he who has an army has one hand; he who has a navy has both

(Click on the images for full-sized versions. I’m trying something new with a gallery for the Krasin pics, too…)


Peter the Great, without whom “Russian Navy” would mean as much as “Mongolian Coast Guard”.

The Central Naval Museum in St Petersburg is, in the Russian style, the largest naval museum in the world. It plays the same cheeky shit regarding “Tickets: 400 ru! билеты 150p” and then not having any signs in English; but thanks to Misha the first wasn’t an issue, and thanks to Dr Boff, there is nothing which floats and kills whose function and history I can’t at least make a decent guess at.

These, for instance, are model ships.

The galleries were mainly ruled by model ships, some as big as minibuses, crowded around the fringes by one-in-the-world historical artefacts: massive two-headed eagles, a showcase full of undersea telegraph gauges, stout brass Gatling guns, kayak-sized midget submarines. They had an actual spar torpedo, a model of a ship designed to use them, and a painting of one in use – I had a lot of fun explaining the utter insanity of spar torpedoes to Misha and Olga.* Rather than the comely lasses with big bare knockers Britain favoured, Russian figureheads seem mainly to be large hairy men with holy books and phallic weapons. Draw your own conclusions.

All I know about Russian naval history is the endless violent tragedies and disasters, and the museum was brilliant for filling in the rest – especially Russia’s Baltic struggle with the Swedes. But there were plenty of disasters too; the Russo-Japanese War display was particularly good, one room for the ships that got bottled up and wasted at Port Arthur and Vladivostok (with sad poignant paintings of dozens of masts and funnels poking up from the bottom of a bay) and another room for the ships they sent to rescue them, which got slaughtered at Tsushima, with lurid propaganda posters of exploding pre-dreadnoughts.** There was a spiral staircase off the battleship Potemkin (namedrop!) with some shell holes, and an entire gallery of Aurora memorabilia.

The Potemkin Steps. No, not those Potemkin Steps. The other ones.

We had some borscht and sandwiches in the cafe, then drove west down Vasilievsky Island’s southern embankment. This part of St Petersburg has a genuinely nautical character rather than just happening to be a city on the sea; the cruise ships like to moor here, the western horizon is crowded with immense forests of dockyard cranes, and on the far shore, immense flo-flo mobile dockyards and dismembered sections of submarines sit gently rusting. With limited time, we had to pick how to round off our navy day: the submarine S-189 or the icebreaker Krasin.

Note the weird ice-humping hull shape and unbelievably strong hull.

The  Krasin has been everywhere and done everything. Her original hull was built in Newcastle, as the Svyatogor; her most expensive refit was in the USA during WW2, and most of her superstructure and modern fittings are East German postwar reparations, but most of her life has been in Russian service crushing Russian ice. She was jacked by the Royal Navy to fight the Bolsheviks during the Revolution, scuttled to blockade Arkhangelsk, then raised again and, on His Majesty’s service, used to crush submarine barriers around Scapa Flow. Handed back to the Russians in a deal negotiated by one Leonid Krasin, the Svyatogor was renamed after him in the twenties. In one of the true adventure-novel moments of the twentieth century, she rescued a lost Italian polar expedition when their airship crashed, and at another point rescued another icebreaker which wasn’t icebreaky enough. She’s been about as close to both poles as it’s possible for a surface ship to be; during the war she took a trip across the entire US for refit and gave the Panama Canal a rare sight of an icebreaker, on her way to armed convoy duty in the Arctic circle. In declining years, as the new generations of nuclear icebreakers replaced her and changes in the world meant ice just didn’t need as much breaking, reducing her at one point to hauling used cars; she was only saved from the breaker’s yard by Russian historic nostalgia. But she’s been refitted magnificently, all polished brass and lovely wooden panelling, and is apparently now back to working order. Not a fitting end; a fitting continuation.

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* It’s seriously just a massive bomb on the end of a stick. Many larger, more heavily armoured ships of the period were designed to simply ram instead – no guns, just armour and engine. Mid-late 19th century naval tech was weird.

** Fun fact! A significant proportion the ships on both sides of the Russo-Japanese War were built in Britain. You really can’t trust perfidious Albion.



St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by nightDowntown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery MuseumNevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt


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