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Russian Navy Jack
Russian Navy Ensign

The Imperial Russian Navy refers to the Tsaristmarker fleets prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.

First Romanovs

Under Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich construction of the first three-masted ship, actually built within Russia, was completed in 1636. It was built in Balakhnamarker by Danishmarker shipbuilders from Holstein according to European design and was christened the Frederick. During its maiden voyage on the Caspian Seamarker the Frederick unfortunately sailed into a heavy storm and was lost at sea.

During the Russo-Swedish War, 1656-1658, Russian forces seized the Swedish fortresses of Dunaburgmarker and Kokenhausenmarker on the Western Dvina and the latter was renamed Tsarevich-Dmitriev. A boyar named Afanasy Ordin-Nashchokin founded a shipyard at Tsarevich-Dmitriev fortress and began constructing vessels to sail in the Baltic Sea. In 1661, however, Russia was once again forced to abide by the harsh terms of a treaty, this time the Peace of Cardis. Russia agreed to surrender to Sweden all captured territories, and all vessels constructed at Tsarevich-Dmitriev were ordered destroyed.

Boyar Ordin-Nashchyokin, not grieving long over defeat, turned his attention to the Volga River and Caspian Sea. With the Tsar's approval, the boyar brought Dutch shipbuilding experts to the town of Dedinovo near the confluence of the Oka and Volga Rivers. Shipbuilding commenced in the winter of 1667. Within two years, four vessels had been completed: one 22-gun galley, christened the Орёл ("Oryol"="Eagle"), and three smaller ships. The ill-fated Frederick had been a Holstein vessel; the Орёл became Russia's first own three-masted, European-designed sailing ship but met with a similarly unfortunate end. The ship was captured in Astrakhanmarker by rebellious Cossacks led by Stepan Razin. The Cossacks ransacked the Орёл and abandoned it, half-submerged, in an estuary of the Volga.

During much of the seventeenth century Russian merchants and Cossacks, using koch boats, sailed across the White Seamarker, exploring the Rivers Lenamarker, Kolyma and Indigirka, and founding settlements in the region of the upper Amurmarker. Unquestionably the most celebrated Russian explorer was Semyon Dezhnev, who, in 1648, sailed the entire length of present-day Russia by way of the Arctic Oceanmarker. Rounding the Chukotsk Peninsulamarker, Dezhnev passed through the Bering Seamarker and sailed into the Pacific Oceanmarker.

The Russian Navy during the reign of Peter the Great

The creation of the regular Russian Navy took place during the reign of Peter the Great. During the Second Azov campaign of 1696 against Turkeymarker, the Russians employed for the first time 2 warships, 4 fireships, 23 galleys and 1300 strugs, built on the Voronezh River. After the occupation of the Azovmarker fortress, the Boyar Duma looked into Peter's report of this military campaign and passed a decree on commencing the construction of the navy on October 20, 1696. This date is considered the official birthday of the regular Russian Navy.

During the Great Northern War of 1700-1721, the Russians built the Baltic Fleet. The construction of the oared fleet (galley fleet) took place in 1702-1704 at several shipyards (estuaries of the rivers Syas, Luga and Olonka). In order to be able to defend the conquered coastline and attack enemy's maritime communications in the Baltic Seamarker, the Russians created a sailing fleet from the ships built in Russiamarker and imported from abroad. In 1703-1723, the main base of the Baltic Fleet was located in Saint Petersburgmarker and then in Kronstadtmarker. The bases were also created in Vyborgmarker, Helsingforsmarker, Revel(today Tallinn) and Åbomarker. At first, Vladimirsky Prikaz was in charge of shipbuilding. Later on, these functions were transferred to the Admiralteyskiy Prikaz.

In 1745, the Russian Navy had 130 sailing vessels, including 36 ships of the line, 9 frigates, 3 shnyavas (шнява - a light two-mast ship used for reconnaissance and messenger services), 5 bombardier ships and 77 auxiliary vessels. The oared fleet consisted of 396 vessels, including 253 galleys and semi-galleys (called скампавеи, or scampavei; a light high-speed galley) and 143 brigantines. The ships were being constructed at 24 shipyards, including the ones in Voronezhmarker, Kazanmarker, Pereyaslavl, Arkhangelskmarker, Olonetsmarker, Petersburg and Astrakhanmarker.

