The Fleet On the Open Sea


A peace treaty between Russia and Turkey was signed at San Stephano on 19 February 1878. The Osman Empire acknowledged the independence of Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and the southern part of Bessarabia, while the fortresses of Kars, Ardagan, Batum and Bayazet were relinquished to Russia. Although these conditions were acceptable to Turkey, they were not recognized by Britain, which dispatched a large squadron to the Sea of Marmara.

In Saint Petersburg, urgent measures were taken to arm the Baltic Fleet, and Vice-Admiral Andrey Popov assumed responsibility for the organisation of the maritime defence of the Bosporus. To divert the attention of British forces, Russia dispatched a second expedition to America with Lieutenant-Commander Leonid Semechkin in command. This time Russian seamen arrived in America aboard a merchant steamer. Cruisers were purchased and armed in the United States.

In order to strengthen Russia's cruiser forces quickly, patriots collected money to create the "voluntary fleet," and a fund of two million roubles was amassed. Three fast steamers were bought in Germany and assigned to the Baltic Fleet in the summer of 1878. Under the same pressing conditions a hundred small craft of a new class, namely, torpedo boats, were also built. They weighed, on the average, 23 tons, maintained a speed of twelve knots, and were armed with torpedo launchers and quick-firing cannon.

However, all these measures did not provide absolute protection of the Bosporus. Owing to the might of its fleet, Britain had meanwhile enlisted the support of other European powers. As a result, Russia was outmaneuvered at the Berlin Congress of 1878, had to return the Bayazet Fortress and accept a sizeable reduction of the territory of free Bulgaria. For the most part, this outcome was a consequence of Russia's inefficient Black Sea Fleet. It was well understood in the Russian Admiralty that the restoration of the Black Sea Fleet and the strengthening of the Baltic Fleet were of primary importance. The new Emperor, Alexander III, who had ascended the throne after the assassination of his father, Alexander II, asserted that new ships built for Russia's navy would have to be capable of engaging enemy vessels on the open sea; therefore, he approved a new shipbuilding program, according to which sixteen battleships as well as four large and two small cruisers were to be constructed for the Baltic, while eight battleships along with two small cruisers and nineteen torpedo boats were to be built for the Black Sea Fleet.

The Emperor's brother, Grand Duke Aleksey Alexandrovich, replaced Grand Duke Konstantin as head of the Naval Department, and, although he lacked the necessary training for such a responsible post, he did not hinder his experienced assistants Admiral Ivan Shestakov (until 1888) and (after 1888) Admiral Niko-lay Chikhachev. Results were soon evident, especially since the annual allocation for the fleet had doubled and now exceeded 50 million roubles. In 1888, the first two battleships of the Black Sea Fleet, Catherine II and Chesma, completed their testing period and trial runs and were ready to join the fleet. During the campaign of 1897 the Black Sea Fleet consisted of six battleships (squadron ironclads), a cruiser, six sea-going gunboats, three torpedo gunboats and 22 torpedo boats.

Between 1887 and 1896, eleven battleships were launched from the shipyards of Saint Petersburg. With an 11,500 ton displacement, the Petropavlovsk, Poltava and Sevastopol were remarkable for their size. The ocean-going armoured cruisers Pamyat Azova, Admiral Nakhimov and Ryurik were built in 1895 in the same shipyards. The Ryurik, with a displacement of 11,600 tons, was the largest cruiser in the world. In terms of sheer combat power the Russian fleet closed the gap between itself and the British and French navies during the last ten years of the nineteenth century.

In 1880, Russian seamen participated in General Mikhail Skobelev's Akhal Tekin Campaign. Commander Makarov commanded the naval forces and supplied Russian troops in the Caspian Sea with provisions and ammunition. The strengthening of the Russian fleet played an important role in the rapprochement between France and Russia. The French sailed to Kronstadt, and, in 1893, the Mediterranean squadron, under the flag of Rear Admiral Fyodor Avelan, returned the gesture with a visit to Toulon.

In 1893, the four first-rated cruisers of the Atlantic squadron, under Rear Admiral Nikolay Kaznakov, represented Russia at the sea parade in New York-in celebration of the Chicago World's Fair and the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage. In 1895 Rear Admiral Nikolay Skrydlov took the battleship Emperor Alexander II, the first-rated cruiser Ryurik and the armoured gunboat Grozyashchy to take part in the ceremonial opening of the Kiel Canal. From 1896 to 1898, the powerful Mediterranean squadron, under the flag of Rear Admiral Pavel Andreyev, participated in international maneuvres off the island of Crete during the Christian anti-Turkish rebellion and the Greco-Turkish War. With the might of the Russian fleet, the Russian Navy was able to defend the Greeks and gain significant political success. In December 1898, Prince George of Greece, a relative of the imperial Romanov family, became High Commissioner of Crete.