Sunday, July 12, 2009

Voyage of the Damned.

Continuing my theme of brushing up on the corners of history with which I am less familiar, I just finished reading The Tsar's Last Armada, which related the the story of the doomed voyage to Tsushima with that blend of cheery good humor and oh-my-god-we're-all-gonna-die fatalism that is the Russian birthright.

Bad food, diplomatic squabbles, a vacillating high command back home, primitive communications... I'm not sure how you say "Murphy" in Russian, but there's got to be a word for it. Paranoia has Japanese spies and saboteurs lurking behind every wave top and shoreline boulder, to the point that the nervous Russkies shoot up the British fishing fleet in the nighttime seas of Dogger Bank, leading to a major international incident.

By the time the fleet has reached Madagascar, the Admiral's staff is worried because he's already pitched more than half of the fifty pairs of binoculars they've brought along overboard in various fits of rage, and the Sea of Japan is still a long way off. Meanwhile crewmen are roasting alive in the black iron hulls, dying of tropical diseases, or going crazy and jumping into the shark-infested water. And St. Petersburg has them sit on their thumbs for two months as Nicholas II, known for the jellyfish-like qualities of his spine, wavers between making them wait for the dregs of the Baltic fleet or letting them sail on to Vladivostok, depending on who advised him last.

It was a very readable book, despite knowing that the fleet was going to get its beets pickled by Togo at the end of the voyage. In fact, having now learned more of what came before, the battle itself seems almost an anticlimax...


Matt G said...

Very nice teaser for the book. If that were a movie, you'd have begun with a throaty throaty growling narration of "In a world where..."

Ken said...

Does the book have the speech attributed to Buchwostov (captain of the Alexander III) at the banquet before the Baltic Fleet sailed?

Don said...

I've been reading up on Russians myself. Mine is a book on the Romanov dynasty . . . . what a mess. It's enough to give you a new appreciation for what would make people say "A communist revolution? Sure, why not. What's the worst that could happen?"

Ed Foster said...

The amazing thing about Tshushima was not how poorly many of the Russian ships fought, but how bravely and skillfully others did.

Some took a few hits and bailed, some, long after there was any hope of victory, drove themselves suicidally into the Japanese battle line and died like lions.

No rhyme or reason to it. I can only assume the difference was the leadership and sense of esprit aboard the better ships.

And you wonder why the 1905 rebellion was centered on the fleet.

Ed foster said...

And if you're visiting Dublin and get tired of all the yuppies in Temple Bar, walk across the O'Connell bridge and get some fish and chips at Beshoff's. Great food cheap, lovely view of the bay.

Old man Beshoff was one of the mutineers on the Potempkin. He slipped out of Romania in the coal bin of a German ship, worked in an amazing number of countries, married an Irish girl, and settled down to open a restaurant near the harbor.

He lived almost to his 105th birthday, drank like a fish every day, and was colorful even by Dublin standards.

He was in and out of jail for 20 or 30 years for political stuff, which only increased his standing among the neighbors.

His son Tony is cut from the same cloth, and is an absolute hoot to share a pint with.

I suspect the family were destined to become Dubliners long before they were born. I can't think of any other place on earth they would fit in as well.

staghounds said...

I always liked the way the Admiral demanded to be held accountable, rather than his subordinates or superiors, even though he was unable to exercise command shortly after the battle started.

Next stop, the R-J war itself?

I have "The Tide At Sunrise", if you'd care to borrow it.

alath said...

"Some took a few hits and bailed, some, long after there was any hope of victory, drove themselves suicidally into the Japanese battle line and died like lions."

Very Russian. It's the same fatalism Tam referred to. They all know they're going to die. Half say, "we're going to die, might as well give up," and the other half say "we're going to die, might as well go all-out berserker."

What are the possible outcomes for a member of the Russian armed forces in wartime? a) die a coward's death b) die a hero's death c) due to a logistical error, freeze to death on a railway siding in Siberia, d)survive defeat, and get shot by the NKVD e) survive victory, become a hero to the masses and thus an object of suspicion to the NKVD, and get shot by the NKVD. If that don't make a fatalist of you, nothing will.

staghounds said...

Ken- the main artillery of the 1911 Alexander III had an interesting career:

Ancient Woodsman said...

That was a fairly unkind insult to the jellyfish of the world, by the way.

That stoic czar had all the intestinal fortitude of a...of a...well, there's nothing that low except a professional Democrat.

Sorry, jellyfish...

fast richard said...

закон подлости (zakone Podlosti) seems to be the Russian name for Murphy's Law. The article I found traces the origin of the law back to the time of Achilles. I'm sure the law is at least as well known in Russia as Murphy is here. Oleg Volk could probably come up with a better answer, as my Russian is very weak.

Don said...

As nearly as I can tell from my recent reading, each generation of Romanovs was basically a nest of twitching, cowardly, sadistic mental and emotional cripples, and there's some debate as to whether it was their genes or the environment they provided that led to the next generation being a cluster of twitching, cowardly, sadistic mental and emotional cripples.

But what is certain is that they were almost all nuttier than squirrel turds in one way or another. . . and I've only gotten as far as Catherine II.

Starik Igolkin said...

There's another, much older book on Tsushima by Novikov-Priboi, an eyewitness and participant of the battle, who served on ironclad "Orel". I just looked and there are used copies of English translation on Amazon ranging from $20 to $100.
I remember reading it looooong time ago, as a kid. It's probably more politically colored though, which was typical for Soviet books of that time.