The naval officers for the fleet were supplied from among the dvoryane(noblemen) and regular sailors - from recruits. The service in the navy was lifelong. Children of noblemen were educated for naval service at the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences, which had been founded in 1701 in Moscow's Sukharev Tower. Students were often sent abroad for training in foreign fleets. It was also customary to hire foreign nationals, who had significant naval experience, to serve in the Russian Navy, such as the Norwegian-Dutch Cornelius Cruys, the Greek Ivan Botsis or the Scotsman Thomas Gordon. In 1718, the Admiralty Board (Адмиралтейств-коллегия) was established as the highest naval authority in Russia.

The organizational principles of the Russian Navy, educational and training methods for preparing future staff, and methods for conducting military action were all summarized in the Naval Charter (1720) penned by Peter I himself. Peter the Great, Feodor Apraksin, Alexey Senyavin, Naum Senyavin, Mikhail Golitsyn and others are generally credited for the development of the Russian art of naval warfare. The main principles of naval warfare were further developed by Grigory Spiridov, Feodor Ushakov, and Dmitry Senyavin.

Russian Navy In the 18th century

In the 2nd half of the 18th century, the Russian Navy grew stronger due to activization of Russia’s foreign policy and Russo-Turkish wars for supremacy in the Black Seamarker. For the first time, Russia sent its squadrons from the Baltic Sea to distant theaters of operations (see Archipelago expeditions of the Russian Navy). Admiral Spiridov’s squadron gained supremacy in the Aegean Seamarker by destroying the Turkish fleet in the Battle of Chesma in 1770. In 1771, the Russian army conquered the coasts of the Kerch Straitmarker and fortresses of Kerchmarker and Yenikalemarker.

After having advanced to the Danube, the Russians formed the Danube Military Flotilla for the purpose of guarding the Danube estuary. In 1773, the vessels of the Azov Flotilla (created anew in 1771) sailed out into the Black Sea. The Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 ended victoriously for Russia, which gained the coasts of the Sea of Azovmarker and a part of the Black Sea coastline between the rivers Bugmarker and Dniestermarker. The Crimeamarker was pronounced independent under Russia’s protectorate and would become a part of Russia in 1783. In 1778, the Russians founded the port of Khersonmarker. It is in this city that the first battleship of the Black Sea Fleet was commissioned in 1783. A year later, it was already a squadron.

The early 19th century

In the 2nd half of the 18th century – early 19th century, the Russian Navy had the third largest fleet in the world after Great Britainmarker and Francemarker. The Black Sea Fleet possessed five line-of-battle ships and 19 frigates (1787), the Baltic Fleet had 23 ships of the line and 130 frigates (1788). In the early 19th century, the Russian Navy consisted of the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets, Caspian Flotilla, White Sea Flotilla and Okhotsk Flotilla. In 1802, the Ministry of Naval Military Forces was established (renamed to Naval Ministry in 1815).

In 1826, the Russians built their first armed steamboat Izhora (73.6 kW, or 100 horsepower), equipped with 8 cannons. In 1836, they constructed the first paddle steam frigate of the Russian Navy called Bogatyr (displacement – 1340 tons, power – 177 kW (240 horsepower), armament – 28 cannons). Between 1803 and 1855, Russian sailors undertook over 40 circumnavigations and long-distant voyages, most of which were in support of their Pacific colonies in Alaska, California, and the ports on the eastern seaboard of Siberia.These voyages played an important role in the exploration of the Far East, different oceans and contributed important scientific research materials and discoveries in Pacific, Antarctic and Arctic theatres of operations.

