The end of the Irkutsk War (as some called it) was not the end of history in eastern Asia or anywhere else. The attention merely shifted.
As soon as the ink was dry on the Treaty of Basel, the Empire of Japan moved to the administration of newly-acquired territory. Upon further investigation the territory could be divided into five portions.
The obvious first segment was the recent seat of battle. The Japanese set a line of demarcation at a railway junction about fifty kilometers east of Ulan-Ude and called everything west of there (more or less) the “Ulan-Ude Military District.” This region was under direct control of the Imperial Japanese Army and commanded by a Taisho (See Note 1) headquartered in Ulan-Ude. The area included within fifty kilometers of the right bank of the Lena River and all the Tannu-Ola mountains. This region was subject to martial law, although as a practical matter all the Asiatic locals were mostly ignored. As a matter of security, all the Europeans (other than a few railwaymen) were relocated out of the military district. After the war, the remaining railwaymen were relocated eastwards, replaced by Japanese.
The Japanese created a new nation east of the Ulan-Ude Military District. This nation extended east to the left bank of the Amur River and included a ten kilometer enclave on the right bank encompassing Khabarovsk. This was styled the “Republic of Khabarovsk.” The Republic extended two hundred kilometers north of Khabarovsk and was bounded on the south by Manchuria.
Further east was the “Republic of Vladivostok.” This encompassed all of Maritime Siberia east of the Amur River to its mouth and also included the lower two hundred kilometers of the Kamchatka Peninsula including the port of Petropavlovsk.
North of the Military District, and the two Republics, was the vast, nearly unexplored Northern Territory. This was under martial law and commanded by a Taisho headquartered in Sapporo. This Territory included the upper portion of the Kamchatka Peninsula and Diomede Island in the Bering Strait.
South of the Ulan-Ude Military district, Japanese assumed suzerainty over all of Outer Mongolia. As under the Russians, there was little Japanese presence in Mongolia. Local headmen ran local affairs and paid token tribute to the Japanese. The Japanese, of course retained all rights to such resources as may be found. Mongolia provided an effective barrier to northward Chinese movement west of Manchuria.
Japan incorporated Sakhalin Island and all disputed islands of the Kuriles under direct Japanese control.
The two “Republics” covered all the Europeans left in eastern Siberia. During the war, a fair number of refugee White Russians passed through the land that became the Republics. Wealthier (and upper middle class) Whites just kept going, getting on liners at Vladivostok and emigrating to Europe, the Americas, and other eastern Asian regions – mainly Shanghai, Canton, and Manila. Many younger White Russians, chafing at wartime Japanese rule, emigrated into northern Manchuria, seeking work in the industries of that region. Most of the native Europeans stayed put working mostly on the railway and in the fishing industries. A few traded with non-Europeans for furs.
The two Republics (prior to organization) had contributed about twenty-seven companies of soldiers, which (in conjunction with non-Europeans) helped the Japanese hunt down residual Reds. In addition, the Japanese captured the entire Russian Pacific Fleet, which was conceded to the Japanese by the treaty. The Fleet was of no immediate use to the Japanese. It was out of ammunition and fuel and many of the crew had gone over to the Reds early in the civil war. The ships were in a state of disrepair.
The co-operative actions of the remaining Whites earned them a good deal of credibility with the Japanese.
After the end of the war with the Soviets, the Republics maintained very small armies. The Republic of Khabarovsk had two nominal battalions, but these mostly operated as police companies. A few Reds had held out and it took another year to track them down. The Republic of Vladivostok fielded two regiments – one was fortress troops for Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk, and the other rotated in and out of the Irkutsk Line garrison.
The Republic of Khabarovsk navy consisted of two decrepit river boats armed with two machineguns each. Quite often merchant river boats had some firepower aboard to repel river pirates from barely-controlled northern Manchuria. When pirates got too active, Japanese patrol boats would augment the Khabarovsk navy.
Technically the Republic of Vladivostok had a small navy but the ships were unmanned and in various states of disrepair. Actually the best ship the Vladivostokers had was when the old Orel was returned. Its crew and officers were all Japanese and the Vladivostok captain was mostly ceremonial, but at least she could move and maneuver under her own power and fire her guns (subject to Japanese permission and ammunition supply).
