Historians in the English-speaking world have so far displayed only passing interest in the 300-year history of the regular Russian Navy—which is not altogether shocking. With few exceptions, Russian authorities have traditionally denied foreign researchers access to their archives. Fortunately, that attitude has changed considerably. But travel, a persistent language barrier, and other hindrances still hamper non-natives who pursue information resources in Russia. Throughout the country’s history, Russian leaders—tsarists, communists, and democrats alike—have shown inconsistent interest in the support of a navy, an attitude that contrasts sharply with the recorded naval heritage of Great Britain and the United States. For the latter, the immutable pulse of a Mahanian commitment to the upkeep of a respectable naval establishment still beats. The Russian Navy, on the other hand, has perpetually failed to stimulate interest beyond matters of immediate national security. This condition is unfortunate, because Russian sailors and ships have accumulated an impressive list of combat victories, geographical discoveries, tactical innovations, and contributions to science. Nevertheless, navy chauvinists from Portsmouth to Newport often characterize the Russian Navy as artificial or, in periods of grave hostility, illegitimate.'
In Anglo-American countries, modem historical research on the Russian Navy began about a century ago, with the introduction of steel ships and a general naval expansion during the 1880s and 1890s. At the end of the 19th century, Russia undertook a naval construction program that, because officials in London tended to view such activity as direct challenges to their naval mastery, instigated a measure of British public sentiment against it. Aroused by the prevailing swell of antagonism, as well as the novel and ominous prospect of a rise in Russian naval strength, British naval analysts opportunistically produced several books on the Russian Navy, each more or less mixing history with an analysis of contemporary politico-military problems. Each writer admitted the challenge that a dearth of sources had presented and judged historians to be strangely silent on naval tradition in Russia.2
One of these men, Sir George Sydenham Clarke, in Russia’s Sea-Power, Past and Present (Or the Rise of the Russian Navy), conceded that:
History is not a strong point with the British people; and although many able writers are now seeking to elucidate the wonderful story of the British Navy, few among us are familiar with the bare outline of the events which have raised the semi-civilized and practically inland State governed by Peter the Great to a dominant position in the affairs of Europe.’
Clarke had difficulty finding sufficient cause for Anglo- Russian tensions, attacking the hypocrisy of British writers who decried foreign naval expansion but never “tired of asserting that our splendid Navy cannot possibly be regarded in the light of a menace to other nations, since it is a necessity arising out of the conditions of our imperial existence.”4 Fred T. Jane echoed Clarke’s lament that the British people knew so little about Russia. Though both men viewed the Russian Navy as an artificial creation, unlike the natural evolution of the Royal Navy, neither challenged the legitimacy of its existence.5
The immediate cause of the crisis was Britain’s concern for its commerce with China. In 1898, Russia leased the base at Port Arthur on the Liaotung Peninsula for the great fleet it was building, thus intensifying Anglo-Russian animosity. The crisis with Russia and interest in the Russian Navy heightened, only to subside dramatically in the wake of the latter’s disastrous war with Japan in 1904-05, which climaxed with the destruction of the Russian Baltic Fleet in Tsushima Strait in May 1905. In an age of raging navalism and imperialism, with its notions of Anglo- Saxon racial superiority, the demise of the Slav Navy at the hands of Great Britain’s oriental protege reinforced the navalists’ sense of ethnic destiny. The mind set was that navies and sea power were national legacies of Great Britain and—as U.S. officials took great steps to demonstrate—the United States as well.
As the Russian Navy’s fortunes plummeted and Great Britain’s declined, the U.S. Navy’s soared. At the Washington Naval Conference in 1921 and 1922, the U.S. Navy achieved parity—on numbers and tonnage of battleships, at least—with the Royal Navy. The renegade communist regime in Russia did not merit an invitation to the conference. Indeed, the enormous material and human costs of World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Russian Civil War decimated Russian naval strength altogether by the mid-1920s.
The ideological antipathy that pervaded most aspects of U.S.-Russian relations after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 retarded Russian naval historical research in the English-speaking countries. When the Bolshevik regime slammed shut the doors of its archives and moved to regulate history, it squelched Frank A. Golder’s efforts to continue his primary research on the interplay of tsarist diplomacy, exploration, and naval affairs. A U.S.-born history professor, Golder at one time literally held the keys to the Russian Foreign Ministry archives, an unprecedented license granted by tsarist archivists whose daily work schedule proved considerably shorter than his own. Using documents obtained during tsarist days, he published books on Russian expansion in the Pacific, Vitus Bering’s voyages, and the experience of John Paul Jones in Russia.6
In an age of rampant ignorance about Russia, what the American public understood about the nexus of U.S.-Russian history largely had been forgotten. During most of the 19th century, in fact, Russia alone remained consistently friendly to the United States. Naval and maritime issues stood at the core of their mutual experience—Catherine the Great’s promulgation of the League of Armed Neutrality in 1780 during the American Revolution, the many warships built for Russia by U.S. builders throughout the 19th century, and the Russian squadron visits to U.S. ports during the Civil War. Yet anti-Russian sentiment, inspired by popular images of Siberian penal camps and Jewish pogroms— brought Russia and the autocracy under closer scrutiny, and its public image underwent considerable revision, often with less-than-commendable accuracy.7 A case in point is the changing view of the Russian fleet visits to Northern ports during the American Civil War.
