Admiral Lazarev and the Black Sea fleet


Admiral Lazarev (1788–1851) drove many of the reforms that helped mould Russia into the world’s second naval power by the 1830s. An explorer in his early days as an officer, he formed close relationships with officers of the Royal Navy when serving in the Mediterranean, keeping abreast of new developments in ship design and ordnance developments in the process. He remained open to change throughout his life, and promoted improvements in ordnance and the adoption of steam propulsion, working to overcome the complacency and lethargy of a peacetime navy. His greatest gifts were as an administrator, and his two most accomplished subordinates were Vice-Admirals Pavel Nakhimov and Vladimir Kornilov, both of whom died in the siege of Sevastopol’. Painted by L. D. Blinov 1885, after Karl Briullov’s portrait.

Mikhail Lazarev succeeded to command of the Black Sea fleet in 1833 after an extraordinary early career that had involved three circumnavigations of the globe, the discovery of the Antarctic mainland, combat at Navarino as commander of Rear-Admiral Login Petrovich Geiden’s flagship Azov, and command of the blockade of the Dardanelles in the 1828–9 war. He was a ruthless critic of what he considered to have been the shoddy construction standards of Russian Black Sea warships and did much to upgrade infrastructure and quality control during his tenure as commander. During his earlier years, Lazarev had established close relations with British officers serving in the Mediterranean and he introduced uniform calibre gun establishments along lines established in the Royal Navy in the 1820s at a time when the less progressive Baltic fleet remained tied to mixed batteries, with the exception of a very small number of experimental ship of the line and frigates. Lazarev was intensely interested in technological progress of all sorts and pushed for the introduction of steam power in advance of its acceptance and feasibility in a Russia that was only slowly entering into the beginning stages of the Industrial Revolution. Had his determination and dynamism been sufficient in and of itself to bring about the modernization and reconstruction of Russian warships, the Russian navy might well have been in a position to give a better account of itself in 1853. As it was, his legacy was carried on by two of his pupils, Vice Admiral Pavel Nakhimov and Vice Admiral Vladimir Kornilov, both of whom insured the continuation of his standards of excellence and both of whom died heroically during the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War.

Turkey and the Caucasus Campaign 1830–40

In the wake of the Russo-Turkish War of 1827–9, the Ottoman Empire found itself in the unlikely position of having to enter into friendly relations with its ancient enemy, Russia. The rise of Egyptian power was of more moment to Constantinople than the threat of further Russian expansion to the south. While the Egyptians had fought alongside the Turks at Navarino, the Egyptian Pasha Mehmed Ali was clearly on a collision course with his Turkish overlord, the Sultan. By the early 1830s, both Egypt and Turkey were engaged in massive shipbuilding programmes, and the former vassal state was in the lead. By 1837, the Egyptian fleet included ten ships of the line with over 100 guns, two with 88–92 guns and six in the 60-gun range – for a total of 18 capital ships, a remarkable accomplishment in itself and one little noted by most naval historians. Three of the 100-gun ships were under construction, but all had been launched by 1838, although one of these was accidentally burnt while fitting out. Against this, only two 126-gun ships, six with 74–80 guns and seven heavy frigates with 52 guns were active at Constantinople out of a total Turkish strength of three 126-gun ships, 12 of 74–90 and ten heavy frigates of 50–60 guns including one still under construction. The Turkish fleet was in poor condition in contrast to the Egyptian. The only available counterweight to the Egyptian navy was alliance with Russia and this carried a price tag: opening of the Straits to Russian naval movements, the closing of the Black Sea to non-Russian warships and the ceding of the Caucasus to Russian control. In 1833, Admiral Lazarev entered the Bosporus at Turkish invitation with the Black Sea fleet and 12,000 Russian troops and saved Constantinople from almost certain capture by the Egyptians, who were by this time in open revolt and approaching the heart of the Empire with an army that had successfully defeated the Ottoman forces sent against it. For their assistance in containing Mehmed Ali, Russia was awarded with de facto control over the Straits until 1841 at which time the combined power of France and Great Britain brought about a return to previous restrictions on the movement of naval forces in either direction.

The subjection of the independent tribal groups in the Caucasus became a major focus for the Russians from 1836 on and through the early 1840s. While the rebellious ethnic groups presented no naval threat to Russian control of the Black Sea, the elements of the Black Sea fleet – from the lightest to the heaviest – were all extensively involved in the full range of amphibious support activities, from transportation of troops and supplies, to shore bombardment, to patrol and escort activities, and to the landing, establishment, and protection of beachheads and forts. While these activities must have been tedious in the extreme, one can only surmise that the level of training, readiness and seamanship of the ships involved must have been of a high order – especially under Admiral Lazarev’s demanding leadership.

Sinop and the Crimean War 1853–6

The Russian Black Sea fleet had approached the highest standards of efficiency during the closing years of the age of sail and its warships and commanders were well regarded by informed British and French observers. By mid-century, technological change was transforming military and naval weapons and tactical systems at a rate that often left even the most advanced European powers struggling to keep up. The Ottoman Empire was quickly left behind by improvements in ordnance and the introduction of steam propulsion, while their Russian rivals were at the same time attempting with only limited success to keep abreast of European powers possessing even more fully matured industrial and scientific resources. One effect of the industrial revolution would be the Russian destruction of Turkish naval forces at Sinop by means of their more advanced ordnance, their more highly trained manpower resources and their overwhelming materiel superiority. In a similar manner, Russian naval power would in its turn be eclipsed very shortly thereafter at the siege of Sevastopol’ by British and French naval forces operating with even more highly developed technological sophistication acting similarly in tandem with equally overwhelming materiel superiority.

For westerners unaccustomed to the highly developed interrelatedness of Russian naval and military operations, the decision of Emperor Nicholas I, acting upon the advice of Prince Menshikov, to order Admiral Nakhimov to scuttle the major elements of the Black Sea fleet at the harbour entrance and send his sailors ashore along with their artillery to aid in the defence of Sevastopol’ seems an act of craven cowardice or incredibly poor judgment. Many of Nakhimov’s officers are said to have held similar viewpoints, holding that the honour of Russia required a fight to the death against an overwhelmingly powerful Anglo-French armada in the open waters of the Black Sea. If real military effectiveness is deemed the criterion in place of self-serving posturing by officers imbued with an excess of nineteenth-century romanticism, the practical contribution of the Russian sailors to the defence of Sevastopol’ clearly out-weighed whatever propaganda value the heroic sacrifice of the certainly doomed Russian battle fleet at sea by the superior

Anglo-French forces might have had in the eyes of history and naval tradition. If, on the other hand, real courage and sacrifice were to become the criteria, the death of Admirals Kornilov, Istomin and Nakhimov along with 15,000 seamen and officers during the siege and the survival of a mere 600 speaks for itself.

Official Russian records credit the warship losses during the siege of Sevastopol at 12 line of battle ships, two frigates, five corvettes and brigs and five steam warships. This was the fleet built so carefully over a quarter century by the will of Nicholas I and the skill and leadership of Admiral Lazarev. It was unquestionably the most efficient and well-trained fleet ever put into service by the Russian Navy during the age of sail. Its inability to mount an effective challenge to the combined fleets of two of the most powerful and technologically advanced great powers of the period is no reflection on its standing in this regard. The Treaty of Paris signed in March of 1856 ended the Crimean War and forbade (temporarily as events were to prove) the future operation of Russian naval forces in the Black Sea. Sailing ships would hang on in the Baltic until 1860, but the death by scuttling of the Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol marked the real end for the Russian sailing navy.

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