The Founding of Russia’s Navy: Peter the Great and the Azov Fleet, 1688-1714
Edward J. Phillips. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995. 232 pp. App. Notes. Glos. Bib. Ind. $55.00 ($52.25).
Reviewed by A. D. Baker III
This year marks the official tricentennial of the Russian Navy. The Russians are making the best of the opportunity to show the world—and the Russian Federation’s political leadership—not only that there still is a fleet to be reckoned with but also that the modern Russian Navy is legitimized by traditions dating to Peter the Great. An extensive series of public events has been held, including scholarly conferences, ship visits, and an international naval review held this July. The official 300th anniversary was recognized on 20 October. Edward J. Phillips’s scholarly yet eminently approachable distillation of his University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ph.D. dissertation makes a suitable and timely contribution to the festivities.
Phillips focuses on the technological, logistical, and bureaucratic obstacles overcome by Peter the Great in building, manning, and supporting far inland a fleet of oar- and sail-powered craft capable of challenging the Turkish occupiers at the mouth of the Don at Azov. In so doing, he successfully refutes earlier historians who had dismissed the importance of the Azov Fleet, because it had not won a battle; the Turks, nonetheless, departed, leaving the Russian forces in command. But Phillips takes his story further, up to the end of the second decade of the 18th century after the glorious victories against the Swedes by Peter’s later Baltic Fleet and into the first of the periods of decline that have marked the subsequent history of the Russian Navy. Phillips also briefly notes the fitful and primitive naval activities of Peter’s predecessors to highlight the importance of the sailor czar’s personal contribution to Russian naval power. Phillips amply defends the widely held thesis that Peter’s boundless energy and enthusiasm, firm if autocratic leadership, and innate bureaucratic skills produced the basis on which the Russian Navy has persevered for more than three centuries.
As a modern academic historian, Phillips has bowed to the current vogue for including copious economic statistics in his book. He has surmounted the genre, however, and a major reason for the value of his book lies in his masterful marshalling of obscure financial data to provide grist for his arguments. He might have gone even further, though, for his narrative makes it evident to the reader that Peter’s organizational genius, in founding the Russian Fleet, also founded the permanent bureaucratic apparatus necessary for the establishment and control of a modem state. In a very real sense, Peter created Russia as a by-product of his founding of a navy.
The Founding of Russia’s Navy achieves its aims in only 129 pages of text out of the modest 214-page total. The remainder is taken up with an extensive appendix with 19 tables of fleet lists, personnel analyses, and economic data. An additional 36 pages of extensive notes provide insights and information as well as sources. The book also includes a helpful glossary of Pelerine-era ship types, an impressive bibliography, and an index, but there are no illustrations and no maps. The latter is an unfortunate omission, considering the complexity and unfamiliarity of the vast territories across which the story took place. Considering the high price of the book, the publisher was churlish in its production and in not supporting the author through more careful editing. Had Phillips aimed his work higher, he might have achieved a deservedly wider audience.
Nonetheless, The Foundation of Russia’s Navy deserves reading, for it goes far beyond other available English-language treatments of the origins of the Russian Navy. The book provides a strong foundation on which to judge a fleet that remains the world’s second most powerful and is capable of exerting a critical strategic influence on world affairs. Regardless of its too-plain wrappings, Phillips’s book is a fine birthday present for the Russian Navy and a treat for the discerning reader.
The Sea Hunters
Clive Cussler and Craig Dirgo. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. 348 pp. Maps. $24.00 ($21.60).
Reviewed by Bruce F. Thompson, Maryland’s Assistant State Underwater Archaeologist
The Sea Hunters is the first non-fiction effort by Dirk Pitt’s originator. For 20 years, archaeologists and amateurs alike have envied Dirk’s ready resources and fluid mobility. But the real world is not like that— or is it? As Clive Cussler reported in this catalog of wrecks—which he and his National Underwater &. Marine Agency’s (NUMA) team proudly call their own— there often is more than a dichotomy between fact and fiction. He points out that it takes more than intuition to find a wreck; one must be patient in one’s search and steadfast in one’s determination.
This book is a timely record of NUMA’s field work, since most wreck hunters are lumped consistently into the same heap of dastardly wreck despoilers and fraudulent investment schemers who are bent on recovering peoples’ money rather than preserving history’s record. Cussler laments that he is missing the artifact collector’s genetic code, while he vociferates consistently that his goal is the salvation of our maritime legacy. These two factors alone separate him from the pack. Unlike most salvors who proudly display green-covered silver coins and oxidizing iron cannons, his trophies include models of the wrecks he’s found, a marker buoy from the Hunley expedition, and a life-ring from his research ship Arvor III.
