Russian Naval Artillery

Stepsons of the Oceans

For five centuries Russians rarely saw the high seas. It both attracted and repelled them – beyond it lay an alien, incomprehensible world with strange customs and languages. The ocean concealed many threats. In heavy weather shipping could find itself dashed against rocks or sent to the bottom, and people said that from beyond the sea came Swedes, Turks or simply ‘evil people’ with no families or home who would part a timid soul from its body with a simple stroke of the boarding sabre. No, it was much calmer at home, beside a warm furnace listening to the chirp of the crickets or the whistling of a snow-storm.

And yet Peter I (not yet ‘the Great’) decreed in a low voice “There must be a Russian fleet!” and stamped his staff on the floor. The Russian people – merchants, clergy and boyars – groaned and stroked their long beards, but founded thirty five associations for the collection of money to build ships. The fleet was constructed on the river Vorona, near the present day city of Voronezh, by serf blacksmiths and carpenters who had been driven from their villages by the threat of the lash and who now laboured in the freezing temperatures and biting winds of the steppe. The builders were short of everything from nails to engineers, and contractors stole as much as they could, but despite that, by the summer of 1696, the thousands of ruined lives and 900,000 roubles spent (40% of the state’s annual income) had resulted in a fleet in the water.

The newly built squadrons of the Muscovites appeared as if from nowhere under the walls of the fortress of Azov, fiercely defended in part by the famous Janissaries. Yet the Turkish stronghold, surrounded on both land and sea, capitulated. The victorious fleet, having successfully carried out its first task, now quickly and ignominiously rotted at its moorings. It had been built in a hurry – too much of a hurry – using damp and unseasoned wood. As a result, both the Black and the Azov seas remained under the rule of the sultan.

Having effectively left the honour of conquering the Black Sea to his heirs (brilliantly completed by Empress Catherine II half a century later), the Tsar’s attention now turned to the Baltic. It was there, in the second decade of the XVIII century and in the harbours captured from the Swedes, that the building of the fleet truly began. We will not dwell on the naval amusements of the young tsarevich Peter in the Pereyaslavskoe lake, nor the “grandfather of the Russian fleet” – the Dutch boat of Alexei Mikhaylovich, which could sail against the wind, much to the amazement of the Russians. We will also make no further mention of the 22-gun “Orel”, a ship built in the Volga under the instruction of Alexei Mikhaylovich in the 1660s, which was created by the craftsmen of Holstein and burnt soon after by the followers of mutineer Stepan Razin. Our interest lies not in the separate attempts to build the fleet, nor in the history of that fleet, but in the spirit of the Russian sailor, forged over two centuries of honour amidst storms and cannonades – a spirit that would survive until the start of the XX century.

The fleet Peter built in the Baltic was not particularly powerful – the major part of it was made up of rowing vessels. As in the Black Sea, it was called upon to carry out only limited tasks – blockading Swedish fjords, landing troops on enemy shores and caper hunting. Nevertheless, at Gangut and Grengame it tangled with the well-trained Swedish crews and emerged victorious thanks to its numerical superiority, the complete calm and the quick thinking of the Russian command. Neither victory could be described as decisive, yet they announced the presence of the new Russian Navy to the world. The indisputable fact was that this new-born Leviathan had proved itself a force to be reckoned with on the oceans of the world.

It took a long time for the Russians to become accustom to life on board ship. Sea-sickness afflicted peasants and nobles equally as neither had sailed before, and the foreign-originated naval terms were complex and confusing. Captains, navigators and boatswains expensively hired from abroad knew their business but did not know Russian and mistakes would often result in cruel beatings. Official punishments such as hauling a man under the keel, borrowed in the main from the British regulations, were openly cruel. The bad drinking water and foul salt beef often brought on illness during the voyage, and the mortality rate was simply terrifying – a rate that is even more surprising when it is remembered that the fleet rarely ventured from harbour for long periods of time, and the sailors were specifically picked from the tallest and healthiest recruits.

The reality was that there were relatively few actual sailors in the fleet. With a fleet made up largely of galleys the need was mainly for simple rowers rather than seamen. On European galleys either civilians or convicted criminals pulled the oars, and Russia could not even dream of hiring rowers as the exchequer was empty – exhausted by both the war and great building projects. Yet convicts were also in short supply, despite the enthusiastic work of the Russian police, and many were used to dig the canals of Saint Petersburg, fell trees by the Neva river, mine iron ore in the Ural mountains and smelt it in the new factories. Peter Alekseyevich solved the problem of too few rowers with characteristic brilliance – he set the soldiers and marines to work as rowers too. It is easy to imagine the fate of these people, illustrated by the fact that the Russian word for working in prison, ‘katorga’, is also the word for a rowing vessel! Though not as numerous as might be supposed, it is still worth considering the sailors themselves. To escape the corporal’s rod a soldier had only to desert, but the sailor on board ship had no such means of escape, so willingly or not the sailor had to master the science of seafaring. Contemporary evidence gives us a good picture of these men. They were strong, arrayed in Dutch style clothes with solid round hats and broad Dutch breeches. Some images show them in high cloth caps of classic Russian cut and similarly familiar low-belted linen shirts. They are shown with full beards, although Peter’s intolerant attitude to this “Byzantine adornment” is well known and they were banned for representatives of the military class. We can only assume that the sovereign’s razor failed to find its way to their chins in the confusion of the time. The armament of these men was the usual boarding axes and sabres, sea dirks, pistols and musketoons.

