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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Imperial Russia Salutes its Navy

By Sarah J Young, on 9 June 2014

Neva mosaic, Admiralteiskaia metro station, St Petersburg

Neva mosaic, Admiralteiskaia metro station, St Petersburg

As the annexation of Crimea brings renewed attention to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Julia Leikin reflects on the place of the navy in Russian culture and collective memory.

What do we really know about the Russian navy? Jacob Kipp, writing about the Russian navy in The Military History of Tsarist Russia, observed that the imperial Russian navy’s strategic value left much to be desired, describing the status of the Baltic Sea fleet in the early nineteenth century as “the autocrat’s naval parading force” (Kipp, 2002: 152). This opinion was even shared by some contemporaries. The historian Sergei Soloviev quoted Count Ivan Chernyshev, consul in London and later president of the Admiralty College, as having written, “Since 1700 the navy has cost Russia more than 100,000,000, and what do we have to show for it? Seemingly not nothing, but very little.”

But how can we reconcile its negligible strategic value with the high regard that the Russian navy seems to enjoy in Russian society? In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, one journalist proffered that rather than gaining Russia any geopolitical advantage, the annexation was brought on by a collective fascination with Crimea as a Russian naval base. Whatever its strategic value, the Russian navy seems to enjoy a legendary, near-sacred status in Russian society, which has been shaped in part by the political priority accorded to building the navy in the imperial period. The place of the Russian navy in Russian collective memory has remained unexamined, but the evidence suggests that there are many rich layers to this national myth.

Many imperial and Soviet-era books construct a narrative of a noble imperial Russian navy that emphasizes its triumphs over adversity. These books recount the military successes of Peter I and Catherine II (better known by their epithets “the Great”) that resulted in the conquest of their respective ports on the Baltic and Black Seas, where they established Russia’s two main fleets. The origins of the imperial Russian navy and the periods of its greatest activity in the eighteenth century coincided with two of the fiercest efforts of modernization and Europeanization in Russian history under Peter I and Catherine II.

In fact, establishing and expanding the navy was a part of those processes. As historians we may have stepped away from the modernization and Westernization narratives of Russian history, but these were some of the very concepts that motivated Peter and Catherine to pursue a maritime presence for the Russian empire. Part of the navy’s hold on the Russian imagination must stem from the fact that it is difficult to disentangle its story from the dominating personalities of Peter and Catherine.

The primacy of maritime politics in Russia and its reverence for European models also came together in the institution that oversaw Russia’s naval expeditions. The Admiralty College, the top-level body in the government bureaucracy that regulated Russian ships and sailors at sea, sat directly under the monarch’s purview along with the War and International Affairs Colleges. Perhaps more than any other Russian institution, it held a high concentration of Europeans among its ranks.

Moreover, in the eighteenth century Russians often received navigation and shipbuilding training abroad, even while travel opportunities for others were quite limited. As one historian noted, the naval experience propelled Russian officers into an “active dialogue with general European culture.” Of course, the presence of foreigners and Europeanization itself were controversial, but many among the elite – particularly the monarchs – saw these as the right course to advance the Russian empire onto the international stage. In any case, it is fair to say that the preponderance of European culture lent a certain cachet to the navy, even while the institution’s efforts were directed at bringing glory to the Russian empire.

The Admiralty controlled all manner of seafaring activities in addition to naval warfare, including shipbuilding, exploration and maritime trade. As such, its reputation was bolstered through navigation to and exploration of new places, discovery of new trade routes and settlement of new lands. The Bering and Billings expeditions to the Pacific Ocean, the settlement in Alaska, circumnavigation of the globe all brought prestige to the navy even while the impetus and aftermath of these activities were the subject to contested visions of nationalism.

The pageantry surrounding the imperial navy also lent it an air of importance and high regard. At the most important social functions members of the royal family often wore their naval uniforms, in which they also frequently posed for portraits. Monarchs performed ritual blessing of new vessels before they sailed off on long voyages and made ceremonial embarkations aboard ships. Admiral Alexander Shishkov described a short voyage the entire royal family took on the frigate “Emanuel” in 1797 in the ship’s journal, which was later published. More than half of the journal’s seventy-one pages describe the salutes, ceremonies, and imperial protocols as the ship left Kronstadt and sailed into the Baltic Sea. But even for ordinary residents of the imperial capital, ship launches, were popular public spectacles. Of one such ceremony in 1833 the lauded Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin wrote:

Hark, cannons have sounded!
The military flock of winged ships has been covered by a cloud.
The ship burst into the Neva – and there among the waves,
Swaying, it swims like a young swan.”

As Pushkin observed, “the great [river] Neva exults the Russian fleet.” With all the pomp surrounding its activities, it is no wonder that the navy came to be regarded as a venerable institution.

Then there was the character of naval officers, who were seen as embodiments of bravery and honour. In imperial Russia they occupied the same cultural status as cosmonauts did in the Soviet Union – as the epitome of masculine virtue. Despite its ambiguous attitude towards the Crimean War, Leo Tolstoy’s Sevastapol Sketches holds the sailors and officers in high regard as defenders not of a city, but of a nation. Tolstoy writes, “It cannot be, that with the thought that you too are in Sevastopol, your soul is not filled with feelings of courage, pride, and that your blood does not course faster through your veins…”

Interestingly, the shroud of patriotism that enveloped the Russian navy did not disappear after the Russian revolution(s). As anyone who has heard of the Battleship Potemkin knows, the rebellion aboard the battleship – made infamous by the 1925 Eisenstein film – was an important event that suggested the naval forces were sympathetic to the revolution. It was one of several rebellions by Russian naval forces on the long road to Bolshevik power. The Cruiser Aurora, another iconic ship in the Russian revolution (it signaled the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917), remains moored on the river Neva as a floating museum.

One can argue that the legendary status of the imperial Russian navy is largely a cultural construction, yet some scholars have attempted to explain the distinctiveness and honour of the navy. Dmitri Kopelev’s In the Service of Empire suggested that the common Baltic German background of a preponderance of the naval officers in the nineteenth century facilitated their interactions (2010). Evgeniia Lupanova’s The Officer Corps of the Russian Navy argued that naval officers’ sense of honour and duty came from the high standards set out by the Naval Statute and from strong social pressure in long periods of relative isolation (2011).

Despite these exceptions, much of the Russian historiography on the navy remains empirical and retains a military focus. That scholarship is driven by stories of successful battles, scientific accomplishments, and great personalities – all of which add to the legendary status of the navy in Russian society. The current political climate in Russia, an “Emporium of Patriotism”, will likely preclude a revisionist history of the navy from Russian scholars for some time. Meanwhile, Anglo-American scholars have for the most part concentrated their efforts elsewhere. Yet, the Russian maritime experience is rife with symbolism, imagery, and material culture that deserve our attention. After all, might not studying maritime Russia change our traditional narratives of Russia as a land-based empire?

Julia Leikin is a postgraduate research student at UCL SSEES, working on a PhD thesis on maritime neutrality and the law of nations in imperial Russia, 1772-1832.

This post first appeared on the Coastal History Blog, part of the Port Towns and Urban Cultures project.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

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