The Crimean War and Aftermath

Russia’s slow technical and economical development in the 1st half of the 19th century caused her to fall behind other European countries in the field of steamboat construction. By the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853, Russia had the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets, Arkhangelsk Flotilla, Caspian Flotilla and Kamchatka Flotilla (altogether, 40 battleships, 15 frigates, 24 corvettes and brigs, 16 steam frigates etc.).

The combined number of staff of all the fleets equaled 91,000 people. Despite all this, the reactionary serfdom system had an adverse effect on the development of the Russian Navy. It was especially typical of the Baltic Fleet, which was known for its harsh military drill.

Thanks to admirals Mikhail Lazarev, Pavel Nakhimov, Vladimir Kornilov, and Vladimir Istomin, the sailors of the Black Sea Fleet were taught the art of warfare and upholding of military traditions of the Russian Navy, formed in the times of Admiral Ushakov.

The Battle of Sinop in 1853 the Black Sea Fleet under Nakhimov made a number of tactical innovations. During the Siege of Sevastopol in 1854-1855, the Russian sailors used all means possible to defend their base from land and sea. In accordance with the Treaty of Paris, Russia lost the right to have a military fleet in the Black Sea. In the 1860s, the Russian fleet which had relied upon sails lost its significance and was gradually replaced by steam.

After the Crimean War, Russia commenced construction of steam-powered ironclads, monitor, and floating batteries. These vessels had strong artillery and thick armor, but lacked seaworthiness, speed and long-distance abilities. In 1861, they built the first steel armored gunship Opyt (Опыт). In 1869, the Russians began the construction of one of the first seafaring ironclads Pyotr Velikiy (Пётр Великий).

The Later 19th century

In 1863, during the American Civil War, the Russian Navy's Atlantic and Pacific Fleets wintered in the American ports of New York and San Francisco respectively. Some historians credit this visit as a major factor in deterring France and England from entering the war on the Confederate side. . Delahaye states that besides supporting the Union, Russia was also preparing for a war with France and England should they intervene in the Polish insurrection of 1863. The Russian Navy was weak and could easily be blockaded in its home ports, but if it was in the US when the war started it could more easily attack British and French commerce.

The Imperial Russian Navy continued to expand in the later part of the century becoming the third largest fleet in the world after Britain and France. The expansion accelerated under Tsar Nicholas II who had been influenced by the American naval theoretician Alfred Thayer Mahan. Russian industry, although growing in capacity, was not able to meet the demands and some ships were ordered from Britain, France, Germany, USA, and Denmark. French naval architects in particular had a considerable influence on Russian designs.

Russo-Japanese War

On the night of February 8 1904, the Japanese naval fleet under Admiral Heihachiro Togo opened the war with a surprise attack by torpedo boats on the Russian ships at Port Arthur, badly damaging two Russian battleships. The attacks developed into the Battle of Port Arthurmarker the next morning. A series of indecisive naval engagements followed, in which the Japanese were unable to attack the Russian fleet successfully under the land guns of the harbor and the Russians declined to leave the harbor for the open seas, especially after the death of Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov on 13 April 1904

After the attack on Port Arthur, the Japanese attempted to deny the Russians use of the port. During the night of February 13–14, the Japanese attempted to block the entrance to Port Arthur by sinking several cement-filled steamers in the deep water channel to the port. But the steamers sank too deep into the water for it to be effective. Another attempt to block the harbor entrance on the night of May 3–4 with blockships also failed.

In March, the energetic Vice Admiral Makarov took command of the First Russian Pacific Squadron with the intention of making plans to break out of the Port Arthur blockade. By then, both sides began a policy of tactical offensive mine-laying by laying mines in each others ports. This was the first time in warfare that mines were used for offensive purposes. In the past, mines were used as purely defensive purposes by keeping harbors safe from invading warships.

The Japanese mine-laying policy was effective at restricting the Russian movement of its ships outside Port Arthur when on April 12, 1904, two Russian battleships; the flagship Petropavlovsk and the Pobeda ran into a Japanese minefield off Port Arthur with both striking mines. The Petropavlosk sank within an hour, while the Pobeda had to be towed back to Port Arthur for extensive repairs. Makarov died on the Petropavlovsk.

