The Russian Imperial Navy – Catherine the Great to Alexander I


Under the Empress Catherine the Great, the Russian Navy again resumed the full and personal attention of the sovereign. A new ship-building programme resulted in a tremendous expansion in the navy, and a mercantile marine was established but both of these developments once more revealed the Russian paucity in manpower and expertise. Foreigners again filled these depleted ranks with Catherine recruiting almost exclusively from the English and the Scots, while Russian officers saw service in the Royal Navy. In 1769 a Russian fleet sailed from the Baltic under Count Orlov to wage war on the Turkish squadrons in the Eastern Mediterranean and thereby draw the enemy away from the Black Sea. Although this was the first time that the Russians were to transfer seapower from one region to another, it was not the last, for it has become a major feature of Russian maritime strategy and reflects the often desperate predicament which the obstacle of geography presents to a country of this size.’

A combination and culmination of disasters forced Orlov to seek sanctuary in Plymouth. Scurvy, inexperienced sailors and leaking ships caused this inauspicious start to the expedition. The ships were repaired, the sick landed and many English recruited to take their place. Rear-Admiral Sir John Elphinston, who had already distinguished himself in the Royal Navy, was given ‘leave of absence’ to command one of Orlov’s squadrons. On the 5th July 1770 this cosmopolitan fleet fought a decisive, and indeed notorious, battle over the massed Turkish war galleys. The Russian ships were out-numbered two to one, a feature in itself which is contrary to their tradition, but they annihilated the Turks in an engagement which many historians have claimed as one of the most complete victories in the annals of war at sea.

Despite the magnitude of this victory, Catherine wisely refrained from maintaining a naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean for she shrewdly recognized that to have done so would have alarmed the British and French, who would both no doubt have bitterly resented such an intrusion into their own traditional areas.

With the Peace of Kuchuk Kainarji. Russian hegemony was assured for the time being and the navy once again entered a period of decline. But nevertheless it still attracted more than its fair share of colourful personalities, for that legend of American history John Paul Jones spent his last years of active life in Russian service. After a spectacular career in the Ranger, raiding English shipping during the War of Independence, he had been sent as prize agent to Denmark; it was from there that, in 1778, he joined the Russian navy with the rank of Rear-Admiral. Although American historians would have it otherwise the Russians have always maintained that John Paul Jones made little contribution to their victories in the Black Sea. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1779 but only stayed there for a short while, since he became involved in scandal. He left the country in disgrace and returned to Paris where he died in 1782.

Renewed hostilities with Turkey in 1790 produced the first native-born Russian admiral of world stature. Feodr Feodorovich Ushakov achieved notable victories in the Mediterranean, one of which illustrated the same type of tactics that Nelson was later to use at the Nile; indeed, Soviet historians today have on a number of occasions referred to Admiral Ushakov as the ‘Tutor of Nelson.’

The Russian Navy in the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars was a rather hybrid affair for many of its officers were British and the only overseas bases it could use were British harbours. Russian units sailed from the Channel bases at Chatham and Portsmouth to take part in the blockade of the French coast, while in the Mediterranean Admiral Ushakov captured the island of Corfu. The mentally unbalanced Tzar Paul I provoked a quarrel with England when he accepted the title of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. The British resented this and the quarrel erupted into open violence when the island was captured in 1800 by the Royal Navy; Paul then seized British merchant shipping in Kronshtadt and conspired to deprive England of the invaluable Baltic timber trade. Nelson’s victory at Copenhagen soon inspired a more cautious and pragmatic policy from the Tzar who returned the British merchantmen, paid compensation to their owners and renounced any claim to the titles of Malta.

Paul was assassinated in 1801 and replaced by his more amenable son Alexander who, whilst not particularly interested in the Navy, sought to heal the breach caused by his father. Admiral Ushakov was now dead and his place was taken by Admiral Seniavin who had served his apprenticeship in the British Navy. Under his command Russian squadrons co-operated with Collingwood in the Mediterranean against their common foe, the Turks, and a number of Russian officers were with Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. Major reforms were introduced into the Russian naval organization by officers who had all been trained in the Royal Navy and in 1803 Captain Krusenten completed the first circumnavigation by a Russian. However, all this co-operation and mutual support between the two navies was fatally undermined by the Peace of Tilsit when Alexander was forced to accept French military hegemony and become allied to Napoleon. Admiral Seniavin and the Mediterranean squadrons, however, refused to fight their one-time allies, and instead sailed to Lisbon where the force was interned by the British. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 restored the old relationship between the two navies and the Russians in particular, performed valuable service in co-operating with their armies and hounding the French hues of communication along the coastal reaches and inlets of the Southern Baltic shore. Russian ships once again appeared in the Mediterranean as part of the joint force while others operated in the North Sea with the Royal Navy. This happy state of affairs lasted until the peace of 1815.

The Eastern Mediterranean was the scene for one final major joint venture between the Royal Navies of Britain and Russia and once again the enemy was Turkey. The Battle of Navarino (1825) was fought by naval contingents from Britain, Russia and France against a large but incredibly old-fashioned Turkish Fleet. This allied victory which resulted in the destruction of fifty Turkish ships assured the Greeks of independence when all else seemed lost, and at the same time led to the Sultan acknowledging Russian supremacy in the Black Sea. Russian historians would have us believe that the Russian squadron under Count Heyden not only bore the brunt of the fighting, while the British and French units held back, but by carrying the battle to the Turks ensured victory; such a hypothesis does not stand up to close examination. Nevertheless the Russians have always been justly proud of this victory, for their squadron did fight with vigour and valour, and the squadron flagship Azov has been immortalised in the annals of their naval history. To this day there has always been a Russian warship called Pamyat Azova {In memory of Azov) and this ship always displays the badge of St. George, the Russian insignia for valour.

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