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Rasplata — Vladimir Semenov
Chapter 03a

ON board the Angara I found myself for the first time associated with men who had witnessed the catastrophe of February 8, and the action of the 9th. As I became their messmate and was no longer a stranger asking information of strangers, I learned full particulars.

Here I must make a small digression. I do not intend to give a history of the war in this book. The history of the war can only be written when the archives which are now closed, are opened, and their secret reports and documents are made accessible to the public. Until then we must content ourselves with published reports and private sources of information. In the former much has, of course, been left out or cut out, as the circumstances demanded. One of the most reliable private sources of information is, I believe, my diary. I kept it from January 29, 1904, the day of my departure from St Petersburg, until my return there on December 19, 1905. The entries consist not only of all events which I witnessed myself, but also of accounts of eye-witnesses, who were still fresh under the impression of the events. In it I have not merely confined myself to facts. Above all, it appeared important to observe the mental attitude of the men who had taken part in these events. Here, in this book, I will, as well as I am able, describe, with photographic accuracy, the feelings which we experienced. I will tell of the hopes, the doubts, and the disappointments which we had to experience in the course of events.

The impressions which I had received during my first days at Port Arthur were most strange. It seemed as if the dangers amidst which we lived did not affect public opinion to any great extent. I noticed that every one was dreading something, but not disaster for the squadron or fortress. There was also no question of personal dread of danger, but people seemed concerned at perhaps being made to suffer owing to the Government getting into an unpleasant position.

"How is the affair going to end?" "Who will be picked out as the culprit?" "Am I also going to be dragged into this dirty business?" Questions such as these seemed to perplex every one high and low.

I must here observe that the population of Port Arthur consisted almost exclusively of State employees, or such as were closely connected with the Government. The weal or woe of these people naturally depended entirely on how matters stood with the Government. That was why I had never been able to obtain from any one detailed answers, when I enquired for particulars or even the causes of the first catastrophe. All remained silent, or said that they knew nothing, or they suddenly remembered most pressing business which obliged them to break off the conversation. If they were to give an account, they would have to take sides, and that was " very dangerous." Every one knew, apparently from the experience of previous years, that a bold word, an independent opinion, immediately reached a certain destination by mysterious paths, and that the rash individual, who often did not even know what he was accused of, suddenly felt the punishing hand. It would be false to affirm that this state of mind was produced by an iron discipline. Discipline is the conscious and voluntary submission to law. Discipline obtains, where old and young obey, not from fear, but for the sake of conscience. At Port Arthur, one saw only fear, pale-faced fear of the almighty, irresponsible Government.

Tongues were at once loosened, when the news of Makaroff's appointment reached the town. Notwithstanding all efforts, it could not be kept secret. Now it was quite evident what discipline is worth, if based on fear. I could surely not be counted, amongst the adherents of the Viceroy; but even I found more than once the language of these very gentlemen) who only yesterday were "his most devoted," rather too strong.

To me the Pacific Squadron does not merely mean a collection of ships. I had spent almost my entire sea service in it, and for me it was a living thing, permeated with a single-minded spirit. With it I had grown up, and it was dear to me. On my journey here I felt as if I was going home. I had already served in this squadron when it was at its beginnings. During my last five years of service there, I witnessed its apogee under Dubassoff and Hildebrand. Its gradual decline I was not called upon to see. I was only a witness of its end.

' ' How could such great changes have taken place during the three years of my absence ? " I asked myself. "How could this great organisation fall into such a state of decomposition ? "

At Cronstadt I had, of course, heard of the institution of the "Armed Reserve of the Pacific." I knew that the votes for keeping ships in commission had been cut down, and that the ships in reserve had only twenty days at sea in the year. The rest of the time they were floating barracks. Finally, I was aware of the constant changes amongst the officers. All the same, I had preserved my faith in the "squadron."

I thought this would all pass away. Owing to unfavourable conditions, some defects had cropped up, but one needed only to alter these conditions to put everything once more to rights. Now in war, I thought, those gentlemen who had played with their duties would disappear, and the old officers would once more join "their" ships. The grand old life in the squadron was then bound to arise anew.

I well remembered how we had idolised "our ship " in the squadron. I had known an officer who had had already three years' service as lieutenant and who still did duty as "second watch-keeper," as he had not been relieved. When he had to move up as "first watch-keeper," he protested, as it would mean leaving "his Nakhimoff." Another lieutenant, with fifteen years' service as a commissioned officer, was nominated as "Senior Gunnery Lieutenant " of a battleship in home waters. When, however, he heard that "his Donskoi," which had only just returned from the Far East, was to go out again, he entreated his superiors to send him back to her. In the end he was made happy by becoming once more watch-keeper on board "his" old cruiser. I could produce such examples in large numbers, but I fancy these will .suffice. The fiery youths were formerly ever ready to demand satisfaction, sword in hand, for any insult offered to "their" ship. The men had recourse to the simpler method. They fought, when they met on shore, and thus settled the question as to which was the best ship.

Let not the reader imagine that this was in any way a bad sign. By no means. If the good elements held these views, they arose from the conviction that their ship was bound to be the best, provided each one threw his whole strength and energy into the service of " his " ship. At every evolution, every exercise, hundreds of jealous eyes watched the other ships. Woe betide the ship which these strict and experienced judges found out in the attempt to cheat. This emulation between ships was of great benefit to the squadron. Each ship did her utmost to prove herself the best of the company. A man was just as proud of his squadron as of his ship. Everything that took place in other waters was closely followed. We wanted to beat all other squadrons.

