Why Did Stalin Build his Big Ocean-Going Fleet?

As the pride of the Soviet fleet, Kirov was finally commissioned on September 26, 1938. She was 628 feet in length, 58 feet in beam, and had a 19-foot draft. While she still could not attain her planned top speed of 37 knots, her generators were able to produce an impressive 113,500shp, and she had a range of 3750nm at 17.8 knots. This was all complemented by her impressive armament and armor: three triple-gun turrets holding 180mm 57 Mk-3-180 guns, six 100mm 56 B-34 DP guns, six 45mm 46 21-K guns, and four 12.7mm DK machine guns. She also had six 533mm 53-38 torpedo tubes and was capable of carrying numerous mines and depth charges. Protection was 50mm armor on her belt, deck, turrets, barbettes, and transverse bulkheads, with 150mm armor on the conning tower.

The decision for the building of the ‘Big Ocean-Going Fleet’ was taken by Stalin in the last months of 1935. There was during the last part of 1935 a well-considered and exactly planned propaganda campaign to celebrate the successes of the technical reconstruction of the fleet and the progress in the education and combat training of naval personnel. On 23 December 1935 more than 270 naval officers and sailors were decorated with orders and medals for their achievements in spreading the Stakhanov movement in the Navy. And on the same day Stalin, V.M. Molotov, G.K. Ordzhonikidze and K.E. Voroshilov received in the Kremlin a delegation from the Pacific Fleet. After the reception, the High Commands of the Red Army and the Red Navy were ordered to prepare proposals for the development of a great ocean-going Navy and to put them before the Government for acceptance. In the following day’s Pravda there appeared an article which stated that it was the aim of the Soviet Union to become a great sea power over the next few years.

In February 1936 a first variant for this great fleet project was ready, and on 27 May 1936 the Council of Labour and Defence (STO) approved the parameters for the composition of the future fleet and the building programme for 1936–47. It is surprising that only a very short time after the official proclamation of the doctrine of a ‘Small War at Sea’, which was still supported by the then Deputy Chief of the Naval Forces, Flagman 1 Ranga I.M. Ludri, in a review of an American book in the February 1936 issue of the official journal Morskoi sbornik, the official doctrine was suddenly changed to one of a ‘Big Ocean-Going Navy’. The Chief of the Naval Forces, Flagman Flota 1 Ranga V.M. Orlov, who had also been a supporter with the jeune école of a small war at sea, now vehemently propagated this viewpoint in his speech to the Extraordinary Congress of the Union’s Soviets on 28 November 1936. Nevertheless, the then Chief of the General Staff, Marshal A.I. Yegorov, persisted with his requests that the Navy build heavy ships and even aircraft carriers in greater numbers than the Navy wanted.

Where should we look for the reasons for this sudden change? There can be no doubt that the initiative for this change must have come from the top, from Stalin himself, because at this time his dominant position was so effectively established that nobody dared to criticize his decisions or to present diverging opinions. This is especially obvious here, as the top military and naval leaders, who had before clearly been supporters of the ‘Small War at Sea’ theory, suddenly switched to the opposite viewpoint. They must have seen or possibly even anticipated the changed aims of the Vozhd’, of Stalin. What, then, might have been Stalin’s reasons for this change of policy and strategy?

In the mid-1930s Stalin had perceived the ‘people’s front’ concept of cooperation with the Western democracies in a policy of ‘collective security’, as advocated by the Narkom for Foreign Relations, M.M. Litvinov, and promoted by the Komintern, to be a failure. Litvinov’s influence probably began to diminish much earlier than March 1939, as most Western historians have assumed.1 Stalin must have already changed to an independent defence policy by the mid-1930s. One obvious reason was the anti-Soviet and anti-communist policy of Germany, and its closer collaboration with the Japanese and Italians, but also with the former common enemy Poland, and Great Britain, as was demonstrated by the German-British Naval Agreement of 1935, which seemed to be a German approach to one of the most important Western democracies to him. No doubt, Stalin felt that the Soviet Union was becoming increasingly surrounded by possible enemy states. This led him to want to build up the military strength of the Soviet Union to a level superior to that of his neighbours, a tendency seen already in the early 1930s, when industrialization was focused on the production of armaments for the Army, to equip their forces according to the doctrine of M.N. Tukhachevskii and V.K. Triandaffilov of countering possible enemy attacks by counterstrokes deep into their territory.

By the mid-1930s it most probably became evident to Stalin that the other great powers had started to build up their navies, and that a real naval arms race had begun. He must have had the intention of acquiring in all fleet areas a strength comparable or even superior to the probable enemy navies, especially the Japanese in the Sea of Japan and the Germans in the Baltic, and to a lesser extent the Germans and their allies in the Arctic, and the Romanians, the Turkish and the Italians in the Black Sea. Because all the possible hostile sea powers started to build new battleships, he also saw a need to have such ships. This was underlined, when in 1936–37 the Soviet Navy was not able to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, despite the fact that Stalin’s decision to build the ‘Big Ocean-Going Fleet’ was taken before the Civil War started, which some historians have erroneously linked with the start of the Soviet naval build-up. One other supporting observation was probably the decision by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said at this time, ‘It’s not possible to believe in treaties, the guarantee lies in a strong fleet. Let’s see how the Japanese could endure a naval arms race.’ On 21 January 1938 the US Congress accepted a new law for an enlargement of the Navy, and on 17 May a programme of a ‘Two-Oceans Navy’ was announced. In addition, there might have been information about new building plans for the Japanese Navy. The mentioned strategic aims developed for the August 1939 naval programme show clearly the intention of acquiring naval supremacy in each of the four fleet areas. If we look at the text of the August 1939 documents, the question is, was the aim behind the naval build-up to gain security against naval threats? Or were the battleship fleets perceived to be a necessary step in ensuring that by 1947 the Soviet Union would become one of the world’s superpowers? At present, this question cannot definitively be answered, but the wording of the now known documents from 1939 to 1941 shows at the least an offensive tendency in Soviet policy and strategy.

