Northern colossus

Northern colossus

Yekaterina Pilikina
Head of the Information Service, Sevmash

December 21, 2019 will mark the 80th anniversary of Sevmash, Russia’s largest shipyard. Spread over hundreds of hectares, it builds and launches the largest and fastest nuclear submarines, boasting the capability to dive deeper than any other counterpart in the word. This said, the facility takes more pride in its staff than anything else, since it is them who shaped its glorious history

I am going through yellowed pages. All columns of Molotov’s newspaper Stalinets, released on December 21, 1939 speak about the 60th anniversary of the leader. Of course, there is not a single line about that grand present, which had been prepared for several years in conditions of extreme secrecy. For a moment, it was the grand project of the century.

Work was apace to build a giant plant, which according to the design equaled the capacity of all shipbuilding facilities in Leningrad put together and the fledgling Soviet country was so much desperate to get for construction of military and commercial ships of all classes. Here in the North, amid limitless marshes grew Plant No. 402, later renamed to Northern Machine-Building Enterprise. The facility grew not by virtue of a miracle or supertechnologies (however, advanced equipment, unknown to other facilities in the country, was indeed committed to the project), but titanic, often yeoman’s labor of communists, best workers and Yagrinlag’s inmates.

Marshes and seas will step back!

Back in January 1936, the USSR Council of Labor and Defense decided to lay down a huge shipbuilding plant in the vicinity of Arkhangelsk for construction of a powerful strategic fleet. What the country already had in Leningrad, Nikolaev and the Far East were too vulnerable to attacks due to geography should a war break out. The new place was perfect in this respect. At least the committee thought so. Perched on the shore in the estuary of the Northern Dvina was the Nikolo-Korelsky monastery of the 15th century, which sheltered builders when the project gained traction.

The location provided multiple opportunities. For starters, it had a direct access to the sea, which freezes ever so lightly, suitable for taking ships out for trials. Not least important was that Yagry Island protected the spot from the north. Finally, the place could be linked with the Isagorka station by a railway. Stalin approved the choice, noting the wisdom of old monks in picking places for erecting their buildings. The plant was supposed to spread over 300ha. The territory between the old house of God and the White Sea was flooded during tides. Ivan Kirilkin, heading the project, set major goals as follows: remove the peat cover to a depth of up to 0.5m and use sand to raise the plot to 3m above the sea, pave highways, and erect jetties, apartment and administrative buildings. “Marshes and seas will step back. We only need to put up a fight and stay steadfast. And sure as hell we will win!” later he wrote in his book The White Sea Colossus.

The inaugural ship, the Project 23 battleship Sovetskaya Belorussiya, was to be laid down in three years since Kirilkin’s appointment on December 21, 1939 to lead the construction of the facility. And this deadline, which Soviet authorities were resolved to make coincide with Stalin’s birthday, was binding for all and everybody. For those who dared defying the decision it was fraught with consequences. Kirilkin wrote the book for workers in an attempt to boost their morale, explain the task and ultimately meet the deadline. It was an easy thing to do by no means, since the construction site offered no basic conditions neither for living nor for work. Cold barracks, no amenities, lack of materials...

Here how Sergey Bogolyubov, who took over the enterprise during the war, described the place: “Tundra. Deep, at some places reaching 11m below the surface, limitless peat swamps. Not even a dry spot here. Everything has to be built on piles – houses, pavements, bridges to the houses. The whole place is flooded. Stoves planted on the floor, if not supported by piles, would submerge by a meter over a year. Plank roads everywhere, made from thick boards, would eventually end up buried in the peat and new boards would be laid down on top of them. I spent two-three years and four layers were already underground. The lack of forests and the polar sea make the right recipe for permanent and rather strong winds. Smoke, bellowing from the tall pipe of the heat power plant, after it was finished, hugged the ground. Snow, stripped from banks and mounds, flew horizontally, covering a just scraped road with a meter-thick layer. Roads turned into tranches in winter. There were no villages at all in the vicinity. As a rule, food was brought from outside, but covering only 50-70 percent of the military ration. A single-track railway was the only gateway to inhabited places. As for land routes, there were no paths, let alone roads.” Back to the pages of The White Sea Colossus and we are awed by descriptions of wide streets, the most advanced equipment in the entire Soviet Union, the plant to built powerful ships and city to become the most prosperous in the country’s North. But Kirilin was indeed a visionary. Time proved him right, despite the fact that the real situation, staff and equipment included, were unfavorable to say the least.

