Trans-Siberian Railway gathered around his rail car heralding him as a hero of the nationl; even though he returned to St. Petersburg holding within himself the hope of reforming his nation’s navy completely; despite all of this, the time came when he was selected as a scapegoat. He had to go to court. Finally, he was acquitted, unlike another captain under his command, but he lived only a few short years after the end of the ordeal. An honest man who performs loyally and carefully can still be punished by those desperate for a scapegoat; he can still be punished even if he is acquitted of all wrongdoing.
As one reviewer notes, there is a way in which the book can be read as if, like in the Tsar’s forgiving telegram to Rozhestvensky after the battle, the loss of the battle had indeed been decreed by Providence or Fate. Doom is the mood of the book, but Pleshakov’s sense of humor is also present at many points. His sarcasm, his sense of drama, his own amusement at the foibles of the characters — Kaiser Wilhelm’s antics, Rozhestvensky’s philandering, the Tsar’s romanticism and foolishness, the dirty little secrets of several captains and their nasty nicknames as applied by Rozhestvensky — all come across in this book so strongly as to make the text as much about the telling of the story as it is about the series of events themselves.
But as much as Doom pervades the storytelling, there is also a very clear set of dysfunctions which in actuality caused this awful disaster, this long-drawn-out stupidity that was inflicted on Rozhestvesnky’s men. It is the muddle-headed Tsar, the crooked navy, and the stupid dream of latecomer’s colonialism — combined with racist belittling of the Japanese as mere “macaques” — that resulted in the wreckages, in the lost lives, in the decimation of Russia’s navy. What happens offstage — the Russian Revolution, the Japanese annexation of Korea, the stirring of China, and all of the tensions brewing which would eventually lead to war — all of this is present too, at least to me, echoing through the narrative.
It disheartens me, and worries me, for I have an sense — one I see in poems of Pound’s, reflecting through Jefferson on the leaders of Europe in his day — that where madmen are allowed to lead, soon after comes stupid, devastating war, waste and scourge and blame applied always to the wrong people. Looking to America today, to North Korea and Britain, I worry about what great, doomed fleets crammed with doomed souls will sail on acocunt of the commands of today’s madmen.