From Peter the Great’s boat to submarines: Museum exhibits narrate the Navy’s history

July 29, 2020

Each year, Russia marks Navy Day on the last Sunday of July. The Russian Navy, which was established over 300 years ago, has won a reputation for various important inventions, decisive campaigns and, of course, the heroic feats of its sailors. Exhibits of the Izmailovo Museum-Estate, the Kolomenskoye Museum-Reserve, the Timiryazev Biological Museum, the Museum of Heroes of the Soviet Union and Russia and the Nikolai Ostrovsky State Museum/Cultural Centre Integration narrate some of these episodes.

This story comes courtesy of and the Moscow Agency for Recreation and Tourism (Mosgortur).

Izmailovo, the cradle of the Russian Navy

The Russian Navy was officially established on 30 October (20 October, Julian Calendar) 1696. On that day, members of the Boyar Duma, the top national legislature, discussed Peter the Great’s report on conquering the Azov fortress and declared: “The Russian Navy shall set sail.”

A monument to Peter the Great by well-known monumental sculptor Lev Kerbel was unveiled on Izmailovsky Island in the run-up to the 300th anniversary of the historic event. The place was not chosen by sheer coincidence: The territory of what is now Izmailovo Museum-Estate can rightfully be called the cradle of the Russian Navy.

It was here, at the former suburban residence of his father, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, that the young Peter the Great was crowned Tsar, at the age ten, and it was here also that he and his older brother Ivan discovered an English boat. Here is what he wrote about this episode in an introduction to the Naval Regulations of 1720:

“… We happened to visit a flax factory in Izmailovo, and we walked through granaries where the personal effects of Grandfather Nikita Ivanovich Romanov were lying and among them, I saw a foreign vessel, and I asked Frantz Timmerman, the arithmetic teacher, what kind of vessel it was, and he replied that this was an English boat. I asked him what it was used for, and he said it was stowed aboard ships and could carry passengers and freight. After that, I asked what advantages it had over Russian vessels, all the more so as I considered it to be more attractive and durable than the latter. He said that the boat could tack to the wind and also sail against the wind, and this really surprised me.”

On orders from the young Tsar, a Dutch carpenter was told to repair the boat, and he also fitted it with a mast and sails. He showed how to sail the foreign-made vessel and manoeuvred nimbly on the Yauza River. Tsar Peter tried to sail himself but faced some problems: The boat moved awkwardly and nudged the river’s banks time and again. The river is too narrow, the Dutchman explained.

“After that, I moved the boat to Prosyanoi Pond, but I achieved little success there. I was getting more and more enthusiastic and started looking for larger water bodies. They told me that Lake Pereslavskoye was the largest one, and I asked my mother to let me go there, under the pretext of visiting Trinity Monastery. After that, I openly asked her to establish an imperial court and a shipyard there.”

Launched in Izmailovo, the boat St. Nicholas was later named the “grandfather of the Russian Navy.” It became the lead ship of an entire Toy Flotilla, built in 1689 ̶ 1692 on Lake Pleshcheyevo near Pereslavl-Zalessky. The young ruler fought his first mock naval battles there. The Izmailovo Museum-Estate’s collection includes a model of the above-mentioned boat and an early 20th century photo of the boat Fortuna, part of the Pereslavl Flotilla, that pay mute tribute to the improvised battles.

Boat Fortuna

The Baltic Fleet’s first combat mission

An 18th century engraving called The Deployment of Peter the Great’s Fleet, part of the Kolomenskoye Museum-Reserve’s collection, proves that the reformist Tsar’s plans extended far beyond the Toy Flotilla. The engraving shows the first mission involving the entire new Baltic Fleet that was established during the Great Northern War of 1700 ̶ 1721.

Codenamed Operation Icy Voyage, the mission became part of the siege of Vyborg in 1710. In March 1710, an 8,000-strong corps under Admiral Fyodor Apraksin were deployed ashore via the ice-bound Gulf of Finland and blockaded the Swedish fortress on the Karelian Isthmus. Admiral Apraksin did not have enough soldiers to attack Vyborg. The Semyonovsky and Preobrazhensky regiments of the Imperial Life Guard, plus artillery and ammunition, were to arrive by sea as soon as the ice melted.

There was no time for hesitation because a Swedish naval squadron was trying to reach the besieged fortress from the opposite direction. In a pre-emptive move, the Russians started deploying their fleet on 25 April, as soon as the ice had opened on the Neva River, and 250 vessels assembled near Kronstadt four days later.

According to an 18th century tradition, the fleet was subdivided into sailing ships and galleys. Vice Admiral Cornelius Cruys, a Norwegian in Russian service, commanded the sailing ships, and Rear Admiral Ivan Botsis, a native of Dalmatia who had learned the basics of navigation of the high seas in Venice, was in command of the galleys. The Russian Emperor also came along and commanded another unit consisting of small two-mast snaw vessels, then used actively by North Sea countries. Peter the Great posed as Rear Admiral Pyotr Mikhailov and forbade anyone to call him Emperor.

Every capital ship on the engraving has its own number, and auxiliary vessels are numbered in groups. Consequently, the engraving shows the Emperor’s flagship, the snaw Lizet under the number 2 in the middle of the fifth vertical row from the left.

The mission proved successful. The Russian squadron outraced the Swedes and approached Vyborg on 9 May, making its way among ice-floes and sometimes moving fast through clear water. Only a few transport ships were lost. Peter the Great and part of the squadron then sailed back to St. Petersburg. All the other ships took part in the siege, and the fortress surrendered a month later.

