Naval Jack of the Russian Empire

Russian Navy Jack

Naval Ensign of the Russian Empire

Russian Navy Ensign

The Imperial Russian Navy (Russian: Военно-Морской Флот Российской империи) refers to the Tsarist fleet of the Russian Empire prior to the February Revolution in February 1917.


Under Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich, construction of the first three-masted ship, actually built within Russia, was completed in 1636. It was built in Balakhna by Danish shipbuilders from Holstein according to European design and was christened the Frederick. During its maiden voyage on the Caspian Sea, 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 Dunaburg and Kokenhausen 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 Astrakhan 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 17th century, Russian merchants and Cossacks, using koch boats, sailed across the White Sea, exploring the Rivers Lena, Kolyma and Indigirka, and founding settlements in the region of the upper Amur. 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 Ocean. Rounding the Chukotsk Peninsula, Dezhnev passed through the Bering Sea and sailed into the Pacific Ocean.

Reign of Peter the GreatEdit

The creation of the regular Russian Navy took place during the reign of Peter the Great. During the Second Azov campaign of 1696 against Turkey, 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 Azov 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 Russian Baltic Fleet. The construction of the oared fleet (galley fleet) took place in 1702-1704 at several shipyards (estuaries of the rivers Syas River, Luga River and Olonka River). In order to be able to defend the conquered coastline and attack enemy's maritime communications in the Baltic Sea, the Russians created a sailing fleet from the ships built in Russia and imported from abroad. From 1703-1723, the main base of the Baltic Fleet was located in Saint Petersburg (Petrograd) and then in Kronstadt. The bases were also created in Reval (Tallinn) and in Vyborg after it was ceded from Sweden after the Russo-Swedish War (1741-1743). 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 Voronezh, Kazan, Pereyaslavl, Arkhangelsk, Olonets, Saint Petersburg and Astrakhan.

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.

Eighteenth centuryEdit

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Russian Navy grew stronger due to activization of Russia's foreign policy and Russo-Turkish Wars for supremacy in the Black Sea. 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 Sea by destroying the Turkish Navy in the Battle of Chesma in 1770. In 1771, the Imperial Russian Army conquered the coasts of the Kerch Strait and fortresses of Kerch and Yenikale.

After having advanced to the Danube, the Russians formed the Danube Military Flotilla for the purpose of guarding the Danube estuary and they came in 1771 as guests to the Republic of Ragusa. The Beluga caviar from the Danube was famous and the merchants from the Republic of Ragusa dominated the import-export business in Serbia with the Habsburg Monarchy. 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 Azov and a part of the Black Sea coastline between the rivers Southern Bug and Dniester. The Crimea was pronounced independent under Russia's protectorate and would become a part of Russia in 1783. In 1778, the Russians founded the port of Kherson. It is in this city that the first battleship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet was commissioned in 1783. A year later, it was already a squadron.

John Paul Jones Serves Catherine II as Rear AdmiralEdit

Further information: Russo-Turkish Wars (1787-1792)

In June 1782, Jones was appointed to command the 74-gun USS America (1782), but his command fell through when Congress decided to give the America to the French as replacement for the wrecked Le Magnifique. As a result, he was given assignment in Europe in 1783 to collect prize money due his former hands. At length, this too expired and Jones was left without prospects for active employment, leading him in 1788 to enter into the service of the Empress Catherine II of Russia, who placed great confidence in Jones, saying: "He will get to Constantinople." He took the name Павел Джонз (Pavel Dzhons).

Jones avowed his intention, however, to preserve the condition of an American citizen and officer. As a rear admiral aboard the 24-gun flagship Vladimir, he took part in the naval campaign in the Liman (an arm of the Black Sea, into which flow the Southern Bug and Dnieper rivers) against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Jones successfully repulsed Ottoman forces from the area, but the jealous intrigues of Russian officer Prince Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin and his cohort Prince Charles of Nassau-Siegen caused him to be recalled to Saint Petersburg for the pretended purpose of being transferred to a command in the North Sea. Here he was compelled to remain in idleness, while rival officers plotted against him and even maliciously assailed his private character through accusations of sexual misconduct. Even so, in that period he was able to author his Narrative of the Campaign of the Liman.

On June 8, 1788, Jones was awarded the Order of Saint Anne, but he left the following month, an embittered man.

Nineteenth centuryEdit

In the second half of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, the Russian Navy had the third largest fleet in the world after Great Britain and France. 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 Russian Baltic and Black Sea Fleets, Russian Caspian Flotilla, Russian 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 (steamboat) (73.6 kW (98.7 hp)), equipped with eight cannons. In 1836, they constructed the first paddle steam frigate of the Russian Navy called Bogatyr (frigate) (displacement — 1,340 t (1,320 long tons), power — 177 kW (237 hp), 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.

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 States of America 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.

Crimean War and aftermathEdit

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 Okhotsk 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 Russian Black Sea Fleet under Nakhimov made a number of tactical innovations. During the Siege of Sevastopol (1854) 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, monitors, 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 (1872) (Пётр Великий).

Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905Edit

Main article: Russo-Japanese War

On the night of February 8, 1904, the Imperial Japanese Navy under Admiral Heihachiro Togo opened the war with a surprise attack by torpedo boat destroyers on the Russian ships at Port Arthur, badly damaging two Russian battleships. The attacks developed into the Battle of Port Arthur the next morning. A series of indecisive naval engagements followed, in which the Japanese were unable to attack the Russian fleet successfully under shore batteries (coastal 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. On the night of 13/14 February, 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, driven off course by Russian gunfire were unable to sink them in the designated places, rendering them ineffective. Another attempt to block the harbor entrance on the night of 3/4 May with blockships also failed.