Written in the first person, the book’s introduction chronicles Cussler’s life story, offering the reader a retrospective of who he is and how he evolved as both a writer and a wreck hunter. His ill-fated search for the Bonhomme Richard influenced his attitudes toward those whom he eventually would meet in the course of wreck hunting. He instituted NUMA in 1978 as a safeguard against dependence upon unscrupulous organizations. Throughout this book, he is quick to celebrate those who influenced him in a positive way: to name a few, Peter Throckmorton, Wayne Gronquist (NUMA’s president), Ralph Wilbanks, Dr. William Dudley, and Dr. Robert Neyland. He avoids naming those he would rather see removed, altogether, from the business of archaeology and wreck hunting. We all know characters from both sides.
Cussler and Dirgo detail ten ships’ histories and a ghostly locomotive story in this work. Collectively, the ships span 100 years of maritime losses and include three major wars. Most are Civil War-period vessels—the USS Cumberland, CSS Florida, CSS Arkansas, and the Confederate submarine Hunley. The previously untold story of the World War II troop carrier Leopoldville is portrayed honorably by the authors. All of the site histories are followed up by Cussler’s annals of the searches, the obstacles, and the discoveries. His writing gives the reader a feeling of urgency, and his Hemingway-like story telling adds life to the often tedious business of wreck searching.
While Cussler and his team enjoy Dirk Pitt’s freedom to choose interesting projects—and the coffers to finance the depth at which they can participate—most government archaeologists are overworked and under budgeted. I appreciate Cussler’s point that some of our colleagues are driven by elitism and egos, but the majority are challenged by the magnitude of their jobs. State and Federal representatives are responsible for hundreds of wrecks, many in the predicament of constant attack by collectors. We not only are mandated to protect these sites but also must continually review encroachments by development and dredging assaults on many other sites.
Sadly, the minuscule budgets devoted to this task are constantly under siege by politicians who think that developers and contractors are losing money as long as they have to obey laws of heritage preservation. Public education and participation are and always will be the salvation of any wrecks in this country. The next time Cussler is faced with an archaeo-crat, I hope he will take into account the problems we face daily. I empathize with Cussler bemoaning the reiteration, by archaeologists, of words such as provenance and methodology, but these are critical tools to controlled extraction of information.
Cussler’s first attempt at non-fiction is both informative to and welcomed by this reviewer and likely will be appreciated by many of my colleagues. Lamentably, we in the field of government and academic archaeology have only nonfiction to write and would appreciate the time to participate in fiction. So, enjoy the best of both worlds, Mr. Cussler.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865
Gene Eric Salecker. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996. 360 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $32.95 ($26.36).
Legally registered to carry 376 people, but transporting 2,100 recently released Union prisoners of war, the sidewheel steamboat Sultana’s boilers exploded at 0200 killing more than 1,700 people. In terms of numbers, it was the worst marine disaster in U.S. history. In the tradition of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, Salecker focuses upon the personal stories of the victims and presents a minute-by-minute account of this great post-Civil War tragedy.
The Purple Heart: A History of America’s Oldest Military Decoration
Frederic L. Borch III and F.C. Brown. Hamilton, NJ: Rice Paddy Press, 199.;. 250 pp. Bib. Ind. Notes. Photos. $20.00 ($18.00) paper.
The Purple Heart, originally intended as an award to recognize meritorious service, became America’s medal for wounds received in combat. This book chronicles the medal’s history from its earliest days when it was given to Revolutionary War troops by General George Washington to the present, including some little known facts and the clarification of some myths and misunderstandings about the medal.
50 Years After the War: The People Who Were There Recall the Major Events of World War II
Tom Infield. Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1996. 240 pp. Photos. $11.95 ($11.35) paper.
Billed as “35 battles, victories, and stories of World War II you’ve never heard before,” this collection of oral histories comes from The Philadelphia Inquirer's series of articles that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the war. Lemuel Custis remembers the day Charley Hall, an African-American airman, shot down a German plane. Felix Syrkus describes his feelings as he watches his mother board a train bound for the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka. And so it goes. History through the eyes of those who lived it.