Latere,after the collapse of the White Army in the Ukraine and Crimea, Wrangel’s fleet escaped, carrying the remnants of Denikin’s army and a number of civilian refugees. Wrangel’s fleet staggered as far as Aden under its own power. The British, anxious that the ships not fall into Soviet hands, provided some material, fuel, and technical assistance coaxed the ships as far as Bombay, then Columbo, then Singapore and finally Hong Kong. Negotiations with the Japanese allowed the movement of the ships to Vladivostok. Not all of the civilians made it that far. To Russians, Vladivostok and Khabarovsk were Siberia – with all the negative connotations. A number of civilians debarked at Suez, and more at Bombay and Singapore. So many of the crews jumped ship at Hong Kong that the Japanese had to provide crew to get the ships to Vladivostok.
It suited the Japanese plans to have the Republic of Vladivostok look as much as possible like a real country and a semi-viable navy dressed up that window. As the Japanese and Vladivostokers took stock of their acquisition, they realized they had essentially one decent battleship (the Imperator Aleksandr) , two deathtrap pre-dreadnoughts (Orel and Georgi Pobedonosets), two obsolete cruisers (Kornilov and Almaz), ten decent destroyers, four submarines nobody had enough nerve to submerge, and some gunboats in various states of disrepair. The Japanese did not trust the Vladivostokers with submarines and the things were useless anyway. So the Empire swapped three 1,500 GRT marus for the submarines, and the Republics got the beginnings of their own merchant fleet (another development that reinforced the fiction of Republic independence. One of the marus and four gunboats went to the Republic of Khabarovsk.
The biggest problem with the Imperator Aleksandr was there was no ammunition for her Russian-made main guns. Fortunately the Japanese were able to reverse-engineer some shells for them. The Imperator Aleksandr’s secondary guns were changed to Japanese made British-pattern guns. This simplified logistics for the ship. By adding a few Japanese crew, the ship was kept is a low level of service.
The pre-dreadnoughts were another matter. The Orel had been changed to Japanese guns already, but that didn’t change the fact her design was a known deathtrap. The decision was made to convert her to a floating battery and electric power generating station for the port of Vladivostok. Now bereft of screws, she was towed to a pier in a cove near the mouth of the harbor and provided electric power and stood guard over the entrance to the harbor.
The Georgi Pobedonosets didn’t retain but two secondary guns. She was moved to a pier at Petropavlovsk to serve the same purpose. The two old cruisers were down-gunned to make them more seaworthy for use in the northerly climes. They cruised the east Pacific every summer, showing the Vladivostok flag in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Haiphong, and Manila, but did little else.
The ten destroyers were re-armed with Japanese weapons. They were crewed mostly by Japanese reservists and Vladivostoker contractors fought the decay most of the time.
Of the roughly seventeen thousand people that had left Sebastopol, no more than nine thousand even reached Vladivostok. Of those only about twenty-five hundred stayed in the republics, mainly as ship crewmen, railway men or miners – about the only work in the Republics. Some of the better-educated of the refugees became Vladivostok diplomats, particularly in Europe. Some were attracted to the growing US aviation industry in California (See Note 2)
Once a year the SS Khabarovsk, SS Kolchak, and SS Denikin made calls on the ports of the US west coast.
Baron Wrangel stayed in Vladivostok and commanded the Vladivostok Navy until his death (natural causes) in 1928. General Denikin accepted a life of quiet exile in Europe and America.
When the Japanese occupied Vladivostok, they found an enormous cache of military equipment meant for Admiral Kolchak’s White Russian army, but by this time Kolchak was dead and his army was defunct. In order to prevent it from “walking away,” the Japanese loaded all of it up into returning freighters and took almost every crate of this treasure trove back to Japan.
The Japanese engineered elections for parliaments of the two Republics. Of course the parliaments and ministers of the Republics were satisfactory to the Japanese. Each Prime Minister had a Japanese “advisor” who was the de facto governor of the statelet.
The elected officials knew they were in essence puppets on a national scale, but the fiction of the Republics allowed the White Russians control of local issues (much like the Mongols). They also knew that if not for the Imperial Japanese Army, they were dead. So they made the best of the situation and played along. Those with delusions of grandeur were encouraged to emigrate out.
The European Russians made up about 40% of the people in the “Republic of Khabarovsk” and maybe 55% of the people in the “Republic of Vladivostok.” The balance were Asiatic people, mostly of Mongol or Turkic extraction. The Europeans outside the vestigial governments either ran the railway, ports, or mines of the region. A few were merchants.
Over the next few years there was an immigration of White Russians, mostly from Europe. These were mostly unskilled workers and farmers chased out as the White faction died. In 1923 alone, over forty thousand White Russians emigrated into the two Republics from France alone. (See Note 3) Most of these joined Japanese and Korean immigrants working in the budding coal and iron mines and the nascent iron refining industry located near Chita in the “Republic of Khabarovsk.” Many of the Cossack émigrés did not take to mining and steelmaking in Japanese-dominated Siberia and relocated back into Europe. A lot of them wound up in Czechoslovakia, mostly in the Bratislava area, where (oddly enough) they worked in mining and steelmaking.