The secret of the admiral’s portrait

Those visiting the Timiryazev Biological Museum can meet face-to-face with Admiral Fyodor Ushakov (1745 ̶ 1817), one of the most famous Russian naval commanders. Its exhibits include a replica of Ushakov’s face, reconstructed by famous Soviet anthropologist Professor Mikhail Gerasimov who developed his own method of facial reconstruction based on the relief and bone structure of the skull. During the final years of the Great Patriotic War, a pressing need arose for a realistic image of the most famous Russian admiral of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, who won 43 battles during the Russian-Turkish wars, without losing a single ship. Ushakov was the most suitable fit as a personality that could be used in instituting a new military decoration to be awarded to naval heroes. The problem was that there was no authentic portrait of the admiral. There were only a few copies made from one of the invincible admiral’s portraits. However, obvious discrepancies in depicting Ushakov’s uniform compelled experts to doubt whether he had posed for this portrait.

Professor Gerasimov was asked to restore an authentic image of Ushakov because the scientifically sound efficiency of his method had been proved repeatedly before the war. Gerasimov located Ushakov’s damaged burial vault at Sanaksarsky Monastery that was shut down in 1929. During an initial examination of the exhumed skull, Gerasimov surmised that the admiral’s image did not match his official portrait. A composite photo of the skull and Ushakov’s portrait from the Peter the Great Central Naval Museum in Leningrad confirmed that Gerasimov was right. Although the unknown artist had preserved some of the admiral’s individual traits, he made Ushakov’s face look longer and more aristocratic, as evidenced by official portraits of that period. Consequently, Fyodor Ushakov joined the ranks of historical personalities whose images were restored by Gerasimov, including Prince Yaroslav the Wise, Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky, Tamerlane and many others.

The two-class Order of Ushakov, which would be awarded to the Soviet Navy’s officers, was instituted on 3 March 1944. In 1992, the Order was officially retained in the system of Russian state awards.

The heroic feat of Leading Seaman Kuropyatnikov

The Nikolai Ostrovsky State Museum/Cultural Centre Integration has a 1943 leaflet dedicated to Leading Seaman Grigory Kuropyatnikov who served with the Soviet Navy’s Black Sea Fleet.

The future hero was drafted in 1939 and served as a machine gunner with a Border Troops speedboat when the Great Patriotic War started. On 25 March 1943, Kuropyatnikov, then 22, was commanding a section of mine specialists aboard the escort speedboat SK-065, and he performed his heroic feat the very same day. His speedboat was escorting the transport ship Achillion carrying weapons and ammunition for defenders of the Malaya Zemlya  beachhead, which the Soviet forces held for 225 days and eventually liberated Novorossiisk. On the way back, the ship was to pick up wounded soldiers from the beachhead.

Several dozen Nazi bombers attacked Soviet sailors near the town of Divnomorskoye. Although Kuropyatnikov downed several enemy aircraft using his machine gun, there were too many of them. Some of the SK-065’s sailors were killed and others wounded, the speedboat was disabled, and its cargo hold was leaking badly. During the battle, a fragment tore off Kuropyanikov’s left arm, and he was also wounded in the head and chest. After regaining consciousness, Kuropyatnikov continued to use the machine gun with his right hand.

The sailor found himself on a burning deck. The flames were already approaching boxes with smoke generators, and the speedboat’s depth charges were also likely to blow up. Kuropyatnikov rushed to unleash the boxes using his good arm and teeth and tossed them into the water. His comrades also joined in and saved the ship from imminent destruction. The SK-065 repelled the attack and returned to base with 1,600 holes in its hull.

On 21 July 1943, Leading Seaman Kuropyatnikov was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and received the Order of Lenin for fulfilling his commanders’ assignments in an exemplary manner during the struggle against German invaders and for displaying courage and heroism.

After the war, Grigory Kuropyatnikov worked as a dispatch controller, and he passed away in 1982. The heroic sailor’s coworker saved the leaflet, which contains an image of Kuropyatnikov, and donated it to the museum. In his lifetime, Kuropyatnikov had signed the leaflet before giving it to his colleague.

A submarine reaches the North Pole

In the 1950s, the Soviet Union and the United States started deploying nuclear-powered submarines. Both superpowers added the underwater dimension to their competition. Expeditions to the North Pole became the main criterion for judging the performance of submarine crews. In August 1958, USS Nautilus became the first submarine to reach the Top of the World submerged, but it was unable to break through ice-floes to the surface. In July 1962, the Soviet Navy’s submarine K-3 Leninsky Komsomol surfaced near the North Pole, but not where the compass points due south. Soviet submariners were also unable to breach thick ice-floes.

A year later, the nuclear-powered submarine K-181, commanded by Captain Second Class Yury Sysoyev, accomplished this historic task. At 6.45 am on 29 September 1963, it surfaced in an ice hole, located exactly at the geographic North Pole. Six minutes later, the K-181’s commander became the first person to observe the Top of the World from the bridge of his submarine.

Its crew members placed the Soviet state flag and the Soviet Navy’s flag on the North Pole. An airtight box with the inscription Another Visit to the North Pole by a Submarine from the Navy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on 29 September 1963 was attached to one of the flagpoles.

The K-181’s record-breaking Arctic mission lasted from 25 September to 4 October 1963. In February 1964, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet issued its decree awarding the title of Hero of the Soviet Union to the submarine’s commander.

Arctic missions were mostly hampered by technical issues in the operation of the navigational equipment. The submarines’ standard gyrocompasses stopped functioning near the North Pole. Map plotting, namely, a combination of all graphic operations using special devices, remains a basic element of solving navigational problems on nautical charts. An exhibition at the Museum of Heroes of the Soviet Union and Russia features devices used by Captain Sysoyev to plot the route towards the North Pole during that mission, including a navigator’s protractor and a parallel ruler.


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