The training of the new officer corps is a particularly interesting subject. A number of navigation schools were established in Moscow and later St. Petersburg for the purpose, and forcibly filled with the children of landowners and lesser citizens who studied arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and other useful sciences. Those who were negligent in their studies were thoroughly flogged and sent to be sailors, but the story of the rest was not much better as their diligence was often backed up by corporal punishments. Nonetheless plenty of courageous officers and skilled shipbuilders graduated from the navigation schools, and were to go on to bring glory to the new Russian navy. Considering the pride and attention Peter gave to his dear creation, it is surprising that his officers simply wore civilian dress until the introduction of the famous white uniform at the very end of his administration. The uniform of the sailors was less strictly regulated until the end of the XVIII century.

As we have clearly established, the Russian fleet had a difficult birth. We now invite our readers to travel forward 150 years, to the middle of the XIX century. The Russian naval victories at Chesma (1770), Aphon (1807) and Navarin (1827) are behind us now, as are the exploration expeditions of officers like Kruzenshtern and Lisyansky, Bellinsgauzen and Lazarev, and we can see a very different picture.

At the outbreak of the Crimean War, known as the Eastern War in Russian chronicles, the Russian Empire had fleets in the Baltic and the Black sea, plus a number of small flotillas elsewhere. Kronstadt and Helsingfors (modern Helsinki) were the main bases for the Baltic fleet, while the Black Sea fleet was based at Sevastopol. This was a fleet with no galleys, a fleet capable of prolonged voyages on any ocean. Without exception these beautiful and powerful battleships carried 68-pounder guns on their lower decks – a luxury even Britain did not enjoy, although to be fair there were many more ships in the fleet of Her Majesty than that of the Tsar, and to equip all these ships thus would be very difficult. It is worthwhile discussing naval guns since we will be reproducing them in 1/72 scale.

In the years just before the outbreak of the war, Britain, France and Russia all carried out reforms of their naval armament to reduce the number of gun calibres and improve the efficiency of artillery fire. The guns adopted by the Black Sea fleet (termed “long guns of new design” in official papers as opposed to the previous guns which were “old design”) were split between 68-pounders, placed on the lower decks, and 36-pounders, which were mounted on the middle and top decks. Following the innovations of British engineer Congreave the barrels were thicker and the powder chambers made conical. They much resembled the British guns of the period, and were in no way inferior to them. These then were the guns that smashed the Turkish ships at Sinop on 30 November 1853. These too were the guns served by untiring gunners on 17 October 1854 from the Telegraphic battery, the Tower of Volokhov and the Fort of Constantine that sent 240 fatal charges into HMS Agamemnon, 70 into HMS Britain and set fire to both HMS Terrible and HMS Albion, while hitting the French flagship Paris 50 times, causing it to hurry from the battle. To immortalise the memory of these glorious marine artillerymen we have created a set of “Russian Naval Artillery”. It consists of two 36-pounder bronze guns and 24 figures. There are two sailors pulling on a gun rope, a sailor in unbuttoned jacket holding a pinch bar, two sailors with blasting caps, two with ramrods, a fire control officer and a sailor cooling the overheated gun by pouring vinegar onto it from a bucket. During the siege of Sevastopol the fleet deployed over 2,000 of its guns on the city’s fortifications and it was from there that most of the firing took place rather than from the decks of the ships.

By the middle of the XIX century the sail had largely given way to steam, so now it was the dirty-faced stoker who was a vital part of any victory at sea. All the Russian frigates were equipped with steam engines, but an attempt to equip the second class ships in the same way backfired when the incompetent government purchased a number of paddle steamers from Britain, the problem being that paddle steamers are extremely vulnerable in battle. The Black Sea fleet, which was already inferior to the fleets of the Allies in terms of the number of guns, felt still more inferior in manoeuvrability when faced with the British and French steam frigates, and knew it had no prospect of success in open battle against them. Admiral Nakhimov, the proud hero of the battle of Sinop, and his comrades in arms – brave Kornilov and level-headed Istomin – were ready to lead their vessels to certain death (with honour and glory, we would add), and did not doubt that the crews shared their sentiments, but after much stormy debate a more sensible strategy prevailed. With tears in their eyes and a heavy heart the crews scuttled many of their ships at the entrance to the harbour, thus sealing it from enemy squadrons. Other more valuable ships were used as components of the city's defences. 11,000 seamen manned the decrepit bastions and used the guns taken from the ships to create a ring of fire. Let our readers excuse us from recounting in detail the story of these sailors. In our article “Ivan the Soldier and Tommy Atkins” we explained the heroism of the Russian serf soldier, so now we will do the same for the serf sailor.

