War’s centennial stirs memoriesINCHEON ― By the dock of gate 1 of Incheon harbor, a set of two 186-meter-wide guard missile cruisers were on standby, and groups of Russian navy crewmen marched around with grim faces. Some Korean sailors in uniform passed by and saluted their foreign counterparts. A few Korean passersby stared at the marching groups apprehensively.
Three Russian naval ships ― the Varyag; Koreetz, a gunboat; and Admiral Tributz, a cruiser ― arrived in Seoul on Feb. 10 for a five-day stay to commemorate the centennial of the Russo-Japanese War, which started on Feb. 8, 1904, off the Incheon harbor.
The Russian naval ships Varyag and Koreetz were outnumbered by the superior Japanese fleet but fought heroically to the end. About 41 navy crewmen were killed in the fight, and 80 were wounded before the Russians blew up their vessels rather than surrender to their Japanese foes. Russia ended up losing the greater war a year later.
Russian history textbooks consider the battle a matter of national pride. A Russian folk song is dedicated to the sailors who died, and to most Russians, the name Varyag ignites the same feelings of patriotism as the Masada does in Jewish people.
However, Koreans feel differently about the battle. Historians say the victory over the Russians emboldened Japan to take over Korea. That legacy has made Koreans less than enthusiastic about the ceremonies in Incheon.
Since 1997, the Russian navy crew has visited Incheon annually to pay homage to the dead sailors who fought against Japan in the first battle of the Russo-Japanese war. The Russian authorities have always described their visit as humanitarian, a way to honor their fallen heroes, and not an effort to rekindle the spark of past imperialism.
Alexei Maloletko, the press attache of the Russian Embassy in Seoul, emphasized that there should be “no political meaning associated with the centennial event” of the sinking of the Varyag.
But some Koreans were skeptical. Incheon resident Jang Gyeong-rim, 40, said, “I don’t really welcome the Russians, because of the bitter legacy of the war a hundred years ago. I really doubt that they came here merely for humanitarian purposes.”
The Russo-Japanese War began as an imperialistic scramble for control over the Joseon dynasty, and Japan’s victory paved the way for its colonization of the Korean Peninsula soon after.
It was the first time that a European navy had been defeated by an Asian power, and subsequently, historians claim, that loss led to the demise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia.
The victory gave Japan hegemony over the Korean peninsula; hence the memory of the war imparts a sense of bitterness among Koreans.
The Russo-Japanese war concluded with the Treaty of Portsmouth, signed on Sept. 5, 1905. Under the terms of the treaty, Russia was compelled to recognize Korea’s independence and at the same time, Japan’s “paramount political, military and economic interest” in Korea.
On Feb. 11, Russian Ambassador Teymuraz Ramishvili, the commander of the new Varyag cruiser and other officials from Russia’s Pacific Fleet held a ceremony in which flowers were thrown into the sea to commemorate the dead, and set up a memorial to honor the dead at Incheon harbor’s Chinsu Park.
Several civic group members and Incheon residents protested the installment of the memorial plaque, causing a skirmish with police authorities.
In a statement, the civic groups said, “Russia must apologize for the Russo-Japanese war, the first imperialistic war of the 20th century.”
On Feb. 12, the Russian navy opened the Varyag cruiser to the public for an open tour. Besides the unveiling of the memorial plaque at Chinsu Park, the Russian navy held a series of events to commemorate the centennial, such as holding joint training of Korean and Russian navies, a soccer game between the two nations and talks between high-ranking naval officials of the two countries.
The friendly exchanges underscored both governments’ efforts to downplay the possible political connotations.
“We believe that the memorial events that will be held in Incheon in the spirit of historical reconciliation in the Northeast Asia region will ultimately lead to the strengthening of trust between all the states and nations in the region, between Russia and the Republic of Korea,” the Russian Embassy said in a statement.
Alexander Kosolavov, the press secretary of the Pacific Fleet, said, “What happened to Varyag is a good example for any sailor in any country. History is a lesson we should learn from, not to make mistakes again. We believe in a good future with Japan.”
The South Korean Foreign Ministry also took pains to ensure that the commemoration did not flare up into a political debate like the controversy over Tokto or Goguryeo.
A Foreign Ministry official said, “We have been working with the Russian officials on this matter, and we have agreed that the focus of the Varyag commemoration should be a purely humanitarian event that pays respect to the victims of the war.” No government official or Incheon city official attended the memorial service.
by Choi Jie-ho