In March, the energetic Vice Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov (1849–1904) 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 12 April 1904, two Russian battleships; the flagship Russian battleship Petropavlovsk (1897) and the [[Russian battleship Pobeda ran into a Japanese minefield off Port Arthur with both striking mines. Petropavlosk sank within an hour, while Pobeda had to be towed back to Port Arthur for extensive repairs. Makarov died on Petropavlovsk.

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

The Russian fleet attempted to break out from Port Arthur and proceed to Vladivostok, but they were intercepted and dispersed at the Battle of the Yellow Sea. 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 (Shenyang). Port Arthur finally fell on 2 January 1905, after a series of brutal, high-casualty assaults.

Russian submarinesEdit

By 25 June, 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, this first IRN submarine was (officially) commissioned into service (and shipped to) the eastern coast near Vladivostok, 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 Saint Petersburg, Russia.

In 1903, the German ship building firm Germaniawerft at Kiel completed Germany's first fully functioning engine powered submarine; the Forelle. The submarine was toured (inspected) by Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Prince Heinrich of Prussia was given a brief cruise in the vessel. In April 1904, the Imperial Russian Navy purchased the Forelle, and ordered two more submarines of the Karp class submarine. These vessels, as well as the Forelle were transported along the Trans-Siberian Railway enroute to the war zone.

Germaniawerft, under the supervision of Spanish naval architect Raymondo Lorenzo d'Euevilley-Montjustin, continued his work on the Karp class submarines, improving and modifying one into Germany's first U-boat, U-1, which was commissioned into the Imperial German Navy on 14 December 1906. U1 was retired in 1919, and is currently on display at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Due to the ongoing blockade of Port Arthur in 1904, the IRN dispatched their remaining submarines to Vladivostok, and by the end of 1904 the last of seven subs had reached their new base there. Using the seven boats as a foundation, the IRN created the world's first "operational submarine fleet" at Vladivostak on 1 January 1905. On 14 February 1905 the "new" submarine fleet sent out its first combat patrol consisting of the IRN Som and Delfin. With patrols varying from 24 hours to a few days, the sub fleets first enemy contact occurred on 29 April 1905 when IJN torpedo boats fired upon the Som, scoring no hits the IJN Torpedo Boats withdrew. On 1 July the IRN submarine Keta made contact with two IJN torpedo boats in the Tartar Strait. The Keta could not submerge quick enough to obtain a firing position and both adversaries broke contact.

Decisive battle: TsushimaEdit

The Russians had already been preparing to reinforce their fleet the previous year by sending elements of the Russian Baltic Fleet (The Second Pacific Squadron) under Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia, a voyage of over 18,000 mi (16,000 nmi; 29,000 km). On 21 October 1904, while passing by the United Kingdom (an ally of Japan but neutral in this war), they nearly provoked a war in the Dogger Bank incident 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 Russian Baltic Fleet's progress, and he made plans to meet it before it could reach port at Vladivostok. He intercepted them in the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan, in the early morning of 27 May 1905. Although both battleship fleets were on nearly equal footing in regards to the latest in battleship technology, with the British warship designs representing the Imperial Japanese Navy, and predominately the French designs being favored by the Russian fleets; it was the combat experience that Togo had accrued in the 1904 naval battles of the Battle of Port Arthur and the Yellow Sea, that gave him the edge over the un-tested Admiral Rozhestvensky during the Battle of Tsushima on 27 May. By the end of the day on 27 May, nearly all of Rozhestvensky's battleships were sunk, including his flagship, the Prince Suvorov; and on the following day, Admiral Nebogatov, who had relieved Rozhestvensky due to his wounds, surrendered the remainder of the fleet to Admiral Togo.

Reconstruction prior to World War IEdit

At the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, 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. Russian 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 1907-1908 but was voted down. The Bosnian Crisis of 1909 forced a strategic reconsideration, and new Gangut class battleships, cruisers, and destroyers were ordered for the Russian Baltic Fleet. A worsening of relations with the Turkish Ottoman Empire meant that new ships including the Imperatritsa Mariya class battleships were also ordered for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The total Russian naval expenditure from 1906-1913 was $519 million, in fifth place behind British Empire, German Empire, 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 IEdit

Baltic SeaEdit

In the Baltic Sea, Germany and Russia were the main combatants, with a number of British submarines sailing through the Kattegat 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 Canal 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 Riga, Battle of the Gulf of Riga 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 Riga (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 Finland and to occupy much of Russia, halting only when defeated in the West. The Russians evacuated the Baltic fleet from Helsinki and Tallinn to Kronstadt during the Ice Cruise of the Russian Baltic Fleet in March 1918.

Black SeaEdit

The Black Sea was the domain of the Russians and the Ottoman Empire but the Russian fleet dominated the sea. It possessed a large fleet based in Sevastopol 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 Russian 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 Trebizond. 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 Bosporus, preventing nearly all Ottoman ships from entering the Black Sea. Later that year, the naval approaches to Varna were also mined. The greatest loss suffered by the Russian Black Sea Fleet was the destruction of the modern dreadnought Russian battleship Imperatritsa Mariya, which blew up in port on 7 October 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 WarEdit

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 during the British Campaign in the Baltic (1918-1919). 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 Bizerta, 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 on its 1918 establishment. Many of the battleships, cruisers, submarines, and destroyers that survived the World War I would be modernized and enlarged during the 1920s, and 1930s.

Ranks of the Imperial Russian Navy (English translation)Edit

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