Many of the European Russian émigrés stayed in the republics long enough to establish citizenship and re-emigrated elsewhere. Vladivostok and Khabarovsk were still after all Siberia, and that didn’t set well with most European Russians. As a result almost every nation in the world had its own little White Russian (now Republic of Vladivostok) colony.
Through the governments of the Republics, the Japanese did not allow Red Russian émigrés into the region. They had had a bellyful of the Reds.
Before the Russian civil war, the Russians knew about gold, silver, and copper deposits in the Kolya River Valley north of Magadan, but they had been unable to develop those resources before the war. The Japanese found the surveys and immediately set about developing these resources. The going was slow. This is one of the coldest areas on the planet. The port of Magadan is ice-free less than six months a year. But they struck precious metals early and that justified a decade-long development project. The Kolya river resources were worked by Japanese and Koreans. The only gaijin that ever saw those mines were Red prisoners that the Japanese had no intention of repatriating or even admitting that they held. The Kolya river mines were first developed on a shoestring and required no foreign money. After they began producing, the precious metals from the Kolya valley carried Japan over many tight financial spots.
Almost at the outset of the war, the Japanese found a giant bituminous coal field. That coal had helped get the Japanese past that first brutal winter in Siberia, both for heating and running the railway.
In the spring of 1922, contracted prospectors found a major deposit of very high grade iron ore not eighty miles from the coal fields in the foothills of the Tannu-Ola mountains. British and American capital allowed the Japanese to energetically develop this resource. By 1925 ore was being extracted. Someone noticed the proximity and blast furnaces were built to produce pig iron and wrought iron. The area of the coal fields around Chita sprouted hundreds of “beehive” coke ovens as the Chita coal was passable metallurgical coal (low ash). By the late 1920s the railway and river barges were carrying coke, pig iron, and wrought iron to the open hearth furnaces of Japan. (See Note 4)
Manganese, molybdenum, and bauxite ore deposits were discovered in the Ulan-Ude Military District and mines were being constructed by the late 1920s.
With the demise of the Russian Empire, their concessions in China were picked up by Republic of Vladivostok firms that were in fact fronts for the Japanese. These concessions were mostly for lumber and furs, although some coal and iron came in as the Chita iron-producing region grew. The Japanese, of course took the lion’s share of the profits.
The end of the war and an agreement with the Americans gave the Japanese and their Republic of Vladivostok puppets virtually a monopoly on the rich fisheries of the Sea of Ohotsk. In 1922, Japan, Vladivostok, and the United states divided the northern Pacific fisheries at the International Date Line. The Japanese and Vladivostokers agreed to keep their fishing vessels west of the line and the US agreed to stay east of it. Both nations got fabulous fishing grounds all to themselves as much as they cared to enforce. The entire reason for the Republic of Vladivostok base in Petropavlovsk was to present a white face to the fishing Americans. The Japanese and Vladivostokers immediately enforced this monopoly by patrolling the inlets to the Sea of Ohotsk. While the Americans had to contend with some of the stormiest seas in the world, the Sea of Ohotsk was a bit calmer, if ice-bound part of the year.
Both the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Ohotsk are very productive and the Japanese found they had fish to export, and China was always hungry for protein. Unfortunately, the Chinese are exactly like the Japanese in that they prefer fresh fish. “Fresh” to these people means they want to see it wiggling. While this was possible for consumers in Japan, it was just too long a voyage from the Sea of Ohotsk to Chinese ports of Tianjin, Dailin, and Shanghai. The Japanese could and did supply salt fish to these ports but the price was much lower. By using rail connections, the Japanese also sold a lot of processed fish in Manchuria.
But far and away, the best money-maker for the Japanese was weapons. Almost all of the trade weapons came from the stocks captured at Vladivostok in 1918. Some was smuggled in by ship to the coastal cities of China and Siam, but most went to the Manchurian warlords.
1.Equivalent of a General or Generaloberst in other armies
2.Notably Alexander Seversky and Igor Sikorsy.
3.Untold thousands remained in the West. Some White Russians, who had fought the Reds in Ukraine and Poland infiltrated throughout Europe and some went to the Americas.
4.By 1920, the Bessemer process was obsolete and was replaced by the slow but precise open hearth furnace for making merchant steel. The basic oxygen process was decades into the future.