With a stick in his hand Peter the Great taught his people the unusual concept of European discipline. Lacking an established pool of home-grown command personnel, he was frequently obliged to entrust this stick to a foreign mercenary (see also the article for the "Early Russian Infantry" set). By no means do we want to blame all foreign instructors without exception for the cruelty, violence or poor moral values. The Russian people had been living in completely different circumstances for too long and it was necessary to change this state of affairs at an accelerated rate. As a result that stick was swung by all, both native and foreign, though naturally the blows of the foreigners seemed the more painful. Therefore the era of the reforms of Peter I was remembered as a painful one in the minds of the people, but over the course of several generations these reforms bore fruit. In particular the concept of severe discipline took deep root in the minds of the soldiers and sailors, causing the need to actually use these heavy punishments to decline. Not that we are saying that the punishments were softened during the reign of Nicholas I – in fact they were considerably strengthened – but there was less need to resort to inflicting them. By now the commanders of the army and navy, overwhelmingly native Russians at this time, possessed other means of imposing their will on their subordinates.

Service in the navy of the mid XIX century was not as cheerless as during the fight for the Baltic in the early XVIII century. Now the evenings found portly fellows, proud of their seaman status, strolling along the piers of Sevastopol saluting the boatswains with dash. As before, the grey-moustached boatswains possessed heavy canes, but had less cause to use them. It is not a good idea to beat a neighbour living in the same street, and the sailors were often neighbours – they were permitted to marry, start families and have vegetable gardens in the suburbs. During the prolonged stays in port married sailors lived at home, helping their wives to maintain the household. Unmarried sailors walked to the tavern on the Malakhov hill in the evenings, where the wenches squealed and the owner, a well known smuggler and dealer in stolen property, poured ‘bread wine’ (vodka) into the glasses. This syphilitic character, Vanka Malakhov, was popular in the city, and we shall describe a bad joke he played on one of the Allies’ commanders in a later article. The arrival of a frigate at the harbour was a big event, partly because this would add to the friendly family of the Tsar’s seamen, but also because any unused pig fat, with which all ships were liberally supplied, was by tradition put in the cooking pot. This fat was the cause of many fights between seamen and garrison soldiers, who also had a taste for it. In general the Russian seaman was a master with his fists. Strong through his handling of the ship while at sea, this is how he was remembered in the dens of Leghorn and Constantinople, where he challenged British seamen experienced in boxing.

In the second decade of the last century screens around the world showed the film ‘Battleship Potemkin’, by the celebrated soviet director Eisenstein, which told the story of the mutiny on that ship of the Tsar’s fleet. The cause of the mutiny was the rotten meat given to the lower ranks, but Eisenstein failed to make clear that this was an exceptional case. In another article we gave the daily rations of a tsarist soldier – here we present the peacetime rations of the tsarist sailor. 600 grams of meat (1200 grams in time of war), 1.2 kg of rye bread, 200 grams of buckwheat and 300 grams of vodka (which could be substituted by other beverages such as brandy or rum while in foreign ports, but not gin). The Russian infantryman received hot food twice a day, whereas the sailor on board ship received it three times a day (Although during the prolonged stands at the piers of Sevastopol the authorities didn’t spend much on the subsistence of the crews since the married sailors preferred to have dinners at home). The ‘artel’ or association system, about which we wrote extensively in a previous article, prevented the stealing of food money in the navy, and was perhaps even more strict than in the army. Any man found embezzling the artel in the army could expect to be beaten by his comrades, but a similar offender in the navy stood a good chance of being tipped over the side at night as fodder for the sharks. Some dishes still common on the Russian table today originate from the rations of tsarist sailors such as “naval macaroni” (macaroni with minced meat) and “naval borsch” (a Ukrainian vegetable soup with a large quantity of ground meat). Macaroni was unknown to the lower ranks at the time of the Crimean war, but every day they had soup. Individual plates were not provided, so they ate seated on the deck with up to 15 men to one copper pot, very much in line with the patriarchal peasant tradition. First they consumed the liquid – the meat, which had been left at the bottom, was eaten upon the special command “to the meat!”. The boatswain was in charge of the pot, using his heavy spoon to knock on the forehead of anyone he considered taking more than his share. The authorities encouraged these arrangements, believing that it helped build a team spirit, and so it did.

