“Revolution Goes East: Imperial Japan and Soviet Communism” by Tatiana Linkhoeva

“The march of the Japanese army at Vladivostok city”, ca 1919  (US Library of Congress) “The march of the Japanese army at Vladivostok city”, ca 1919 (US Library of Congress)

There can be a fun-house mirror quality to the history of Japan’s relations with Russia: the events are recognizable, but come with unexpected bulges and pinches. Nikolai Rezanov’s attempt in 1805 to dislodge the Dutch from their monopoly of Japanese trade was a dismal—and humiliating—failure. A Russian frigate, the Pallada, arrived in Japan to “open” it a few weeks after Commodore Perry, a tale written up by none other than the novelist Ivan Goncharov who was on board for that purpose.

The Russians, of course, were—to the considerable surprise of the empire that had sent Napoleon packing—on the wrong end of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese had 70,000 troops doing something or other for several years in Siberia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution; there are Japanese prints of the Army marching through downtown Vladivostok. The little-known 1939 Battle of Nomonhan, or Khalkhyn Gol, in which the Soviets under Georgy Zhukov decidedly defeated the Japanese along the Mongolian border, this time to the latter’s considerable surprise, was arguably the first major battle of the Second World War.

In Revolution Goes East, NY University professor Tatiana Linkhoeva adds layer upon in-depth layer to this history. She argues that the Russian Revolution and triumph of Bolshevism had a major impact on the development of Japan’s internal and external politics in the inter-War period. The reaction of at least the non-specialist reader is likely to be “of course it did” combined with “I’ve never really thought about it”. If nothing else, Linkhoeva is convincing that it’s worth thinking about.

Revolution Goes East goes deep into the weeds.

Revolution Goes East: Imperial Japan and Soviet Communism, by Tatiana Linkhoeva (Cornell University Press, February 2020)
Revolution Goes East: Imperial Japan and Soviet Communism, Tatiana Linkhoeva (Cornell University Press, February 2020)

Revolution Goes East goes deep into the weeds: Linkhoeva gives chapter and verse on which minister, consul, ex-consul, thinker, writer met, wrote to, wrote about, quarreled with which other minister, army officer, thinker and party apparatchik in Petrograd, Moscow, Chita, Vladivostok, Tokyo and various other places from New York (where there was, for example, an Association of Japanese Socialists) to Manchuria and Korea.

What surprises, although perhaps should not, is the level of both the attention the two countries paid to the other and the extent of the connections. Japan, unlike the United States and Britain, butted right up against the Soviet Union. The two countries had overlapping strategic interests in Korea, Manchuria and Mongolia and Japan had direct commercial interests in the Russian Far East:


Among the Japanese retailers who settled in the Russian Far East were traders, tourist organizers, joiners, smiths, tailors, and owners of laundries, and collectively they owned one-fifth of all enterprises in the Maritime Province… In the decade before the Russian Revolution, every year up to fifteen thousand Japanese fishermen worked in fisheries leased by Japanese companies in Russia. And it was big business circles, especially the powerful fishery business, that later would become the most forceful and successful advocate for rapprochement with communist Russia.


If the USSR were a threat, the nature of threat was far more direct in Japan’s case than for the US or even Western Europe. The inverse was perhaps also true—Lenin was of that opinion—and crucial to developments:


Japan’s eventual intervention in the Russian Revolution in the summer of 1918, its deep involvement in the Russian Civil War, its military brutality and the subsequent memory of it in Russia, and the overextended stay of the Japanese army on Russian territory (the last Japanese troops left Russia in 1925) were one of major factors in transforming the initial Bolshevik rule into a militarized bureaucratic regime, ready to resort to coercion, even terror, to remain in power, as well as in winning popular support… The success of the revolution and the survival of the Soviet regime would thus be secured not in the west but in the east, by the ousting of the Japanese army.


Meanwhile, in 1920 an independent Korean government was, she writes, proclaimed in, of all places, Khabarovsk, while the Tsarist Embassy in Tokyo persisted until 1925.

But there were also opportunities for collaboration: the USSR’s anti-colonialist rhetoric jibed with Japan’s “pan-Asianist” stance. Linkhoeva charts the political, geopolitical and ideological ebb and flow over what seems now a very short period: a great deal played out in as little as a decade. Some of the developments now seem bizarre, including the submission in mid-1925 of


a detailed plan for the immigration of two million unemployed Japanese to Siberia, in addition to more than two million acres (860,000 hectares) of land leased for seventy-five years.


The next year, the idea was floated that “Japanese peasants could be relocated to cultivate rice”; the Soviets offered


territories on the northern bank of the Amur River for the immigration of 325,000 Japanese men and women.


That wasn’t where Japan had in mind and declined:


The area on the Amur River was finally offered to socialist Zionists, and in 1928, on territory that could have been populated by Japanese immigrants, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast was established.


But Linkhoeva starts a century or more earlier, and says this period must be understood in the context of relations with Tsarist Russia, and that for at least some Japanese strategic thinkers, the Russian Revolution didn’t change anything: the Soviet Union has the same geopolitical conditions and interests as the expansionary Russian Empire. In doing so, Linkhoeva provides something of a different slant on the alternate history for the Kuriles—the name of which she says comes from the Russian for “smoky”, but which others claim derives from Ainu—occupied by the Russians in the 18th century well before Japanese expansion into Hokkaido (“colonization” is the term she uses), which she puts at 1869 in direct response to European expansion:


Fear of colonization, formal or informal, became a sort of paranoia, permeating the general public, the political elite, and the military. To widen its defense perimeter, Japan embarked on imperial expansion, first in Hokkaido…


These all seems quite late in the day: to put this in perspective, it was after the Russian sale of Alaska to the USA.


Linkhoeva concludes:


The Russian Revolution did not have the same meaning in Asia as it did in Europe or Russia itself. Moreover, it was understood differently in Japan than in the rest of Asia because Japan was not a colonized country but rather a colonizer… Did leftist internationalism in interwar Japan have a chance to succeed? Most probably not… leftist thinking from the start included a fatal flaw that would prove to be its undoing—namely, the belief that Japan was exceptional and/or superior to the rest of Asia, and even to revolutionary Russia.


But perhaps the most significant take-away for the non-specialist used to post-WW2 Japan being more or less in lock-step with the United States, is the description of Japan operating with its neighbors and rivals entirely independently. If the United States continues to disengage from Asia, a Japan that triangulates between China and Russia is something one might see again.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.