An Exhibition Voyage by the Emperor

An Exhibition Voyage by the Emperor

In the winter of 1909–1910, one could see an unusual floating exhibition in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. The Exhibition was held on board of the Russian passenger and freight steamship Emperor Nicholas II, and this article goes about the extraordinary life story of that ship


After the defeat in the Crimean War in the middle of the 19th century, Russia lost its Navy in the demilitarized Black Sea, however it was never forbidden for Russia to retain its merchant marine. The purposefully established Russian Shipping and Trade Company began to import up-to-date ships that could be promptly altered into auxiliary cruisers in the event of a war. In 1871 the restrictions were lifted, but the Shipping and Trade Company proved to be a reasonably effective enterprise and continued to develop. One of the critical functions of the Company was to deliver pilgrims from the Russian Empire to the holy places of Palestine. The steamship line from Odessa to Beirut, Haifa and Alexandria was extremely popular.  

It was exactly that shipping line that in 1895 received the steamship Emperor Nicholas II. The 112 m long vessel with the water draft of 8 m had the then most powerful steam engine and could develop the speed of 12 knots. It was laid down at a Dumbarton Shipyard in Scotland in 1894. When the ship was in stocks number 510, an announcement of the new Tsar came from Russia, and the ship was immediately named after Nicholas II. In its early years, the steamship made a voyage to the Far East and showed excellent performance. In 1908 Russian businessmen faced another overproduction crisis and started looking for new sales markets.  One of the new marketplaces was East Mediterranean, that, at that time, was a well-established destination for imports, out of Odessa, of grain and other foodstuffs as well as kerosene and timber. In those days, in that region Russia did not enjoy a reputation of a manufacturer of sophisticated machinery: such a reputation had to be developed for successful trade under severe competition from other European countries. A large trade fair was required, and it was decided to hold it in Odessa in the summer of 1910 (and the townsfolk immediately called it international). A neat PR action was devised to attract attention of foreign traders.


In the fall of 1909, the steamship Emperor Nicholas II was converted into an exhibition vessel: a floating pavilion with artifacts and models of Russian industry and industrial arts. On 9 December, the ship left Odessa and, having called at Yalta where it was visited by the Emperor, it commenced it voyage to Varna – Bourgas – Constantinople (Istanbul). 

The ship stayed in the Turkish capital longer than planned: it had to receive 70 thousand visitors. The Russian Ambassador Nikolai Charykov recollected of that event with obvious excitement: “Most of the local community are highly amazed with the new concept they had to form about Russian cultural level. Many foreigners, and not only in Turkey, look at Russia as at the country of polar bears and Cossacks hogging down tallow candles. Those old concepts should vanish forever from the mind of each person who looks at really exemplar masterpieces of Russian engineering, Russian taste and Russian education that are abundant at our floating exhibition.”    

From Constantinople the exhibition steamship proceeded to Thessaloniki, Piraeus, Alexandria, Port Said and Beirut. The following is an excerpt from a francophone newspaper published in Beirut: “We have noted that the Russians are rich not only in industrial and agricultural products, but also in their open-heartedness… The beauty of this industry is exceptional, and we have never thought that Russia has skilled hands for such work.” A report by Exhibition organizers says that “…many companies have immediately placed their orders with our factories, but others failed to do that due to abundance of orders and unpreparedness of our factories to fulfil the orders by the deadline. Nevertheless, that started the ball rolling, and it is only up to our merchants to retain the market that was so easy to win.”   Also, according to local press, the Exhibition displayed models of automobiles, trams and ships of Russian manufacture.

Today we would call this the projection of “soft power”, but in those days the impact of economic strength was not disregarded either: “Local population treated the exhibition, that so vividly showed the flourishing of our industry even though many of our large companies did not participate, with high sympathy and sincere desire to enter into strong trade relations with Russia.”


The result of the Exhibition was not only wide publicity in the press and magnitude of the large Odessa Fair, but also a large-scale merchants’ meeting in Moscow on the trade with the Middle East, that adopted an address to the government requesting to perform bottom dredging in the Strait of Kerch and at the Mariupol Seaport, and also provide the latter with icebreaker service. Entrepreneurs insisted on reducing coal prices and offered to arrange private Russian coal yards and stations on Archipelago islands in the Aegean Sea.  

Speaking at the above meeting, the Minister of trade and Industry of the Russian Empire Sergey Timashev requested not to indulge a vain hope for the capacity of the Mediterranean market: the main task of the Ministry as of that moment was to saturate the domestic market, and per today’s expression, import substitution. But the main thing that the Minister wanted to draw the audience attention to was escalating competition of European countries in East Mediterranean and the need to be proactive. 

The need of being proactive was critical: there were enough competitors to get ahead of. One of the most important topics of international politics of that time was the endeavor of Germany to build a railroad from Europe to the Middle East that was called the 3B: Berlin – Bosporus – Baghdad.  That project was perceived as an instrument of economic subordinance of the Ottoman Empire by Germany and inspired equivalent antagonism both in St. Petersburg and in London. As a result of long bargaining between the states, a compromise was found and two agreements were executed. Pursuant to the first one, the Russian-German Agreement of 1911, Russia stopped throwing obstacles in the way of the project, while Germany stepped back from extending the railroad towards North Iran. In compliance with the second agreement, i.e., the English-Turkish Agreement of 1913, the concession to extend the railroad from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf now went to the British, thus the risk of German appearance on the shores of the Indian Ocean was mitigated.


Russian trade efforts in East Mediterranean, and especially a possibility of establishing warehouses and coal yards, were one of the elements of that Great Game. Over a century and a half, Russia undertook three military expeditions in the Aegean Sea: in 1769-1774, in 1806-1807 and in 1828-1829. Each of them resulted in a defeat of the Turkish Navy and a blockade of the Dardanelles, after which peace with Turkey through strength was only a matter of time. Therefore, Berlin was most probably wary and distrustful of the Russian floating exhibition, and it is unlikely that Minister Timashev ignored that circumstance.

Ultimately, of much higher effect was resistance to Russian expansion in East Mediterranean on the part of a state that had just started to participate in the great game. Feeling weakness of the Ottoman Empire, Italy preferred not to wait for stronger countries to divide it through economic means and resorted to force. After the 1911 attack on Libya that was under Turkish jurisdiction, the Italian-Turkish war started. The Italian Navy violently bombarded major Turkish seaports in East Mediterranean and closed them for trading. One of the results of that war was the transfer of the Dodecanese Archipelago in the Aegean Sea, which closed the issue of coal yards for Russia. 

Therefore, the Emperor Nicholas II exhibition voyage happened to be the final chord of peace and collaboration in that region. The Italian-Turkish war smoothly developed into the Balkan conflicts, followed by World War I resulted in the ruin of four empires. The ship itself managed to survive the war, but after the advent of the Soviet power it was renamed into Ilyich.  

Within the frame-work of the exhibition, the steamship Emperor Nicholas II visited 19 seaports of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece