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Book Review: The 200-Year Untold History of Russo-Japanese Relations (KGB Aleksey Kirichenko)

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

For my Russian friends

FILE PHOTO: The 200-Year Untold History of Russo-Japanese Relations (2013) ©Gendaishichoshinsya
PHOTO: The 200-Year Untold History of Russo-Japanese Relations ©Gendaishicho

Author: Aleksey Kirichenko / Кириченко Алексей Алексеевич (ex-KGB colonel, Russian, 1936-2019)

Russian: Неизвестные моменты 200 лет японо-российских отношений.

ISBN: 978-4-329-00486-4 (RU)

Japanese: 知られざる日露の二百年

ISBN:4329004860 / 978-4329004864 (JP)

Russia and Japan shouldn't be divided.

Aleksey Kirichenko, KGB (1936-2019) was more like a researcher, analyst than being a case officer of KGB(1954-1991).

His conclusion was that the most difficult obstacle between Russia and Japan still is ''Japanese prisoners of war in the Soviet Union'' not the Kuril Islands dispute due to emotional involvement, tragic memories and trauma of families of 560,000 to 760,000 war prisoners. Moreover, approximately 60,000 to 347,000 POWs died in Soviet labour camps.

Aleksey Kirichenko wrote:

Historical incidents between the two nations were interpreted differently by each other thus it's necessary to review details of those incidents in order to improve Russo-Japanese relations. (1)

Not only this is the core spirit ''anti-historical revisionism'' of the entire book, but also it's the correct strategic direction of diplomacy of both countries even under the new Cold War (2018-) between China and USA of today.

This book is composed by eight chapters, incidents covered from 1600s (seventeenth century) until the end of Soviet Union (1991).

Chapter 1 - Russia Meets The Japanese From 1600s to mid 1800s

Surprisingly some Russian historian tells us that some Kiev Russian aristocrats had certain knowledge about Japanese in 1100s. However real face-to-face contact between Russians and Japanese people was first recorded in 1600s.

''An sich'' phase of the two nations' history begun from Kamchatka Peninsula, Aleutian Islands and Kuril Islands. And its synthesis will be reached in the same region with JP-RU peace treaty and real independence of Japan from the ''Cold War'' narrative.

Indeed, admitting both Kamchatka Peninsula and Kuril Islands as Russian territories is must in practice for Japan. In other words, admitting imperial Japan lost WW2 (1939-1945), embracing its defeat in order to achieve permanent peace with neighbours.

At the era, tempests frequently hit Japanese ships, and many Japanese fishermen were salvaged by Russian pioneers in the Russian Far East region. This was the beginning of contact. For instance, the legendary tale of Pyotr I Alekseevich (1672-1725) and Japanese castaway Dembei (1670-1714) is the best example (Dembei was brought to Moscow for establishing the first Japanese language school in 1701).

FILE PHOTO: Maurice Benyovszky (1746-86) ©Wikimedia / Public Domain
Maurice Benyovszky (1746-86) Image: Public Domain

Ex-Russian prisoner, a Hungarian military officer Maurice Benyovszky (1746-86) escaped from Kamchatka prison, then landed in Nagasaki, Japan in 1771. Then he warned Japanese people about ''Russian threat'' by a letter. It's completely unknown for Japanese teachers and students of today. The Hungarian fugitive Maurice Benyovszky's allegation is seen as the first third party attempt to divide Russia and Japan in the world history.

FILE PHOTO: Adam Laxman (1766-1806) ©Wikimedia / Public Domain
Adam Laxman (1766-1806) Image: Public Domain

Russian merchants thought Japan as the best market to expand their trade business after they successfully gained Alaska, Aleutian Islands and Russian America (1799 to 1867).

For instance,

Catherine the Great (1729-96) assigned Adam Laxman (1766-1806) a lieutenant in the imperial Russian military to Nemuro, Hokkaido to establish bilateral relations between Russia and Japan. In fact, Russia followed Dutch to become known by Japanese people. As the result, Edo government (1603-1868) allowed Russia to dock at Hakodate port for negotiations. However Laxman did not successfully establish any trade relations at the end.

FILE PHOTO: Nikolai Rezanov (1764-1807) ©Wikimedia / Public Domain
Nikolai Rezanov (1764-1807) Image: Public Domain

Later foundation of The Russian-American Company, RAC (a.k.a. RAK) which protected by Pavel Petrovich Romanov (1754-1801) changed the situation dramatically in 1799. The representative of RAC, Nikolai Rezanov (1764-1807) was a colonial officer who needed Japan as an external base to stably supply food to Russian Colonies like Alaska and Russian America. Thus his main duty was to officially establish the first diplomatic relations with Japan as an ambassador. His effort was failed due to the "closed country" policy by Edo government and Dutch conspiracy. Furthermore, Nikolai Rezanov and his Russian delegates had been jailed in Nagasaki since September 26, 1804 to April 6, 1805.

