The Black Sea Dilemma


In the early summer of 1736 Russian land and sea forces captured the Turkish-held fortress of Azov. The Russian fleet was under the command of Admiral Pyotr Bredal, a veteran of the fleet of Peter I. Admiral Bredal's ships encircled the fortress, already under siege by Russian troops. Six prams (floating batteries) blocked the estuary of the Don, and the remaining vessels commenced an attack that continued for ten days. During the relentless bombardment more than eight thousand cannonballs were fired at the fortress. On 19 June Azov surrendered.

Azov was the Don flotilla's only victory in the war. During the next two years Admiral Bredal ordered hundreds of vessels into the Sea of Azov, but they were no match for the more heavily armed Turkish fleet. On 14 June 1737, Seaman First Class Afanasy Patrushev, in only a small ship, engaged a Turkish furkat and repulsed its attack. On 10 July the commander of the unfortunate frigate Mitau, Captain Defremery, regained his reputation and won honour for his heroism. Greatly outnumbered by Turkish forces, he ordered the grounding of his ship in the coastal shallows. He then commanded the crew to hasten ashore. After the enemy rushed aboard, Captain Defremery ignited a trail of powder he had sprinkled leading from the powder barrels in the hold of the ship and made good his escape with no time to spare.

In 1738 the Turks managed to blockade the Russians near Genichesk. The Russian forces burned their own vessels and reached Azov by land. Their ultimate aim was, however, the occupation of Constantinople. In order to realize that goal, it was decided, in January 1737, that 355 deeper, but smaller vessels, more suitable for sailing on the Black Sea, be constructed at the Bryansk shipyard. At the same time, good fortune also eluded the Bryansk (Dnieper) flotilla, which supported the army of General Field Marshal Burkhard Minikh during the Ochakov offensive.

Low water detained the flotilla on the Dnieper. Receiving no support, Minikh took Ochakov by storm on his own. In desperate assaults the Turks continued attempts to retake the fortress. The large boats and brigantines of the flotilla, together with the troops, successfully repulsed them, but the battle rendered the vessels unfit for further action on the Black Sea.

Misfortune continued to pursue the Russian seamen. In 1738 plague broke out among the seamen, decimating officers and sailors alike. The commander of the flotilla Vice-Admiral Naum Sinyavin and his successor Rear Admiral Vasily Dmitriev-Mamonov were among the victims. The epidemic continued into the next year. Russia finally lost so many seamen to the plague that the navy was forced to admit defeat and surrender.

In accordance with the Peace Treaty of 1739 Russia returned the destroyed towns of Ochakov and Kinburn to the Ottoman Empire but gained Azov and the territories between the Bug and Dnieper Rivers, though without the right to erect fortifications or enter the Black Sea.

The ambitious Catherine II, even in the years preceding her reign, studied statesmanship and the requirements of a sovereign power. After becoming empress in 1762, she demonstrated, through decrees relating to naval affairs, that she intended to continue the maritime policies of Peter I and that, for her, he was the exemplary seaman. During the first years of her reign she restored much of the former grandeur of the Russian fleet. New regular posts were added to the staff of the Baltic fleet. To provide for a possible large-scale war, the Tsarina authorized an increase in the strength of the fleet up to 40 ships of the line, nine frigates, eight bomb-vessels and prams, and 150 galleys. In 1765 the new Regulations on Controlling Admiralties and Fleets replaced those of Peter I's time, and in 1777 regulations were adopted on the improvement of ship armaments. Admiral Alexey Nagayev developed new accurate national navigational charts.

An expedition by Captain Pyotr Krenitsin and Captain-Commodore Vasily Chichagov explored the Aleutian Islands and the Arctic Ocean, reaching the previously inaccessible latitude of 80 degrees 30 minutes. In 1764-1765 the frigate Nadezhda [Hope] ventured into the Mediterranean Sea. Catherine II appointed her son Paul General-Admiral of the fleet, a move that compromised the institute established by Peter the Great. Since 1770 the fleet had been under the command of President of the Admiralty Collegium Count Ivan Chernyshov. Throughout the 60s-80s of the eighteenth century, many foreign commanders also appeared in positions throughout the fleet: Englishmen Samuel Greig and John Trevenen, Greek Panaiothos Alexiano, and Dalmatian Mark Voinovich. Many Russian seamen received their training in foreign fleets. Another of the Empress's most dependable means of resolving problems relating to the Russian Navy was her reliance upon a trio of advisors known as her "Eagles"-Alexey Orlov, Grigory Orlov [Orlov derives from the Russian word oryol meaning "eagle"] and Grigory Potemkin-Tavrichesky, who was also the founder of the Black Sea fleet.

Considering Catherine II's preparations, the new Russian-Turkish War of 1768-1774 did not take the Russian fleet by surprise. As soon as the Ottoman Empire presented an ultima-tum, Catherine II confirmed the decrees rees-tablishing the Azov flotilla, the base of the fu-ture Black Sea fleet, and sent squadrons from that fleet into the Mediterranean.