Another factor of life on board ship was the hygiene, beginning with cleaning the ship. Once the ship had been cleaned a senior officer threw his white peaked cap on the deck. If even one speck of dirt was found, the sailors, encouraged by the boatswains slaps, rewashed the entire ship. This was then tested in the same way and the procedure repeated until the officers were satisfied. One should not consider this to be frivolous. If a sailor was injured then he should fall on a clean deck so as not to make the wound dirty. To protect the men from scurvy, a well-known curse of long sea voyages, British sailors were given lemon juice (from which the British seamen obtained the nickname of "limonchiki" – lemons). For the Russian treasury such an expense was too much to bear, so instead the Russians were given "murtsovka" – dried rye bread softened by boiling water with crushed onion and garlic, well salted and flavoured with vinegar and sunflower oil.

This almost idyllic picture that we have drawn was smashed by the onset of war. The mariners on the bastions of Sevastopol defended not only "the Tsar, the fatherland and the orthodox faith", but also their wives and their homes, and therefore they far exceeded any of the infantrymen for durability. We have already described the accuracy of the fire of the cannons, so now we mention an odd fact concerning them. It is well known that the Victoria Cross medal, the highest military honour in Britain, was established during the Crimean war era and was made solely from the melted down Russian guns. At the height of the Second World War the stocks of this medal became exhausted, and the British turned to their Soviet ally with an awkward request to send several guns of that period from the military museums. Stalin satisfied this request.

While they were excellent gunners, the seamen proved to be poor snipers. While according to regulations each was armed with a percussion musket, they had very little training in their use. They were not aware of how to adapt to the terrain in combat, and they harmlessly shot one unaimed bullet after another, provoking derision even amongst recent infantry recruits. However there were some notable exceptions like Petr Koshka, who was repeatedly decorated during the siege. The heir to the throne visited him in hospital, and he was frequently mentioned in his letters from Sevastopol by the world-famous Russian surgeon Pirogov – he who had nearly amputated Bismarck’s foot. Sharp-sighted and adroit as a cat (in fact Koshka translated as ‘cat’), he repeatedly penetrated enemy positions and returned with either a prisoner or a much-valued trophy like a rifle. This Petr Koshka can be seen among the master models on our site in the double-breasted naval overcoat with his rifle on his back and a captured British officer bound by rope.

Now we want to focus on the daily uniform in which our figures are dressed (the ceremonial uniform was rarely worn by the sailors, becoming instead food for the moths in stores). In the set of Russian Infantry and Artillery made by Esci (and now available from Italeri), the soldiers are dressed in double-breasted overcoats, whereas the Russian infantry overcoat was actually single-breasted. The sailor’s pea jackets – the working jacket of the lower ranks of the navy – on the other hand were made double-breasted with large round buttons. Also, as can be seen on our site, the sailors wore forage caps without a peak, and trousers either tucked in to boots or left outside them. Beneath the pea jacket they wore a linen shirt, dirty during the trench works but always freshly washed before the battle (an ancient Russian custom of going to death only with clean linen exists to this day). As can be seen, some of our figures are either in shirt sleeves or bare-chested: serving the guns and digging trenches is always heavy, dirty work, and obtaining new uniforms in the besieged city was obviously problematic. Apart from Petr Koshka and his unhappy prisoner, the sailor with the gun and the gun crew, the remaining figures are concerned with the fortress works – dragging bags and baskets filled with earth, using picks and shovels. The entrenching tools often also served as weapons in hand-to-hand combat, as can be seen on the artwork for our set of Foot Cossacks and sailors. To lighten the set, the figure of a seated, barefooted and obviously drunk sailor entertaining his comrades with his balalaika has been added.

The defence of Sevastopol was the high point of the glory of the Russian navy. The defeat of the Russian seamen can only be compared with the heroic retreat of Suvorov through the Alps or the evacuation from Dunkirk. Stanyukovich and Novikov-Priboy - the best Russian writers writing about the sea - unambiguously agree that the spirit of the Russian serf sailor was high and solid, in contrast to the moral of the sailors of a later period. The aggravated social contradictions in Russia from the second half of the XIX century demoralised the bulk of the lower ranks of the navy surprisingly quickly. In the Black sea the crews of the "Potemkin" and the "Memory of Azov" rose up in 1905. Having avoided in their blocked ports the horrors of the First World War the sailors of the Baltic fleet, corrupted by idleness and Bolshevik propaganda, brought Vladimir Lenin to power. By 1921 Russia had lost the overwhelming majority of her warships. In the Thirties again, as in the era of Peter I, new combat vessels were launched without consideration of expenditure of resources nor human lives. But that is altogether another story...

"Russian Naval Artillery" - 24 figures, 24 poses, colour - dark green, 2 guns.
"Russian Cossack Infantry and Sailors" - 46 figures, 46 poses, colour - dark green.