The failure changed his attitude toward Japan tragically and made him more aggressive against Japan that he thought forcible measures were exclusively necessary to conquer Japanese in 1806. His secret order to frigate Juno and sailing ship Avos was seen as the origin of Japanese suspicion against Russians.

Lieutenant Nikolai Khvostov (1776-1809) received the order to open Japan to the world militarily. Thus Matthew C. Perry (1794-1858) 's black ships were not the first attempt of this kind.

For correctly understanding this incident, what we must know about this historical phase is that Russians already recognised and inhabited in both Sakhalin and Kuril Islands as their own territories.

During 1806-7, two Russian pirates took military actions in near border with north Japan which critically worsened Russo-Japan relations as the earliest bilateral interactions.

One was above-mentioned sublieutenant Nikolai Khvostov (Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Хвосто́в; 1776—1809) who robbed and torched Japanese villages in Sakhalin in the name of ''saving Ainu people'' in October 1806; the other one was second sublieutenant Davidov who attacked a Japanese village with Khvostov in Iturup (which is one of Kuril Islands) in May, June 1807.

As the result, the two Russian pirates' assaults on Japanese villages in north instigated Japan's centuries of ''Russophobia'' and prejudice about Russia in general.

Vasily M. Golovnin (1776-1831) Image: Public Domain
Vasily M. Golovnin (1776-1831) Image: Public Domain

Nevertheless, there was some positive figure like Vasily Mikhailovich Golovnin (1776-1831) who is still mentioned at schools for his Diana's voyage around the world and mapping of Kuril Islands.

Although he was taken prisoner for violating ''Sakoku'' in 1811, he successfully persuaded people of Japan that Tsar did not order Khvostov and Davidov to invade Japan. Their acts of pirates were solely done as individuals.

Fortunately, Golovnin's diary during his captivity in Japan was broadly published in 1816 and 1817. Even Japanese translation is still available (日本幽囚記』; ISBN-13 : 978-4003342114).

Chapter 2 - Russia-Japan Relations in the Late 19th Century

FILE PHOTO: Yevfimiy Putyatin (1803-1883) ©Wikimedia / Public Domain
Yevfimiy Putyatin (1803-1883) Image: Public Domain

After Matthew C. Perry (1794-1858) 's black ships militarily forced Japan to abandon its Sakoku policy in 1854, then Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between Japan and Russia (Treaty of Shimoda) signed by both countries on February 7, 1855. Since then Japan and Russia has established diplomatic relations formally. People must know that post war Japan's designation of this day as ''North Territory Day'' (1981-) is sheer spiteful obstinacy against Russia in order to appease US master and far rights.

Undoubtedly, Admiral Yevfimiy Putyatin (1803-1883) made the unequal treaty, for instance the article VIII defines ''mutual extraterritoriality for citizens of Russia and of Japan in each other's country.'' Extraterritoriality itself is an essential element of being an unequal treaty while certain power balance doesn't exist for any of its side. At that time, Russia wanted dominating foreign relations of Japan by suggesting Japan to abandon other foreign treaties.

Whatever it is, later Russia and Japan relations positively developed unexpectedly. The most famous treaty between Russian Empire and Imperial Japan is Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1875) that exchanged entire Sakhalin (Russia got) and whole group of Kuril Islands (Japan gained) bilaterally.

The year 1896 was critically important for preparing Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) because the ambitious imperialist country Japan could not forgive Russia, Germany and France that they forced Japan to abandon the Liaodong Peninsula and Port Arthur (both territories in south-eastern Manchuria, a Chinese province) which Japan won from the result of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). And Russia made China their own protectorate by signing Li–Lobanov Treaty (1896).

In 1898, Russia further aggressively had rented the Liaodong Peninsula for twenty-five years. As the result, anti-Russian competitors US and UK urged Japan to fight Russia during 1904-5, it successfully stopped Russian expansionist policy in East Asia, signed Treaty of Portsmouth, Japan successfully gained control of Korean Peninsula with southern half of Sakhalin, rent of South Manchuria Railway and the Liaodong Peninsula. It also further became the geopolitical springboard for Japan's expansion into China, prepared the World War 2 (1939-45).

Aleksey Kirichenko also mentioned Jewish capitalists who escaped pogrom in Russia supported Japan on this war. From today's political perspective, who mostly wanted and benefited itself from the war between Russia and Japan? It's obviously US and UK.