The greatest in the world

The job to design the shipyard was given to two dozen specialized organizations and institutions. The government enrolled the best hands of the country, including scientists, archaeologists, builders, etc. The project encompassed domestic and foreign experience in the area of construction of shipyards. As per the design, the giant plant spread over 7km was one-off both in the USSR and abroad. Sergey Bogolubov reminisced that Adm. Olson, then the U.S. Naval Attache, had visited the place during the war and said, “Your plant is the greatest in the world. We have no such giants in the U.S.”

But its construction set the USSR back quite a quid. According to Kirilkin, the aggregate total needed for the erection of the city and shipyard was 800 mln. RUR. For the sake of comparison, consider the price of the country’s largest machine builder of the time, the Stalin Plant in Novo-Kramatorsk, worth around 500 bln. RUR. Kirilkin had no illusions as for what a giant he and his workers had to erect. “A large plant is a huge city of various shops. These shops are huge buildings, spacious enough to house, for example, the village of Kudma, all its life stock, property, and people,” he wrote later.

Those who came to build the plant deserve special attention, for these people comprised in a sense the DNA of the shipyard and city. Before the war broke out it was obligatory for the shipbuilding facilities in the south and Leningrad, as well as on the Volga River to send workers of the 5th category and above, as well as engineers to the plant and city, taking shape in the North. The best of the Soviet intelligentsia ended in this place. Innokenty Bakhtin, a veteran of the plant, who arrived in one of the first groups at the place, notes in his recollections that heads of facilities stood out for their “depth and intelligence, as well as independence in decision-making, special attitude to work, and ability to summon every bit of their enormous skills and expertise to organize any task in conditions of the new plant, which not just started taking shape but was far away from industrial centers and plants of our country. We got a truly powerful and qualified staff of workers and engineers, created by our leaders of turbulent characters, too demanding first and foremost for themselves.” People came from shipbuilding facilities, as well as the best workers, employed in the Arkhangelsk regions. The screening process was serious. Selected were only those, who had achievements in his records. Soviet people followed their heart, arriving bushy-tailed and bright-eyed to erect a new city on the marshy land. Let us not be fooled for there were few money-driven workers. Some plants were reluctant to let go their golden boys and figured out a loophole. They picked some of their 3rd and 4th category staff and promoted to the 5th category to send to the North.

Kirilkin and his people “fought the swamp” for a bit more than 2 years. May 1937 saw almost 10,000 people, toiling at the construction site. Their sacrifices and selfless contributions did not save the schedule from slipping 5-6 months. To expedite the process, Beriya, People’s Interior Commissar, intervened in May 1939. His office took over the construction entirely. Inmates were brought in. Some sources suggest that their number reached 60,000. Kirilkin was relieved of his duties for failing to keep up with the schedule, accused of espionage and sabotage, and sentenced to a prison term. In 1942, he died in the Vyatsky Correctional Labor Camp.

New shipbuilding era

Among the items displayed in Sevmash’s museum is tiny invitation card No. 401. It requests the honor of Comrade Dolgikh’s presence at Shop 1-3 (today’s Covered Slipway No. 2) on December 21, 1939 at 14.00 for the plant commissioning ceremony. There is in fact no other evidence other than this slip of paper of that historical day, when the shipbuilding operation of the White Sea enterprise kicked off. The yet unfinished shop hosted the ceremony of laying down the battleship Sovetskaya Belorussiya, one of the largest ships in the Soviet Navy. Just think that she was the length of the world’s largest cruise ship Titanic. However, the Soviet battleship was wider abeam and displaced more as well. “I will always remember almost verbatim what Boris Kronov, heading the project, had to say,” wrote Mikhail Popov, Sevmash’s veteran. “Addressing us, still young people, in the wake of the ceremony, he said, ‘Here, youngsters! Years will pass and you might start grumbling what a poor job they did constructing the plant and city, those bastards...’ All of us got a good laugh then, dismissing his words and praising the endeavor, saying what a really good socialist city and huge plant had been erected and that our children would appreciate its true value.” And children did.

The facility was so expertly designed with so much wisdom that its modernization margin allowed for its reconstruction without stopping the operation. It survived three technological revolutions, which kept it relevant and suitable for construction of the most advanced ships, record-breaking submarines among them.

Plant No. 402 lived up to expectations. It is a proud recipient of five Soviet orders for the development of cutting-edge equipment and three highest awards of Russia. No other shipbuilder can boast that many decorations of the highest grade. Over its 80-year history, Sevmash was led by 12 directors, all of them being solid professionals, who passed through all levels of their carriers. They always tried to benefit the plant, come hell or high water, performing state orders in the most critical conditions.

The state did the right thing, their stake paid off. The geography is good for the Nazis did not make it to Plant No. 402 and people have proved to be a true asset. People in the North are strong. There are no people who ended up here by chance for only those stay, who are resolved to make achievements. The 80-year history of the place offered them multiple chances for that.