When I had been three years navigating officer of the Dmitri Donskoi, Admiral Dubassoff sent to ask me whether I would like to join his staff as senior flag- lieutenant. The question found me quite unprepared. It so upset me that I asked for twenty-four hours to consider the matter. Back on board, I consulted the captain, the commander, and another old messmate, whether I might leave the ship without committing treason. After lengthy discussions, we came to the conclusion that I was not bound to refuse. After all, I was not to take up a higher appointment on board another ship—that would have been treason towards the old Donskoi—but was in future to serve the squadron as a whole. Our Donskoi, it was felt, was certainly the best ship of the entire squadron, but still only one amongst many.

I had thought of all this, and preserved my faith in the "squadron." I believed its old spirit was still alive. I did not know all that had happened out there at the foot of Golden Hill in Port Arthur to kill this spirit, during the three years I had spent at Cronstadt. If a captain loves his ship truly, he must not neglect to attend to the smallest defect in her. He must report it, and see that it is made good. In time a small defect may become the cause of a very big one. But if a captain at Port Arthur did his duty in that manner, he was an " inconvenient subordinate." The Viceroy desired, as long as he reigned, to see no other reports than those in which it was stated that "everything was in the best condition." Then he was able to report most respectfully that "the fleet confided to his care was completely prepared for war, and would valorously repel every attack of the enemy."

Were we serving the Viceroy and not His Majesty? Were we not merely subordinated to His Excellency, but subjects of the Emperor alone ? Are not, in the eyes of the "Supreme War Lord," the youngest bluejacket and the commander of a squadron equally the servants of the Crown and country—quite independently of their relative position ? Any one who dared to hold such views as these was looked at askance in Port Arthur.

In justice to the Viceroy it must be admitted that whatever he wanted he carried through. In his immediate surroundings he soon had only his own creatures. He cared nothing for the " common herd." These did not require to be handled with gloves. But in the body of officers every feeling of cohesion and solidarity was stifled by constantly moving them from ship to ship. If an officer duly subordinated himself to the authorities, he could serve in a harbour craft and yet advance more rapidly than another who was wearing himself out in doing his duty with the utmost zeal on board a fighting ship.

When I reached Port Arthur the second time, one never heard, either at the Casino or on board ship, the beautiful old terms "our ship," "our squadron." All interest was centred on "getting on" quickly. A man would say: "So-and-so was in luck!" and speculate as to places with higher emoluments, or where he would be more immediately under the eye of the authorities. Sometimes, indeed, I heard that some one was proud of belonging to the garrison of Port Arthur. But in the mouth of a naval officer this did not sound well. Makaroff once said: "A naval officer should only feel at home on board." The turning of ships into floating barracks has produced fine fruits.

I was horrified at all this. It was hateful to see this collapse of the personnel of our squadron. Only in a very few ships some remnants of the old traditions had been preserved. Still, I stuck to my hopes, and perhaps I was not wrong. The outer pressure need only be removed to awaken the spirit of the squadron out of its sleep of the last three years. The flame was glowing under the ashes. There were indications of this. "Above," the stillness of the grave was still preserved. The office work went on in the old style, as if nothing had happened; but the joyful news already flew through the ranks— Makaroff had started from St Petersburg. I now resume my narrative. The truth of the rumours I had already heard at Harbin interested me, of course, most. They were probably being disseminated all over Russia by now, through the fugitives.

" Is it true," I asked, "that the squadron was guilty of absolutely incomprehensible carelessness? Was it, in fact, lying at anchor in an open roadstead with all lights burning, without steam, without torpedo-nets being out and without any guard vessels? Is it a fact that at the moment of the attack not only many officers and captains, but the Admiral himself, were ashore to celebrate the latter's birthday?"

This conversation took place on board the Angara with one of my new messmates.

"We of the Angara are certainly in a position to form an unbiassed judgment," he said. "We only joined the squadron quite a short time ago, and are not bound to it either by tradition or common service. We could indeed consider ourselves slighted, as we are not serving in a man-of-war, but in an armed merchantman. Therefore to reply without reserve: the first part of your question is bitter truth. The only excuse one can find is that the squadron is not to blame for this criminal carelessness, which you mildly call incomprehensible. The second part is gossip, which has been launched into the world with the very evident intention of burdening Admiral Stark with the entire responsibility. This was bound to happen at the outset. When the first staggering news flew through the town and fortress, one heard the ugly word 'treason,' on all sides. Thank God it was never uttered aloud! It might have been awful.

"The old gentleman was passing through a bad time, but he was equal to it. He resisted the temptation to defend himself publicly against all the accusations which were hurled at him. So he kept. his famous document in his pocket, and only reminded certain persons of the existence of the paper. The ' brave ' calumniators at once became dumb. They had probably received orders to hold their tongues. In this attitude of Stark's there is something of the old Roman, is there not? Pereat mea gloria, vivat patria. However, my Latin is weak; but judge for yourself. If he had then said: ' I did not receive permission to prepare against an attack—here is the proof,' not a stone of the Viceroy's palace would have been left standing by next morning." " So that the second part of my question is untrue?"
My messmate shrugged his shoulders.

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