On the Eve of War


Emperor Nicholas I paid considerable attention to the fleet and became personally involved in its development. Ascending the throne, in December of 1825, as the rebellious Decembrists were gathering in Senate Square, he was particularly disconcerted that among them were many valued members of the navy. In fact, two of the most outstanding officers of the fleet, Nikolay Bestuzhev and Konstantin Torson, had played leading roles in secret reform societies. Consequently, after suppressing the Decembrists, Nicholas I laid particular emphasis upon the training of new officers, while insisting upon their loyalty to the throne. During his reign, the Emperor visited the Naval Ca-det Corps 97 times-more than any other ruler of Russia.

Admiral Ivan Kruzenstern, director of the Naval College from 1827 to 1842, did much for the improvement of that institution. At Kruzenstern's urging, an officers' class was formed to elevate students' skills to the highest achievable level. This class was the direct predecessor of the Naval War College. After approving the new crew assignments and roster, Nicholas I ordered the expansion of the Russian fleet to 27 ships of the line in the Baltic and fifteen in the Black Sea.

By the first half of the nineteenth century, Russian sailing ships were among the best constructed in the world. On the Black Sea the three-decked Dvyenadtsat Apostolov was armed with cannon that fired mammoth 68-pound cannonballs; on the Baltic the 120-gun Rossiya was capable of firing 3,000 pounds of cannonballs in a single volley. However, a new phase of maritime engineering was beginning, and the completion of the first Russian steamer in 1815 harbingered the end of the era of sailing vessels. In the 1820's the armed steamers Izhora, Meteor and others were already deployed in the Baltic and Black seas. Engineering continued to advance, and within a decade were launched the larger war steamers Hercules and Bogatyr [Hero].

In 1842 the Ministry of the Navy established the Steamship Committee and appointed Admiral Pyotr Rikord to direct it. The Baltic Fleet was supplied with four steamer frigates, and, in 1849, the first 23-gun screw-propeller frigate was built and christened the Archimede. However, the pace of modernization began to lose momentum. Headed by Admiral Alexander Menshikov, the Naval Administration delayed construction of the new State shipbuilding plants at Kronstadt and Nikolayev. As a result, the fleet's vessels were not replaced rapidly enough by propeller-driven steamers. Moreover, the Russian Navy now faced another dilemma. Britain possessed the most skilled experts in the new field of nautical engineering, but diplomatic relations between St. Petersburg and London were quickly deteriorating. Nevertheless, Russia decided to enlist the aid of British shipbuilders and placed a work order in 1851. However, in 1854, with the outbreak of the Crimean War, the British government commandeered the already finished engines destined to power Russian vessels and thereby strengthened England's Royal Navy at Russia's expense.

Meanwhile, the Black Sea Fleet demonstrated once again that it needed to be kept strong and constantly ready for war. In 1833 Egyptian commander Pasha Mohammed Ali encroached on the territory of Turkish Sultan Mahmud II. When Russia agreed to an alliance with the Sultan, Egypt threatened to seize the Turkish capital. Russia's Black Sea Fleet landed 10,000 troops on the coast of the Bosporus and by May of 1833 nine ships of the line, four frigates, a corvette, a brig, two bombardment ships, the armed steamer Gromonosets [Thunderer] and four transports had been assembled under the flag of Vice-Admiral Mikhail Lazarev. The substantial Russian force both prevented Egypt's French allies from entering the Sea of Marmara and persuaded the Pasha of Egypt to begin negotiations with the Turkish Sultan.

Thus, owing to the might of the Russian Navy, the Unkjar-Iskelesia Treaty was signed in 1833, and gave the Russian Navy access to the Dardanelles-the passage into the Mediterranean that had been closed to Russia since 1806.

In 1836, with a special detachment of ships, the Abkhazian Expedition was organized to patrol the Caucasian coast. During the long Caucasus War that followed, Russian seamen struggled against military smuggling and the slave trade, transported troops and equipment, and protected coastal lines of communication. At various times the detachment was under the command of Admirals Mikhail Stanyukovich, Pavel Yuryev, Yegor Koltov-sky, Pavel Nakhimov, Fyodor Yuryev and Ni-kolay Metlin, all of whom were graduates of Lazarev's Marine Academy. Admiral Lazarev was himself in charge of strategic operations during the Caucasus War. In the spring of 1838 the Black Sea Fleet transported infantry and a marine battalion to the Subasha and Shapsuga rivers and the following year brought 6600 troops to the Subasha delta. Together, these landings secured the coastal area and enabled Russia to build fortifications along the Black Sea.

From 1848 to 1850 the Baltic Fleet undertook a major campaign in Danish waters. Siding with Denmark in its struggle against Prussia, Russia directly intervened. The mere appearance of the combined forces of two divisions, numbering eighteen ships of the line and six frigates, decided the outcome of the conflict. A truce was concluded, and, on 29 November 1850, a convention was signed in Olmuts, reaffirming Denmark's sovereignty over its territories.