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. (more…)