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A Fleeting Moment: An Imperial Visit to a Doomed Ship

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Nicholas II with the Second Pacific Ocean Squadron on board the battleship "Prince Suvorov" in Libava in 1904. This photo from the Digital Gallery shows Tsar Nicholas II paying a royal visit to the new battleship "Kniaz Suvorov," flagship of the Russian Baltic Fleet. It's September 1904, and Russia has been at war with Japan since February, when Japanese torpedo boats staged a surprise night attack, without declaration of  hostilities, on the Russian Pacific Squadron anchored at Port Arthur in Manchuria.

This Pacific Squadron is now blockaded by a Japanese fleet outside the harbor and a Japanese army in the surrounding hills, so the Tsar has ordered his Baltic Fleet (now designated the Second Pacific Squadron) to steam halfway around the world to join their trapped comrades and drive the Japanese from the sea.

But a terrible fate lies in wait for the ship and most of the men shown here. In May 1905, battered and worn out from its months-long voyage, the Second Pacific Squadron will be intercepted by the Japanese fleet in the strait between Korea and their homeland. At the end of the Battle of Tsushima ("Island of the Donkey's Ears"), almost all of the Russian ships will be sunk or captured in one of the most decisive and lop-sided naval victories in history.

This image may be the only picture of this event. Books like Richard Hough's The Fleet That Had to Die (the standard account in English from 1958) and Constantine Pleshakov's newer title, The Tsar's Last Armada (2003), do not include it in their picture insert sections, and it seems like the sort of image that would add to the story if its existence were known. The Library owns the original photograph (Digital Gallery ID: 51822) as part of a small collection of letters and photos by Boris Shabilovsky.

INTERESTING (but entirely optional) DETAILS: The port of Libau, once part of Russia, is now Liepaja in Latvia. The ship's name, "Kniaz (Prince) Suvorov," refers to a victorious Russian general of the 1700s. The view is from the quarterdeck of the ship, looking from stern to bow. The little roof-like structure at bottom left is the skylight over a portion of the quarters for the ship's officers. The separate flaps have glass in them like portholes to let in light, and the panels are propped up here for ventilation. The ship's 12 inch diameter guns are sealed with tompions, big plugs with metal caps on the ends used to keep corrosive salt water out of their barrels. Note the masts, still reminiscent of those from a sailing ship, with their searchlights on platforms and wide yards (cross-pieces) supporting ropes used to carry signal flags. The funnels behind the closer mast are painted lemon yellow with black bands at their tops in the distinctive color scheme of the Tsarist navy. The hull and superstructure, which we cannot see, are black. If you look closely, you can see the small ceremonial daggers worn by the officers hanging on their left sides at their waists. On the right of the picture are the curved cranes of the davits which hold some of the ship's many boats.

TO READ MORE: The Donkey's Ears by Douglas Dunn. A narrative poem describing the Baltic Fleet's epic voyage to its destruction, told through imagined letters from Politovsky, the officer in charge of the engine room of the "Suvorov," to his wife. A brilliant feat of imagination, as Politovsky did not survive Tsushima, the poem combines travel writing about exotic locales with very humane reflections on life lived in close quarters in expectation of death. 

Voyage of Forgotten Men (also titled Tsushima) by Frank Theiss. Full of vivid prose, this hybrid of history and novel from 1937 conveys a sense of the majestic drama of a naval battle contrasted with the suffering of those fighting it.

The Tsar's Last Armada by Constantine Pleshakov. The author believes that books written for Americans by authors from other countries should convey the spirit of those nations, and his book shines with a real sense of "Russian-ness."

The Fleet That Had to Die by Richard Hough. Hough, a noted British naval historian, counters the pro-Japanese  trend of most writers in his country by describing the Russian side of Tsushima.                         

The Emperor's Sword by Noel F. Busch. A balanced account of Tsushima which interweaves the Japanese and Russian stories, featuring particularly clear maps of the battle.

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