However, the Russians soon learned the Japanese policy of offensive minelaying and decided to play the strategy too. On May 15, 1904, two Japanese battleships, the Yashima and the Hatsuse, were both lured into a recently laid Russian minefield off Port Arthur, both striking at least two mines. The Yashima sank within minutes taking 450 sailors with her, while the Hatsuse sank under tow a few hours later.

The Russian fleet attempted to break out from Port Arthur and proceed to Vladivostokmarker, but they were intercepted and defeated at the Battle of the Yellow Seamarker. The remnant of the Russian fleet remained in Port Arthur, where they were slowly sunk by the artillery of the besieging army. Attempts to relieve the city from the land also failed, and after the Battle of Liaoyang in late August, the Russians retreated to Mukden (Shenyangmarker). Port Arthur finally fell on January 2, 1905, after a series of brutal, high-casualty assaults.

By 25 June 1904, the Imperial Russian Navy had purchased (in secrecy) its first naval submarine (known as Madam) from Isaac Rice's Electric Boat Company. This submarine was (originally) built under the direction of Arthur Leopold Busch as the American Torpedo Boat Fulton. It was a proto-type of the (Holland Type 7 Design) known as the Adder Class/Plunger class submarines. By 10 October 1904 this first IRN submarine was (officially) commissioned into service (and shipped to) the eastern coast near Vladivostokmarker Russia and was renamed Som or (Catfish). This first Russian submarine was "not ready" in time for the Russo-Japanese War. The reason behind this "delay" was partly due to a (late) shipment of torpedoes (that was) originally ordered from Germany in early 1905. Russia soon ordered more submarines (of the same basic design) and they were built under contract with the Holland Company by the Neva Shipbuilding Company located in St. Petersburgmarker, Russia.

The Russians had already been preparing to reinforce their fleet the previous year by sending elements of the Baltic Seamarker fleet (The Second Pacific Squadron) under Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky around the Cape of Good Hopemarker to Asia, a voyage of over 18,000 miles. On October 21, 1904, while passing by the United Kingdommarker (an ally of Japan but neutral in this war), they nearly provoked a war in the Dogger Bank incidentmarker by firing on British fishing boats that they mistook for Japanese torpedo boats.

The duration of the Baltic Fleet's journey meant that Admiral Togo was well aware of the Baltic Fleet's progress, and he made plans to meet it before it could reach port at Vladivostokmarker. He intercepted them in the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan, and in the Battle of Tsushimamarker on May 27-28, 1905. The more modern Japanese fleet, which was numerically inferior but had superior speed and firing range, shelled the Russian fleet mercilessly either destroying or capturing all eight of their battleships.

Reconstruction prior to World War I

After the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War, Russia fell from being the third greatest naval power to sixth place. The focus of Russian naval activities shifted back from the Far East to the Baltic. Baltic fleet's task was to defend Baltic Sea and Saint Petersburg from the Germans.

Tsar Nicholas II created a Naval General Staff in 1906. At first, attention was directed to creation of mine-laying and a submarine fleet. An ambitious expansion program was put before the Duma in 1907 and 1908 but was voted down. The Bosnian Crisis of 1909 forced a rethink and new Gangut class battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, were ordered for the Baltic Fleet. A worsening of relations with Turkey meant that new ships including the Imperatritsa Mariya class battleships were also ordered for the Black Sea Fleet. The total Russian naval expenditure during 1906-1913 was $519 Million, in fifth place behind Britain, Germany, USA and France.

The re-armament program included a significant element of foreign participation with several ships (including the cruiser Rurik) and machinery ordered from foreign firms. After the outbreak of World War I ships and equipment being built in Germany were confiscated. Equipment from Britain was slow in reaching Russia or was diverted to the Western Allies' own war effort.

