“State mind differing from the ordinary one in its ability to grasp the myriad ages shall appreciate the greatness of this idea; let every ton of the steel launched on the water be valued; let the people’s sacrifices to the Navy be great; the sea return a hundredfold to its future masters in the wealth, culture, splendor and glory gained in the battle for the ocean.”
To answer this question, one should take a close look at all stages of his activities both in the capacity of Navy Commander and in later life, where he was engaged in public activities promoting his ideas following his retirement.
Nikolay Gerasimovich first encountered in practice the problem of building a fleet in spring 1939 – immediately after his appointment as People’s Commissar of the USSR Navy. By that time, despite his young age, the 34-year-old officer gained the reputation of one of the best instructor commanders, who had managed to bring to perfection ship’s operational readiness thus ensuring his cruiser ranking among the best the ships in the USSR Navy. In 1937, he got to be the youngest person in the entire world to be promoted to the Captain’ rank thus earning fame in all the USSR fleets and flotillas. The would-be People’s Commissar of the Navy gained firsthand experience of commanding large naval formations in Spain in 1936-1937, where, acting as principal naval adviser to the Republican Government, he was involved in the preparation and conduct of Republican Fleet’s operations and provided security of sea convoys carrying goods from the USSR. In 1938, he took command of the Pacific Fleet to fight in the military conflict against Japan, where he led the actions of Pacific Fleet sailors assisting the units and formations of the Red Army in the battle of Lake Khasan.
During those years Kuznetsov’s passion for the job of a military sailor complemented by his outstanding innate abilities, great educational background, extensive naval career and meetings and conversations with senior government officials and party and governmental leaders visiting the ships he served on shaped his vision of the country’s future fleet and the way it should be built.
By the time Nikolay Gerasimovich was appointed to the Navy’s highest post, the USSR had been engaged in implementing an ambitious program of “large marine shipbuilding” for three years starting from June 1936. The People’s Commissar appreciated the essentiality of this important and difficult mission for the entire country and was deeply aware of his responsibility for ensuring his subordinate Navy’s preparedness for any potential war. Therefore, Kuznetsov had to promptly obtain a full insight into the relevancy of his predecessors’ decisions on the fleets’ make-up and evaluate real capabilities of the shipbuilding industry. As a result, in August 1939, a revised version of the 1940-1947 Military Shipbuilding Program was reported to the country’s top leadership. It was Nikolay Gerasimovich who insisted that the first two aircraft carriers should be included in the program.
However, in September of the same year, World War II broke out in Europe. In response to the current military and political situation, the government decided to terminate the adopted shipbuilding program. Thus, the program never got to be implemented.
Kuznetsov’s idea of a well-balanced fleet continues to persist in the modern 2050 Shipbuilding Program
Kuznetsov’s follow-up activities to determine priorities in the construction of ships for the USSR Navy culminated in him reporting a new 1940-1942 Ship and Auxiliary Vessel Construction Plan to the government as early as July 25, 1940. In his memo to Stalin stating the need to approve the program, the People’s Commissar of the Navy stressed that “the absence of an approved fleet construction program would complicate future resolution of an array of issues related to fleet support, including personnel training, planning and construction of naval bases and central warehouses, planning of weapon and munition production”.
The three-year plan provided for termination of future construction of large surface ships. Of all the battleships and heavy cruisers under construction, the work was to focus on the “Soviet Russia” battleship and “Kronstadt” and “Sevastopol” heavy cruisers. Construction of other battleships and destroyer frigates were to be curbed to let the People’s Commissariat of Shipbuilding focus on the construction of light cruisers, squadron destroyers, patrol ships, minesweepers and submarines.
According to the Navy People’s Commissar, the program failed to meet even the minimum requirements of naval theatres in terms of fleets’ make-up. Nonetheless, given the limited capabilities of the shipbuilding industry for the third five-year plan, Kuznetsov considered it unrealistic to place greater requirements to the program.
In June 1941, Hitlerite Germany treacherously attacked the Soviet Union with the pre-war shipbuilding program being subsequently terminated.
Long-term planning of fleet construction activities had not resumed until the end of World War II. The new ten-year post-war shipbuilding plan for 1946-1955, developed under the guidance of the Navy Commissar Admiral Kuznetsov was submitted to the government for approval in August 1945. Its distinctive feature was the idea of creating a ship-balanced fleet. Nikolay Gerasimovich firmly believed that the fleet construction should be centered around the role and place of the Navy in the system of the country’s military, its combat missions and tasks assigned to its organic branches. At that in certain naval theatres focus should have been made on the branches possessing the greatest ability to accomplish the missions assigned to the Navy.
The ten-year shipbuilding plan on the one hand provided for the continuation of the previous policy aimed to build a large sea and ocean-going fleet, while on the other one – the reinforcement of light forces. Keeping in mind the experience of World War II, Nikolai Gerasimovich continued to prioritize the construction of aircraft carriers.
The innovative approaches utilized by Kuznetsov in drawing up the shipbuilding program are vividly illustrated by the words he said at the meeting with shipbuilding industry designers in October 1946: “The main issues of new equipment influencing ... new shipbuilding include atom, missile, new energy and new means of surveillance, communication and control.”
