Three centuries of the Russian Navy

Three centuries of the Russian Navy

Over more than three centuries Russia has lived as a great sea nation (and from a certain moment, as a great ocean nation). That direction of development was set by Peter the Great. He was the founder of the Russian regular Navy that celebrates its 325th anniversary this year.


Peter the Great implemented not only his youthful dream, but also endeavors of his ancestors. Russian military expeditions from the Varangians to the Greeks, to Constantinople and the Caspian Sea, across the Black Sea, scramble for the Neva coastline, traveling by the Pomors (northern sea dwellers) in the Arctic Ocean, were significant steps towards conquering the seas. However, for a long time, rivers remained the main traffic arteries of the country.  It took the genius of Peter to enable Russia “to stand firm-footed by the sea».

It is fair to say that the first attempt to establish the Russian navy was made by Peter’s father, Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich. Pursuant to his edict of 29 June 1667, a famous frigate Oryol was built to protect merchant shipping on the Volga and in the Caspian Sea. Oryol, for the first time in history, flied the tricolored flag that was an ancestor of the current Russian state flag. The Tsar’s edict is generally accepted to be the first government order for building a warship, which, in our own days, gave rise to establish a professional holiday, the Day of the Shipbuilder.

Further strengthening of the Russian state inevitably led to establishing closer trade relations with European countries. But the only seaport at that time was faraway Archangelsk, and even there the trade was in the hands of the Dutch and the English. New ways across the Baltic Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea were needed, which, in its turn, brought about the need to establish regular navy. Only with help of the navy it was possible to break the trade blockade and to ensure security of the national seafaring, create conditions for the country to communicate with the rest of the world.

Young Peter, like nobody else of his contemporaries, understood the unique role of the navy. He realized that only sea gates would make the vast country really great. On 30 October 1696, at his suggestion, the Boyar Duma ruled: “Sea vessels shall exist”. In fact, it was the first shipbuilding program that stipulated resources for naval construction, defined the deadlines and the number of ships that would be required to assault the fortress of Azov, since its seizure opened the way for Russia to the Sea of Azov and the Caspian Sea: “The ships shall be built with full preparedness for the war, with canons and small arms, by April 1697…”

Creation of the navy and the start of regular domestic shipbuilding was the first successful project of state importance by Peter the Great. For those needs he accumulated resources of the state and of private companies who were requested to build naval ships at their own expense. It was then that Peter established first government shipyards, including the Admiralty and Solombala (now Krasnaya Kuznitsa) Shipyards, the two oldest plants within the USC. Having started with establishing metallurgical plants in the Urals, the future Emperor turned the whole country into “a single plant” (according to Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevcky), built an industrial complex that combined all kinds of various plants and factories. Foreign experience was used at the service of the Russian Navy. However, to get independent from foreign experts, Peter opened a navigation school in Moscow to train domestic personnel.     

Peter the Great badly needed talented people, therefore he attracted them from everywhere, regardless of their high birth and previous merits. He himself worked at the shipyards, hewing timber alongside with lowborn carpenters. He developed shipbuilding in the country through his own example and vigor. Even having established a system of managing the Navy, the Naval Directorate (Prikaz), that was further substituted by the Admiralty Collegium, Peter never left alone his pet project. By 1720 he had personally developed the Naval Regulations and, in 1723, the Schedule of Ship Metrics.  The newly established industry was based on the global shipbuilding experience, thanks to which the domestically-built ships had high nautical qualities. As a result, over no longer than a quarter of the century, Russia received well-equipped and battle-hardened naval fleet, one of the strongest for its time.   

“The whole heroic deed of Peter the Great,” according to Mikhail Menshikov, a famous Russian philosopher, publicist and fleet expert, “was to provide Russia with naval power, to get it out from the continental confinement… let it out onto the ocean vastness, onto the free space of the planetary life.” Having its own navy, Russia was enabled to profitably trade with Europe. The free trade resulted not only in treasury reimbursement. The country started to receive knowledge and technologies required for its development, creating opportunities for origination of national science and education. Academician Vladimir Vernadsky was correct to say that one of the major achievements of Peter the Great was that he “was the first to introduce Russian society and Russian statesmanship into creative scientific work.” Way back at the time of Peter the Great, and afterwards, Russian seamen continued their voyages, opened new lands, described and mapped unknown seas, bays and gulfs. Finally, without its own navy that multiply increased the military strength of the state, it would have been difficult for Russia to protect its sovereignty, to gain the upper hand in the battles of Gangut, Ösel and Grengam, that became the prologue of the victory over Sweden, a powerful land and maritime nation.   