During the war, when women and teenagers comprised the backbone of the staff. During the thriving years of the Soviet industry, when the scope of the nuclear submarine construction operation ran beyond imaginable. The shipbuilding history is by no means replete with cases of six nuclear submarines launched per year. These were grand and smart boats, which were instrumental for the USSR in gaining parity with the U.S. And does not the survival of the plant in the 1990s amount to a feat? Like many other establishments in the country Sevmash could have fallen into oblivion as well. But the major slipway of the country kept going. Its skillful leaders, who made emphasis on the production conversion, adoption of new aspects of operation and military and technical cooperation, prompted Sevmash to reveal its new shining facets.

Strolling on Sevmash’s streets

29 thousand people walk on Sevmash’s streets to their work every day. The streets in the dreams of the first headman came true. Spacious, well maintained and clean shops are stuffed with powerful equipment; and of course, the place bustles with people. They are here extremely valuable assets. President Putin’s address at the ceremony of laying down the nuclear submarine Knyaz Vladimir in 2012 were to the point, “No other plant in the whole world has done so much for its country as Sevmash.” Perestroyka passed and the facility has recovered, living already a new life and getting a second wind, new dreams and resolve.

Michael Budnichenko
Director General, Sevmash

The 80-year threshold in the life of a shipbuilding enterprise is a watershed moment, telling us whether the facility has passed its test by time. In our history we were put through various periods to include the Golden Age of Shipbuilding and dramatic production decline. Our shipbuilders survived and emerged proud winners. Today in the run-up to our anniversary we are confident that Sevmash is facing a bright and solid future. The enterprise stands firm on the ground. Sevmash is one of the most advanced and largest shipbuilders in the country. The cradle of the first Soviet nuclear submarine, Sevmash remains unsurpassed in this job among other Russian facilities, since it has built 132 nuclear submarines, accounting for more than a half of the Russian submarine fleet. More than often we had to pioneer new approaches in this domain. We established a powerful school of thoughts, which is instrumental in solving tasks that the other Russian shipyards do not measure up to.

In the past years the facility has gathered a good production pace. Sevmash demonstrates improvement of all major operational indicators. The profit is on the rise, as well as the labor efficiency, staff, and pay. We have been demonstrating stability in making more money in the past decade. This is attested to the growing backlog under the state armament procurement program. This gain allowed us not only to cover our earlier losses, but establish funds for production retooling and honoring the labor contract provisions, including those, governing the pay, healthcare, and social and cultural life. The year 2008 saw a 12-fold growth of Sevmash’s net assets. The pay grew 3.6 times in the past 11 years as a staff retention measure. The production capacity increased 1.6 times in 2013-2018. Our ranks grew by around 5,000 people during the period.

The backlog that we already have will keep us busy for a decade. Today, Sevmash is building two units of Yasen-M- and Borey-A-class nuclear submarines, repairing a Project 11442M ship and maintaining nuclear submarines and off-shore ice-resistant stationary platform Prirazlomnaya. We are also engaged in the military and technical cooperation with India’s Navy on its aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and production of technical equipment and gear.

Besides, we have made good progress in our modernization program. This is a crucial thing, when it comes to the implementation of future projects in the interest of the Navy or commercial customers. The main goal of the ongoing effort is to create a modern and competitive shipyard. We count on this to reduce production time and labor intensity, while stepping on the quality aspect, and put new items and accessories on our manufacturing list. One might call it a fourth technological revolution that Russia’s largest shipyard is going through now.


Sevmash. Dry facts:

1. Sevmash constructed and delivered to the Navy 172 submarines, including 132 nuclear and 40 diesel, putting itself ahead of any other shipyard in the whole world

2. Sevmash built record-breaking submarines, boasting the greatest operating depth, speed and size in the world. These records have not been broken by any other Navy in the world yet

3. Sevmash is Russia’s only shipbuilder awarded five orders. Even back in the days of the USSR the facility was considered the most advanced in terms of its capacity to adopt new technologies and control systems. During the Golden Age of Shipbuilding the facility launched 5-6 nuclear submarines per year

4. Covered slipway No. 4 of the building and commissioning shop (Shop No. 50) is the oldest facility on the premises, resting on larch piles. So spacious is the shelter that it can house 14 St. Basil’s Cathedrals

5. The Prirazlomnaya off-shore ice-resistant stationary platform, manufactured at the shipyard, is the only platform extracting oil on the Arctic shelf. It is as big as the Cheops pyramid in Giza, Egypt

6. The Vikramaditya aircraft carrier is the largest military ship ever exported by Russia. She develops a speed of 30 kt