Discussions of the new policy document took place amidst harsh conditions. To stand his ground, the People’s Commissar for the Navy had to engage into heated debates with his opponents.
In his memoirs he would write: “The ten-year design and shipbuilding plan (ed. in 1945) defined aircraft carriers (large and small), cruisers carrying 9-inch artillery systems, submarines, destroyers, etc. as the main types of warships. The disputes that occurred in the course of discussions mainly focused on aircraft carriers, which I insisted on and which were not accepted for construction. There were no major disputes over the cruisers. Debates on destroyers were very heated. I strongly objected the construction of a large number of Project 30 destroyers because they did not carry any versatile artillery systems.
Eventually, the views of the Navy People’s Commissar on the fleet construction failed to get Stalin’s approval. In the context of the post-war resource shortage and the emergence of new challenges and major potential adversaries for the country’s leadership, the unconditional priority was the implementation of the nuclear project and the development of nuclear weapons. The country’s leader believed that the implementation of a large shipbuilding program could have been postponed.
Besides, heavy cruisers continued to be Stalin’s ideal. The leadership of the People’s Commissariat of Shipbuilding Industry also strongly objected the construction of aircraft carriers.
Eventually, the draft plan was adjusted several times to exclude large and subsequently small aircraft carriers.
Aggressive advocating of his ideas on implementation of the naval shipbuilding plan led to Kuznetsov’s disgrace. In January 1947, because of disagreements with Stalin on the program of further development of the fleet, Kuznetsov was removed from the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Navy and appointed as the Head of Department of Naval Education.
Nikolay Gerasimovich wrote: “As the debate about the new program progressed to be in full swing, I was dismissed from my post”.
Thus, the post-war shipbuilding program was finally discussed and adopted without me, contrary to my opinion, without my suggestions being taken into account. Construction of these ships was also mainly carried out in my absence (1946-1951).
Deprived of the opportunity to lead the construction of the fleet, Nikolai Gerasimovich still cared about naval shipbuilding constantly participating in their discussion.
It’s clearly visible from his memories: “I ... always considered the biggest mistakes in post-war shipbuilding to be the start of construction of a heavy cruiser, large number of project 30 destroyers and continued construction of Project 15 submarines.”
There is a great deal of correspondence on all these issues, especially on the inferiority of Project 30 destroyers.
As a Commanding Officer of the 5th Fleet in the Pacific Ocean, Kuznetsov on his own initiative presented a report on the problems of naval shipbuilding at the meeting of the Main Naval Council, which was attended by Stalin. In his report, he openly stated that “all materials that have been collected on the experience of war are gone”, that there is no correct ratio between the types of ships. These and other direct reproaches to the country’s leadership, voiced at the council by Nikolai Gerasimovich, were unthinkably bold for that time. It seemed that Kuznetsov would be finally finished. Nonetheless, following the meeting of the Council, Stalin removed Naval Minister Admiral Ivan Yumashev and appointed Admiral Kuznetsov to replace him. The move was very typical of the leader who valued competence, responsibility and dedication.
Following his promotion, Nikolay Gerasimovich resumed drawing up a new shipbuilding program submitted to the government in spring 1954 and covering the period from 1956 to 1965. Staying true to his principles, guided by the challenges facing the fleet, the achievements of modern science and the capabilities of the shipbuilding industry, he continued promoting the construction of a balanced fleet. Along with nuclear submarines and missile surface ships, the program provided for the construction of aircraft carriers and amphibious ships. He persevered in his attempts to prove that without aircraft carriers the Navy would not be able to accomplish its missions. Kuznetsov believed that the speediest introduction of missile weapons, both strike and anti-aircraft ones, was the prerequisite for further development of surface forces.
Once again, however, his idea of the need for a balanced fleet failed to get any support. The country’s leadership, led by Khrushchev, decided to build a “nuclear missile fleet” incorporating nuclear submarines and shore-based missile-carrying aircraft as the main branches. Large surface ships assigned with an auxiliary role while aircraft carriers were declared as “weapons of aggression”. Kuznetsov’s firmness in defending his views once again led to him being removed from the office, reduced in rank and retired without the right to be reinstated.
The situation Nikolay Gerasimovich faced after his resignation deprived him of the ability to directly influence Navy construction planning. Nevertheless, the plethora of naval leaders he had brought up, books written by him, numerous articles and speeches reflecting his ideas and recollections on the perspectives of the Navy have left their mark.
Three years after Khrushchev’s removal, the-then USSR Navy Commander Sergei Gorshkov spearheaded the construction of a ship-balanced fleet, previously proposed by Kuznetsov and implemented through 1971-1990 shipbuilding plans. During that period, five aircraft carriers were built including the most modern one, named “Tbilisi”. On October 4, 1990, the cruiser was renamed to become the “USSR Fleet Admiral Kuznetsov”.
The idea of the former USSR Navy Commander Admiral Nikolai Kuznetsov to create a balanced fleet persists in the 2050 Shipbuilding Program. It has also found reflection in the Fundamentals of Russia’s 2030 National Marine Policy emphasizing that “... The Russian Federation should have powerful well-balanced fleets in all strategic directions that would include ships designed to operate in the offshore maritime zones and oceanic areas, as well as naval aircraft and coastal troops equipped with effective precision weapons and enjoying an extensive basing and support system.”