By the time war broke out in 1861, the United States had enjoyed a diplomatic affinity with the Russian Empire for many years, the basis of which mostly was a shared bitterness toward Great Britain. Therefore, when a Russian squadron arrived at New York in September 1863, the Lincoln administration, which feared British or French intervention on behalf of the Confederate States, interpreted the visit as an unqualified gesture of support and friendship for the Union. The public saw the visit in this way, too, turning the event into a grand celebration. A squadron from the Russian Pacific Fleet arrived later in San Francisco to an equally warm reception. The idea that they had come to support the Union and would have helped to prevent European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy received wide publication in newspapers, books, and pamphlets. In the period after the Civil War, Russians and Americans alike spoke of the traditional friendship that existed between the two countries.8
Two contradicting attitudes toward Russia emerged in the United States during the late 19th century, however. Both revealed that the American public had mixed feelings about Russia; one critical, which was usually directed toward the autocratic government; the other sympathetic, a view usually held by people who had experienced direct contact with Russians, such as during famine relief, the 1893 Columbian Exposition in New York, and students’ courses of study. By the time of the Russo-Japanese War, in which U.S. sentiment rested clearly with Japan, Russians had begun to claim the United States to be ungrateful for the Civil War- era port visits. In the United States, opponents of the “perpetual friendship theory” asserted that the fleet visits were nothing more than Emperor Alexander Il’s attempts to avoid leaving his fleet bottled up in the Baltic by the Royal Navy. Hostilities threatened to arise there from the insurrection of Poland, which was part of the Russian Empire and had the sympathy of Great Britain and France. Neither side produced hard evidence to support their claims. “The reputation of the fleet visit,” wrote Norman Saul, “would continue to wane and wax according to the political climate—hopes and promises, fears and hostilities—and on the basis of individual images of the Russian present and future.”9
In spring 1911, a visit by a squadron of U.S. battleships to the Russian naval bases at Reval and Kronstadt held out the prospect of rekindling friendship and hospitality. But the U.S. press ignored the affair, which included a week-long stay and receptions with Emperor Nicholas II. The Russians sensed hostility in the Americans.10
The virtual disappearance of the Russian Navy as a major force and Russia’s political isolation— the “new” Soviet Union, was not recognized by the U.S. government until 1933—produced a generation of U.S. naval leaders during World War II with neither direct experience with the Russian Navy nor an appreciation of its concept of naval power. As a result, during the Cold War, even a modest revival of Russian naval strength proved greatly disturbing to most Western officials, particularly in the United States, which had assumed Great Britain’s former role of world policeman and preeminent naval power after World War II. Over the course of two decades, the transformation of what amounted to a coastal defense force in the 1950s into a major naval power in the 1970s led to the creation of a burgeoning industry in Soviet naval analysis. By this time, political science and defense analysis, with their focus on current affairs and trends for the future, had long since parted with the discipline of history. The work of Robert Waring Herrick, Michael McGwire, Norman Polmar, and the analysts at the Center for Naval Analyses, especially James M. McConnell and Bradford Dismukes, all of whose work added to our understanding of Russians at sea and influenced policy, necessarily contained elements of history but focused on predicting future Soviet behavior."
Although the Office of Naval Intelligence sponsored an evaluation of German war diaries pertinent to the Soviet- German experience in World War II by a team of former German naval officers—the substance of which was published in 1979 as The Soviets as Naval Opponents, 194T 1945—the academic history community turned to the available primary sources on Russian naval history, which most often meant concentrating on the sailing navy and exploration. Raymond H. Fisher’s Bering’s Voyages: Whither and Why (1977), and Glynn Barratt’s Russia in Pacific Waters, 1715-1825 (1981) are both excellent studies based on the extensive use of the documents held in the Central State (now Russian State) Archives of the Navy in downtown St. Petersburg.12
The only comprehensive history of the Russian Navy written by a historian in English during this period was Donald Mitchell’s A History of Russian and Soviet Sea Power (1974). In the mid-1950s, when the Cold War rivalry inspired Mitchell to begin work on his massive study, the availability of reliable materials proved little better than Sir George Sydenham Clarke’s 60 years earlier. Only after some two decades of foraging for Russian and other foreign publications and documents did Mitchell believe that he had filled in the many gaps that characterized the treatment of Russian naval history in English.11 Even today, largely outdated and full of errors, it remains the only volume study of the course and breadth of Russian naval history.