History teaches that a nation that has access to the sea and the longest shoreline, becomes most influential. Domination on the sea ensures domination in the world. If world domination is ensured, also ensured is the protection of trade. In its turn, the latter leads to economic power. Many reputable scholars refer to the access to the sea as an indispensable prerequisite for those countries that claim the status of a maritime nation. It was no surprise that after the victory in the Great Northern War and execution of the Treaty of Nystadt, that, according to Peter the Great, was achieved by “nothing else but the Navy”, Russia became established as a strong naval power and was proclaimed an empire. And tremendous credit for it goes to the Russian Navy. This year is a 300 anniversary of that significant historic event. 

Alternatively, underestimating the importance of the sea power, reducing attention to the navy, weakens the nation, cuts roots of its strength. Tsar Peter appreciated it like no nobody else when he said that every monarch “that has only land armed forces, has only one hand, while the monarch that, on top of that, has navy, has both hands.”  The subsequent history of Russia has vividly proved it.  

Success of the Navy achieved under Catherine the Great resulted from good shape of ships and high level of personnel training. In late 18th century, our sailors gained one victory after another. The most significant one was the victory at the Chesme Bay (1770), where the whole Turkish Navy was destroyed by fire. Through that battle Russia solved its long-standing issues: it established domination over the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, annexed the Crimea (1783) and built a seaport with an admiralty, dockyard and fortress in the Sevastopol Bay (1784), now the main naval base of the Navy Black Sea Fleet.

Year after year Russia expanded its naval strength. At the turn of the 19th century the nation started building large warships and combat vessels. The most advanced of the ships at that time was the legendary 130-cannon battleship Blagodat built at the Admiralty Shipyard within the shortest time possible. The first half of the 19th century was the time when Russia began to build steamships.  The first steamship Yelizaveta built at Charles Baird’s Shipyard was used to carry passengers from the capital city to Kronstadt and back. At about the same time two more of the USC largest shipyards were established. In 1826 it was the Alexandrovsky Foundry (now the Proletarsky Shipyard), the history of which accounts for 195 years. As early as at the first decade of its operation the plant built a submarine by at outstanding inventor Karl Schilder (1834). And in 1849 in Nizhny Novgorod, one of the largest industrial centers of Russia, the Sormovo Shipyard was established (now the Red Sormovo Shipyard). 

Over that time period, based on the success of its shipbuilders and its naval strength, Russia gained quite a few glorious victories, including those in the Mediterranean Sea, near Athos Peninsula and the Straight of Dardanelles (1807). In 1833 our Navy regained the right of free passage through the Black Sea straights. Besides, on Russia’s demand, entry of warships of other countries could be banned. However, not only military victories added weight to the Russian Navy. It grew even higher when our seamen Ivan Kruzenshtern and Yuri Lisyansky made their first voyage around the globe (1803-1806). And, no doubt, few achievements can compare with the discovery of Antarctica by Russian seafarers. Faddey Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev left their mark in history of the Age of Discovery when two centuries ago they proved the existence of the sixth continent. Two more important events are characteristic of that period. In 1821-1824 Fyodor Lütke made a successful voyage to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago on board the brig Novaya Zemlya built at Solombala Shipyard. In 1849 Captain 1st Rank Gennady Nevelskoy, Commander of the schooner Baikal, reached the estuary of the River Amur and raised the Russian flag there. Russia reached the Pacific Ocean. 

We must admit that without navy our country would never have had such results. The epoch-making deed of the navy is the great service to the benefit of the motherland. Subsequent events showed once again how closely the shape of the navy and the strength and weight of the nation are connected.

