History Repeating: the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905)

Matt Williams
6 min readMar 6


I’ll spare you the cliche about the failure to learn from history. By now, that quote has been used to death by countless people looking to justify any and all historical parallels (regardless of whether or not they make sense). But lately, I’ve had the growing feeling that there is something eerily familiar about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the fallout Russians are feeling at home. Its like déjà vu, only in the historical sense.

In essence, Russia finds itself embroiled in a war where an autocratic leader, thinking he would score an easy victory, committed the nation to war and refuses to admit defeat. As the war drags on, it continues to reveal the incompetence of the rulers, the corruption of the system, and how hopelessly reliant it is on brutality and fear. Meantime, the situation domestically is becoming worse as battlefield losses require conscription, public resistance is mounting, and the economic fallout is being felt.

If this is starting to sound familiar, it’s probably because it’s reminiscent of the Russo-Japanese war (1904–1905). This war is notable not only for its similarity to Russia’s current military involvement in Ukraine but because that war led to the collapse of a previous Russian regime and its empire— the Romanov Dynasty.

The Russo-Japanese War

In 1904, Russia went to war with Japan over competing territorial ambitions in East Asia. The conflict would be fought on land (along the Liaodon Peninsula northwest of Korea and Mukden in southern Manchuria) and in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. For Japan, the war was all about expanding their influence and territorial hold in Manchuria and into Korea (a process that began with the Sino-Japanese war of 1895).

For Russia, the goal was to have ports in Asia that could remain open in the winter (unlike Vladivostok). The availability of these ports would ensure that Russia could maintain trade and a naval presence in the Pacific. As with most wars, hostilities began after a protracted series of negotiations in which both sides asserted claims and made demands of the other. In February 1904, the war began after a surprise attack by Japanese forces against the Russian fleet at Port Arthur, China.

Russian cartoon showing soldiers being deployed to the front. Hsu Chung-mao

This attack led to an outpouring of nationalistic and racist sentiment in Russia. As Rosamund Bartlett described in a 2008 article in the academic journal The Russian Review:

“…right-wing newspapers vilified Asian perfidy, noisy demonstrations were held in te country’s major cities, loyal subjects took to the streets with portraits of the Tsar, and audiences in theaters all over Russia demanded that the national anthem be played.”

The war is often used as an example of how racialism and overconfidence can lead to military defeat. From the beginning, Russia experienced a string of defeats on land and at sea. Tsar Nicholas II chose to soldier on and refused to entertain the notion of a “humiliating peace.” According to historian Geoffrey Jukes, some of this can be attributed to the fact that Nicholas considered the Japanese to be inferior, calling them “yellow monkeys” and believing they would capitulate when faced with Russia’s superior power.

After months of repeated failures, Tsar Nicholas II doubled down and ordered that the Baltic Fleet sail for East Asia. More importantly, he ordered the mass mobilization of conscripted troops to compensate for battlefield losses. As the war dragged on, Russian troops began to see the Chinese people as the enemy as well. Thanks to racist blinders, the fear of a “Yellow Peril” led them to conclude that all Asians were the enemy, and they began looting, raping, and murdering civilians en masse.

Domestically, the war led to rising discontent among the Russian people, who were already unhappy about the failure of the Tsar to institute basic reforms that would bring Russia into the 20th century (or at least the 19th!) In this respect, the war merely aggravated existing tensions by exposing the inefficiencies and archaic nature of Tsarist autocracy.

Russian soldiers in St. Peterburg. Deutsches Bundesarchiv

On January 9th, 1905, popular discontent boiled over and lead to the Bloody Sunday massacre, where civilians marched on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to petition the Tsar (who wasn’t even there). The Imperial Guard responded by opening fire on the unarmed crowd, killing between 143–234 people. Several hundred more were wounded, and close to 7000 people were arrested. The incident led to public outrage and general strikes that quickly spread to every industrial center in the Russian Empire — known as the Russian Revolution of 1905.

The situation forced Nicholas II to negotiate a humiliating peace with Japan in which it ceded all claims to Korea and Manchuria. For a time, things quieted down on the domestic front. But less than nine years later, Russia once again found itself at war — this time with Germany. After three years of protracted fighting and losses, the Tsarist government was finally overthrown on March 8th, 1917 — known to posterity as the February Revolution (due to Russia still using the Julian Calendar).


In case you missed it, Russia’s current war in Ukraine has all themes of the Russo-Japanese war and any other imperialist adventure that went very wrong. These include:

  1. Expecting an “easy war”
  2. Battles are lost due to incompetence in the field
  3. Bodies thrown at the problem
  4. Desperation leading to war crimes
  5. Rising discontent and suffering at home

In the end, the Russo-Japanese war precipitated the demise of the Romanov ruling dynasty. While it would take another decade before they were officially overthrown, the “Revolution of 1905" was the curtain raiser of the February Revolution. Fast forward to 1979–1989 (the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan) and you see a very similar example of foreign misadventure leading to the collapse of an authoritarian regime (more on that later).

As it stands, Putin has ticked off all five boxes and is behaving like a Russian dictator who is deathly afraid of getting a knife in the back. For almost a year now, this has been the case and analysts have tried to predict how it will all end. Will he stay in Ukraine too long? Will he admit defeat and be forced to step down? Will Ukraine make concessions to end the war and let him cling to power for a few more years? Will he actually try the nuclear option and have to be taken out by his lieutenants?

Difficult to say, but there is no plausible scenario where he walks away from this a “winner.” The idea that Ukraine will cede territory in exchange for peace is unlikely at this point, and Russia would still have to contend with “NATO at its doorstep.” In the meantime, the Ukrainian people beat every major Russian offensive early in the war, their counter-attacks have liberated more than 40% of the territory Russia occupied, and they are committed to liberating the rest. With the arrival of offensive weapons (MLRS rockets, NATO tanks, etc.) they have a real shot at total victory.

For Putin and the Russian people, history is repeating itself. And like the autocrats of old who faced impending revolution, Putin is behaving desperately and stupidly in order to cling to power. But his actions are merely hastening his demise and making it more likely that this will end very badly for him. The only question is, does he want to end up like the Romanov’s, or his Soviet predecessors?



Matt Williams

Space/astronomy journalist for Universe Today, SF author, and all around family man!