The end of the Cold War and demise of the Soviet Union, while promising hitherto impossible research opportunities for historians, has also initiated substantial budget cuts to the Defense Department and other sponsor agencies of academic research on Russia. Hence, after decades during which the Federal government invested billions of dollars to deter communist aggression, including the U.S. Navy’s underwriting of a considerable industry in Soviet and communist naval studies, one of the cruel ironies is that the main obstacle to research in Russia is no longer political or ideological, but financial.
300 Years—and Counting
Celebrations across Russia are marking this year’s 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy as a regular force, and St. Petersburg has been the most prominent venue.
This extraordinary city boasts treasures in art and architecture of international, cultural significance. First and foremost, however, it was a commercial port, shipbuilding center, and navy town. Founded by Tsar Peter I in 1703, St. Petersburg is home to the Russian Navy’s historical archives, museum, and library, its educational establishment, and hundreds of shipbuilding and other navy-related enterprises.
From 15 through 17 May, the Kuznetsov Naval Academy, the Russian naval war college, hosted an international historical conference. In addition to the top commanders of the Russian Navy, flag officers representing the Dutch, British, and U.S. navies presented papers. Vice Admiral Philip M. Quast, Commander, Military Sealift Command, represented the U.S. Navy and, in addition to his official role in the conference, gave a moving and well-received eulogy for the late U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jeremy M. Boorda.
At the Central Naval Museum in St. Petersburg, an exhibit entitled “300 Years of the Russian Navy: Conclusions and Prospects” opened in June, while later that month in Moscow, at the Central Armed Forces Museum, curators unveiled a special exhibit hall on Russian naval emigration, which occurred in the wake of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, using artifacts mostly obtained from the Russian Navy Museum in Howell, New Jersey.
The Great Naval Parade down St. Petersburg’s Neva River proved to be the featured event in the celebrations. Some 14 Russian warships and nine foreign warships— including the guided-missile frigate Samuel Eliot Morison (FFG-13)— called on St. Petersburg to help commemorate the anniversary. Secretary of the Navy John Dalton and Vice Admiral J. Paul Reason,
Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Plans, Policy, and Operations, N3/N5), headed the official U.S. Navy delegation. At the same time, the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), with Admiral Ronald J. Zlatoper, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, and Vice Admiral Archie R. Clemins, Commander, Seventh Fleet, visited Vladivostok, the home of the Russian Pacific Ocean Fleet.
1. For a recent example, see the remarks of President Ronald Reagan, quoted in John F. Lehman, Jr., Command of the Seas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), pp. 120-121.
2. See Colonel Sir George Sydenham Clarke, Russia's Sea-Power, Past and Present (Or the Rise of the Russian Navy) (London: John Murray, 1898); VAdm Sir Cyprian A. G. Bridge, History of the Russian Fleet During the Reign of Peter the Great by a Contemporary Englishman (1724), Volume XV (London: Navy Records Society, 1899); Fred T. Jane, The Imperial Russian Navy: Its Past, Present, and Future (London: W. Thacker & Co., 1899, revised edition, 1904).
3. Clarke, Russia’s Sea-Power, pp. vi-vii.
4. Ibid., p. 161.
5. On page 549 of The Imperial Russian Navy, Jane wrote: “Probably there is no country and no people in the world whom the British so little as Russia and the Russians.”
6. See Frank A. Golder, Russian Expansion on the Pacific, 1641-1850: An Account of the Earliest and Later Expeditions Made by the Russians along the Pacific Coast of Asia and North America, Including Some Related Expeditions to the Arctic Regions (Cleveland, OH: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1914); Bering’s Voyages: An Account of the Efforts of the Russians to Determine the Relation of Asia and America, 2 volumes (New York: American Geographical Society, 1922 and 1925); and John Paul Jones in Russia (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page &. Co., 1927).
7. Norman E. Saul, Concord & Conflict: The United States & Russia, 1867-1914 (Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1996), pp. 509-511.
8. Norman E. Saul, Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763-1867 (Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1991), pp. 336-354.
9. Saul, Concord & Conflict, p. 511.
10. Ibid., pp. 569-570.
11. See Robert Waring Herrick, Soviet Naval Strategy: Fifty Years of Theory and Practice (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1968) and Soviet Naval Theory and Policy: Gorshkov’s Inheritance (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989); Michael McGwire’s many works include, as editor, Soviet Naval Developments: Capability and Context—Papers Relating to Russia’s Maritime Interests (New York: Praeger, 1973); after a great many analytical pieces devoted to the Soviet Navy, Norman Polmar has turned to the history of Russian submarines. See his introductory volume, with Jurrien Noot, Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies, 1718-1990 (Annapolis, MD: 1991); James M. McConnell and Bradford Dismukes, et. al., Soviet Naval Diplomacy (New York: Pergamon Press, 1979).
12. See VAdm Friedrich Ruge, The Soviets as Naval Opponents, 1941-1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979); Raymond H. Fisher, Bering’s Voyages: Whither and Why (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1977); and Glynn Barratt, Russia in Pacific Waters, 1715-1825 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1981).
13. Donald W. Mitchell, A History of Russian and Soviet Sea Power (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974).