World War I

Baltic Sea

In the Baltic Seamarker, Germany and Russia were the main combatants, with a number of British submarines sailing through the Kattegatmarker to assist the Russians, including E9 commanded by Max Horton. With the German fleet larger and more modern (many High Seas Fleet ships could easily be deployed to the Baltic via the Kiel Canalmarker when the North Sea was quiet), the Russians played a mainly defensive role, at most attacking convoys between Germany and Sweden and laying offensive minefields. Russian and British submarines attacked German shipping sailing between Sweden and Germany.

With heavy defensive and offensive mining on both sides, fleets played a limited role on the Eastern Front. The Germans mounted major naval attacks on the Gulf of Rigamarker, unsuccessfully in August 1915 and successfully in October 1917, when they occupied the islands in the Gulf (Operation Albion) and damaged Russian ships departing from Rigamarker (Battle of Moon Sound), which had recently been captured by Germany.

By March 1918, the Russian Revolution and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk made the Baltic a German lake, and German fleets transferred troops to support newly independent Finlandmarker and to occupy much of Russia, halting only when defeated in the West. The Russians evacuated the Baltic fleet from Helsinkimarker and Tallinnmarker to Kronstadt during the Ice Cruise of the Baltic Fleet in March 1918.

Black Sea

Black Sea Fleet's battleship brigade in line ahead led by the Ioann Zlatoust
The Black Seamarker was the domain of the Russians and the Ottoman Empire but the Russian fleet ruled. It was a large fleet based in Sevastopolmarker and it was led by two skilled commanders: Admiral Eberhart and Admiral Kolchak (who took over in 1916).

The war in the Black Sea started when the Ottoman fleet bombarded several Russian cities in October 1914. The most advanced ships in the Ottoman fleet consisted of just two German ships: the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau, both under the command of Admiral Wilhelm Souchon. The Goeben was damaged on at least four different occasions and was usually chased back to port by the superior Russian navy. By the end of 1915, the Russian fleet had nearly complete control of the sea.

The Black Sea fleet was used mainly to support General Yudenich in his Caucasus Campaign. For example, in August 1915, a Russian submarine and two Russian destroyers attacked a Turkish convoy of four transports escorted by a cruiser and two destroyers. The Russian ships sank all four transports without losing a ship. Later, during the summer of 1916, the Ottoman army, under, Vehip Pasha, was ordered to re-take Trebizondmarker. The Ottoman forces tried to march along the coast in June but the Russian fleet was able to reduce the speed of their advance to a crawl using naval bombardment to harass marching troops and destroy their supply columns. Eventually the Ottoman army gave up and withdrew.

After Admiral Kolchak took command (August 1916), the Russian fleet mined the exit from the Bosporusmarker, preventing nearly all Ottoman ships from entering the Black Sea. Later that year, the naval approaches to Varnamarker were also mined. The greatest loss suffered by the Russian Black Sea fleet was the destruction of the modern Dreadnought Imperatritsa Mariya, which blew up in port on October 7 1916, just one year after it was commissioned. The sinking the Empress Maria was never fully explained, it could have been sabotage or a terrible accident.

Revolution and Civil War

The Revolution and subsequent civil war devastated the Russian Navy. Only the Baltic fleet based at Petrograd largely remained intact although it was attacked by the British Royal Navy in 1919. Foreign Interventionists occupied the Pacific, Black Sea and Arctic coasts. Most of the surviving Black Sea Fleet warships were under the control of Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel and were interned in Bizertamarker, Tunisia at the end of the conflict (see Wrangel's fleet). Russian sailors fought on both sides in this bloody conflict. The sailors of the Baltic fleet rebelled against harsh treatment by the Soviet authorities in the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921.

The surviving ships formed the core of the Soviet Navy.

See also



  1. Устав морской (Naval Regulations), Санкт Петербург, 1763
  2. Norman E. Saul, Richard D. McKinzie. Russian-American Dialogue on Cultural Relations, 1776-1914 p 95. ISBN 082621097X, 9780826210975
  3. Tom Delahaye. The Bilateral Effect of the Visit of the Russian Fleet in 1863 [1] Retrieved Sept 4 2008.
  4. The History of the Russian Navy - Chapter 11. The Great War - In the Black Sea


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