The era of steam-powered and armor-plated navy was approaching. The first yard to start building such ships was the Admiralty Shipyard, that has always been one of the centers of advanced shipbuilding ideas. In 1830-s the first Russian steam-sailing paddle-wheel frigate Bogatyr was laid there. Nevertheless, Russia lagged behind in building steam-powered armor-plated ships, while systematic construction of steam-powered propeller-driven warships, as a matter of fact, began as late as in 1851.

Hard payoff for long overdue technical upgrading of the army and navy was Russian defeat in the Crimean war of 1853-1856. Russian sailing vessels were unable to cope with most modern steamships of the English and French navy. To prevent enemy warships from entering the Sevastopol Bay, Russia had to sink its ships there. As a result, Russia lost its right to have its navy in the Black Sea – all the way up to 1871.

Russia could retain its status of a great maritime nation solely on condition that its naval fleet was converted from sailing into steam-powered and armor-plated one, which required sweeping reforms in the shipbuilding. It is exactly within the framework of those reforms that in May 1856, in St. Petersburg, the Carr & MacPherson yard (now, the Baltic Shipyard) was established and started developing new projects of ships. Before long, the shipyard built a new submarine engineered by designer Ivan Aleksandrovsky, and the armor-plated gun boat Opyt, the first steel ship in the country. As of today, the shipyard remains a leader of the national shipbuilding. This year it celebrates its 165th anniversary.   

Over a relatively short time period, a technical revolution took place in Russian shipbuilding and a sufficiently strong armor-plated naval fleet was created in the Baltic and the Black Seas. In 1872, Admiral Andrey Popov, one of the founders of the Russian design school, engineered the first Russian battleship Peter the Great. Warships of that class later became the backbone of all the world-leading naval fleets.  

In late 19th century two or three large ships were launched every year. Our shipyards were loaded with orders. During the same time period Russia was building its first icebreaker Yermak at a Newcastle shipyard. However, the built naval ships had no time to fully realize their potential. Poor judgement shown by the Russian government resulted in the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-1905 and the Tsushima disaster. “If we had had five or six battleships more, Japan either would not have dared to dash into that war or would have been utterly defeated at the first contact,” as was correctly pointed out by Mikhail Menshikov.  That defeat was a severe blow for the clout of the Russian Empire, and, according to some historians, even hastened its collapse. After the Tsushima battle, Russia, though having a million-strong army, refused from continuing the war with Japan, which attests to the fact that the army cannot replace the navy, while the navy on many occasions can replace the army.     

Marine success or failure depends on combination of a number of circumstances. Seamen’s courage and ability to sacrifice themselves for the good of the Motherland do not always impact the result of the battle. It requires wise political decisions. It is not by chance that after the Russian-Japanese war, fundamental development of shipbuilding and restoration of the naval fleet started. Within the framework of that development, the submarine naval fleet was created, a Law on the Russian Imperial Navy and the Advanced Shipbuilding Program were adopted. Russian shipyards (inclusive of Putilovsky Shipyard, now Severnaya Verf Shipbuilding Plant) developed and built ships of most up-to-date types and of all major classes, which enabled Russia to fight for retaining its marine stature.  

Nowadays this uneasy fight goes on and gets even keener (we all witness it). History repeats itself. Therefore, it is so important to learn the lesson of the three-hundred-year-old history of the Russian navy: through availability of the developed domestic shipbuilding and modern powerful ships we have Chesma, while through the lack of those we have Tsushima. Russian marine strength, and, hence, the independence and prosperity of the nation are still based on the shipbuilding industry and naval fleet. Those foundations were laid by Peter the Great. To attract attention to the glorious deeds of our forefathers, the USC, together with its partners, the Russian Historical Society and the International Information Agency Russia Today, started the “The Naval Power” Media Project. The project is dedicated to the 325th anniversary of the Russian Navy and regular Russian shipbuilding, as well as to the 350th anniversary of Peter the Great that will be celebrated next year. The official website of the Corporation has a section “350 Years of the Navy. Russia as a Naval Power”, where one can find rare artefacts and documented evidences of how the Russian shipbuilding was developing at various historical periods. Our magazine will also continue to publish materials on the history of the Russian school of shipbuilding, on ships and people who build them.

History teaches that a nation that has access to the sea and the longest shoreline, becomes most influential