In Brief

In June 1904 Russian and Japanese armed forces had been at war for several months. Militarism was fed by imperial territorial ambitions on both sides, and both nations had a hand in initiating the hostilities, but many colonized people around the world sympathized with the Japanese because Russia had long been an aggressive and brutally autocratic imperial power. Ulysses suggests that many Irish nationalists took heart from Japan's decisive military victories over the Russians, hoping that the British imperium might soon be similarly humiliated.

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Tsarist Russia had been an expansionist power since the 16th century and by the 19th century its empire was immense, ruling well over 100 million people and reaching from Finland to Crimea, Poland to Alaska, central Asia to the Arctic. Seeking an ice-free port on the Pacific Ocean, the Russians expanded into Manchuria and thereby encountered the rising Asian power of Japan, which was expanding its own sphere of influence into Korea and Manchuria. Diplomatic efforts to divide the contested territories failed, and Japan attacked Russia's Eastern Fleet in February 1904. For the rest of that year an arrogant Nicholas II declined overtures for an armistice and arbitration, but his forces suffered defeat after defeat, and in September 1905 he was forced to agree to a treaty mediated by American president Theodore Roosevelt. Russia's international influence dimmed, and a 1905 revolution at home compelled the tsar to share power with a parliament—a first step toward the disastrous revolution of 1917.

Although Britain had entered into a military alliance with Japan in 1902 and must have taken some satisfaction in the humiliation of its imperial rival, Irish nationalists too may well have rejoiced, for different reasons. Nationalists in other colonized regions—India, Indonesia, Indochina, the Philippines, Poland—were inspired by the defeat of one of the great European empires. Joyce appears to have been of the same mind. Looking back from a time after Japan had secured victory, he made people in 1904 Dublin relish the coming Russian setback. In Calypso Leopold Bloom, himself remembering a time before the start of the war, recalls Larry O'Rourke saying, "Do you know what? The Russians, they'd only be an eight o'clock breakfast for the Japanese." In Cyclops Joe Hynes and the Citizen trade observations about how "the markets are on a rise" because of "Foreign wars." Says Joe, "It's the Russians wish to tyrannise."

Oxen of the Sun shows that other Dubliners have been closely following the events in the Pacific: "Jappies? High angle fire, inyah! Sunk by war specials. Be worse for him, says he, nor any Roosian." At the beginning of the war, in February 1904, some Russian battleships and cruisers had been taken out of action by Japanese artillery shells that descended at a "High angle" and penetrated the ships' lightly armored decks. Gifford notes that these losses impelled the Russian fleet to withdraw from fighting for several months while repairs were made, and that "The Evening Telegraph, 16 June 1904, reported 'a renewal of activity on the part of Russia's naval commanders' (though that renewal was to lead to further Russian losses during the summer of 1904)." Joyce's characters have been following news of the war, and their slang suggests partisan identification with the enemy of a bullying empire: "Inyah" or inagh, from the Irish an ea,  is a sarcastic Hiberno-English expression meaning "Is that so?"

The Russians' troubles are linked with those of the English in Eumaeus, when the proprietor of the cabman's shelter predicts the collapse of the British empire: "But a day of reckoning, he stated crescendo with no uncertain voice—thoroughly monopolising all the conversation—was in store for mighty England, despite her power of pelf on account of her crimes. There would be a fall and the greatest fall in history. The Germans and the Japs were going to have their little lookin, he affirmed. The Boers were the beginning of the end. Brummagem England was toppling already and her downfall would be Ireland, her Achilles heel." Irish public opinion had favored the Boers in their valiant effort to resist British imperial expansion into their lands, but they did not finally have sufficient resources to defeat a great empire. In the shelter-keeper's view, however, the growing naval power of Germany and Japan poses a real threat to Britain's supremacy at sea, and Ireland cannot be counted on to keep playing its role as the backbone of the British army—a prediction that anticipates debates in Ireland during World War I.

Circe maintains the link between Russia and England as Stephen ponders a British soldier's proposal to "bash in your jaw." He mockingly contrasts Darwinian realism with the bogus idealism of a tsar and a king who present themselves as "philirenists," a Hellenic coinage meaning "peace-lovers": "Struggle for life is the law of existence but human philirenists, notably the tsar and the king of England, have invented arbitration. (He taps his brow.) But in here it is I must kill the priest and the king." In Cyclops the Citizen has contemptuously dismissed King Edward VII's wish to be thought of as a "peacemaker" ("Tell that to a fool... There's a bloody sight more pox than pax about that boyo"), and in part 5 of A Portrait Stephen disdained the tsar's proposals for international disarmament and arbitration ("MacCann began to speak with fluent energy of the Csar's rescript, of Stead, of general disarmament, arbitration in cases of international disputes....").

Gifford notes that the tsar's "'peace rescript of 1898' solicited petitions from 'the peaceloving peoples of the world'"—people like McCann. The multi-national Hague Conference of 1899 that followed from these efforts did not achieve general or even limited disarmament, but it instituted a body for "arbitration of international disputes and it began to systematize international laws of war. It is something of an irony that Nicholas II's peace crusade was a prelude to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. In retrospect the czar's motivation appears to have been to stall for time so that Russia could achieve an armament comparable to that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire." Gifford's sense of "irony" applies also to the English king: in 1908 and 1909 Edward twice met with Nicholas to discuss peace, but their talks "seemed to presage an alliance with Russia in aid of England's intensifying naval and colonial competition with Germany." For the imperial powers jostling for advantage in the years prior to the Great War, idealism inevitably took a back seat to realpolitik. Moral clarity was somewhat easier to come by for subjugated peoples looking in from the outside.

John Hunt 2022
The Russian empire at the time of the Russo-Japanese war.
East Asian imperial powers at the time of the Russo-Japanese war.
Illustration in Collier & Son's 1904 book titled Russo-Japanese War: A Photographic and Descriptive Review of the Great Conflict in the Far East.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A Humorous Diplomatic Atlas of Europe and Asia, 1904 map drawn by Kisaburō Ohara, held in the Cornell University Library. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Tsar Nicholas II in a 1912 photographic portrait that has been cropped and retouched. Source: Wikimedia Commons.