Indeed, was Soviet industry able at this time to fulfil the big programmes? The experiences of the developments that followed are proof that the industrial and technological capacities were at the time insufficient to accomplish the big building programme in the seven to ten years envisaged. The very close dates for the building of the big ships were simply not realistic, as was shown in 1936, when only 53 per cent of the plan dates were achieved, and in 1938 only 60 per cent. Notwithstanding the real difficulties, Stalin pushed the building processes, and many historians have assumed that the purges against the naval leadership in 1937–38 had to do with his wish to get rid of the former supporters of the ‘Small War at Sea’ theory and the opponents of the ‘reactionary theory of sea-power’. But if we look at the victims of the purges, we find not only the most important exponents of these theories, like I.M. Ludri, K.I. Dushenov and I.K. Kozhanov, but also people who changed their mind along the lines given by Stalin, like R.A. Muklevich, V.M. Orlov and finally M.V. Viktorov, and Marshal A.I. Yegorov, who since 1935 had been forcefully asking for an accelerated build-up of the Navy. And we must not forget the imprisonment of many of the engineers who were working on designs for the new big ships; or the men who tried to ‘unmask the saboteurs and enemies of the people’, who for a short time became the Chiefs of the Navy, like P.A. Smirnov and M.P. Frinovskii, only to become victims of the purges themselves. So this problem must be assigned to Stalin’s pathological mistrust and his unreal perception of being surrounded by enemies and traitors, as Dmitrii Volkogonov has so convincingly demonstrated.

So we must assume that in the late 1930s to Stalin – as the American historian Richard Humble has said – a battleship, a dreadnought, was a direct historical predecessor to the atomic bomb, a symbol of the highest grade of power, a most powerful and mobile instrument of power politics, that the world had ever known. A state, which wants to be a fully recognized member in world politics, needs battleships and battlecruisers as symbols of power. This might have been behind Stalin’s wish to have a ‘Big Ocean-Going Fleet’.

But what was Stalin’s intention when the Second World War was over, and a new big naval programme was presented by the naval leaders? The Soviet Union then needed above all to repair the damage done to its industrial base. And the war had itself created much more powerful probable enemies in the United States and its Western allies. The threat perceived lay in the far superior strategic air power of the Western countries, and the capability for amphibious warfare they had demonstrated in Europe and the Pacific from 1943 to 1945.

While the high command of the Navy tried to renew the concept of a traditional fleet made up of all types of warships, from battleships and carriers to motor torpedo boats and submarines, Stalin was preoccupied with industrial capacity and the need to counter any threats of aerial bombardment and amphibious landings. Therefore he tried to push the borders of the Soviet-dominated areas as far away as possible from the centres of his Soviet Union, and tried at first to limit the naval programmes to defence against the amphibious threat. Nonetheless, against the wishes of the admirals, he demanded his beloved battlecruisers, the remnants of his great ocean-going fleet, at the expense of aircraft carriers, which shows that he still had the wish to acquire such old symbols of sea power, not understanding the change in naval strategies, with the carriers now as the most important instruments of naval power projection. This became obvious, when he reinstated Kuznetsov, fired in 1947 for his opposition to the cuts in the naval programme and demoted to Vice-Admiral, again as Commander-in-Chief of the Navy in 1951, to manage the delayed naval programme, which was still centred on his outdated battle-cruisers. Stalin’s reluctance to agree with Kuznetsov’s demands for aircraft carriers shows that he was still fixed on the idea that big gun-armed ships were the signs of a naval superpower status.

When, after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev and Marshal of the Soviet Union Zhukov took the helm, they looked to the Army and especially to the new strategic rockets as the counter to the perceived dangers from their opponents in the Cold War, which was demonstrated by the first launches of strategic intercontinental rockets and the first satellites into space. But they neglected the Navy. When the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, Admiral Kuznetsov, opposed this trend and tried to renew the naval programme along the modern lines, he was fired again. His successor Admiral Gorshkov, at first had to follow the wishes of his superiors, especially in the love of modern weapons like rockets and missiles. He was forced at first to cancel the gun-armed ships and to build submarines and ships with anti-ship missiles, before he later also came back to the doctrine of a balanced ocean-going fleet with all the necessary ships from atomic submarines with ballistic rockets, missile-armed cruisers, submarines, and destroyers and escorts, as well as coastal vessels, but finally also to missile-armed battlecruisers and even helicopter and aircraft carriers. It may be that Khrushchev’s successors learned from the experience of the Cuban crisis of 1962 about the need to have modern ocean-going surface ships in order to escort seaborne supplies for the support of revolutionary movements in the Third World. So they allowed Gorshkov to follow this new-old line. During his almost 30-year tenure in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy, Gorshkov almost achieved his aims – that is, to establish the Soviet Union not only as an army and strategic rocket forces superpower, but also as a big sea-going superpower. Only a few years after his retirement in 1985, events outside the Navy led to the crumbling of the Soviet Union, in 1991, followed by the deterioration of the Navy, and the rusting away of most of its sea-going ships.


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