The Old Russian Battleship That Helps Explain Crimea
The battlewagon ‘Sevastopol’ and the enduring politics of Russian shipbuilding
Until the invasion of Crimea, Russia expected to take into service in 2016 RFS Sevastopol, a 21,000-ton-displacement, French-built amphibious assault ship. The choice of name was odd, given that—until recently—the city of Sevastopol lay outside the borders of Russia.
France may cancel the deal in light of Moscow’s aggression. But the soon-perhaps-not-to-be Sevastopol was not the first ship named for the great Russian naval base on the Crimean peninsula.
In fact, Russian naval history is an intricate web of politics, geography and foreign influence. Moscow has long struggled with the problems of maintaining four distinct, unsupportable fleets—and of an unreliable shipbuilding industry.
The Kremlin’s purchase of the assault ships RFS Vladivostok and RFS Sevastopol—and the construction of two additional ships under license in Russia—mirrors, in some ways, long-term Russian practice with respect to naval technology.
In May 1905, Japanese Adm. Heihachiro Togo destroyed the Russian Baltic fleet at Tsushima, putting a grim coda on a long, difficult journey around the Cape of Good Hope. Only Ottoman intransigence prevented Tsar Nicholas II from sending the five battleships of the Black Sea Fleet to the same fiery fate.
However, the commissioning of the British warship HMS Dreadnought in early 1906 proved a blessing in disguise, rendering even the surviving Russian battleships obsolete.
Prior to 1905, the Russian Imperial Navy had alternated between domestic and foreign battleship construction, purchasing vessels from both France and the United States.
Now, needing entirely new Baltic and Pacific fleets, and needing to replace the obsolete Black Sea Fleet, Russia commissioned an international design contest, with the most competitive designs coming from the United Kingdom, Germany and France.
Russian domestic politics scotched an early proposal to go with a British design, and the final proposal came from a Russian builder, with engines and significant technical assistance provided by the British.
The resulting Gangut class most closely resembled the Italian battleship Dante Alighieri. Russia began construction of one class of four dreadnoughts in the Baltic, and another class of three slightly-modified vessels in the Black Sea.
Shipwrights laid down the 24,000-ton-displacement Sevastopol in 1909. Moscow named the ship after the Crimean War siege of Sevastopol, rather than after the city itself. Inefficiency and corruption delayed the battlewagon’s completion until December 1914.
She carried a dozen 305-millimeter guns in four triple in-line turrets, meaning she had a 12-gun broadside but only a three-gun end-on fire. Her 23.5-knot top speed was the only real benefit of the design, but a curious attribute given the confined waters of the Baltic.
New foreign battleships left Sevastopol and her three sisters behind. The British Iron Duke, American New York, Chilean-British Canada, Austrian Viribus Unitis, Japanese Kongo and German Konig all entered service prior to Sevastopol and all exceeded her in size, armor and armament.
Geography compounded Russian woes. After the war began in August 1914, the vastly superior German High Seas Fleet hemmed in the Russian Baltic fleet, leaving it with little to do. Sevastopol and her three sisters rusted in the Gulf of Finland for most of the war.
The revolutionary situation in Russia meant that maintenance, morale and training suffered. By 1918, following a touch-and-go escape from ice-bound Helsinki, Sevastopol effectively left useful service.
Following the Kronstadt Naval Rebellion, a change in management meant that Sevastopol became Parizhskaya Kommuna (“Paris Commune”) in reference to the short-lived revolutionary committee that ran Paris at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.
The Soviet Union still recognized the need for sea power, however, and believed that both the Baltic and the Black Sea fleets required modern battleships. Serial plans for building a large, new battle fleet succumbed to fiscal reality … and to the USSR’s diplomatic isolation. Accordingly, the Soviets slowly returned three of the four Ganguts to service.
In the Black Sea, the return to Turkish service of the recently refurbished TCG Yavuz—a.k.a., the former German battlecruiser Goeben—made the need for a heavy ship particularly acute. The USSR had lost all three of the improved Ganguts in either World War I or the Civil War, leaving only a rump fleet to offset the Turks, Romanians and Bulgarians.
Consequently, after an overhaul and refit in 1929, Parizhskaya Kommuna returned to service and dispatched to the Black Sea. The journey did not go well. The Soviets had reconstructed Parizhskaya Kommuna’s bow, but the loss of expertise and experience resulted in design failure. Parizhskaya Kommuna nearly sank during a storm in the Bay of Biscay—and had to put into Brest for repairs.
Soviet authorities, embarrassed by the incident, mandated that only the crew could conduct the repairs. Parizhskaya Kommuna put back to sea three days later and almost sank again. After she returned to Brest, French workers performed adequate repairs. Parizhskaya Kommuna finally arrived in Sevastopol in January of 1930.
Upon her arrival in the Black Sea, Parizhskaya Kommuna became the largest and most powerful capital ship in the theater. Modernized several times, by 1938 Parizhskaya Kommuna had a mostly new superstructure, new oil-fired machinery, torpedo bulges and a suite of anti-aircraft guns.
These modifications would serve the battleship well in World War II. Parizhskaya Kommuna played an active role in the defense of Crimea from the Wehrmacht in 1941 and 1942, supplying shore bombardment and transit for Red Army forces.
Eventually, however, the battleship became too tempting a target for German aircraft, and withdrew to the eastern reaches of the Black Sea. In late 1943, perhaps gripped by the reality that Paris Commune was a ridiculous name for a Russian warship defending the Black Sea, Soviet authorities renamed her Sevastopol.
After the war she became a training ship, and was scrapped in 1957.
And so, both Russian naval procurement and the Russian system of naming warships remain … complicated. The protestations of the shipbuilding industry notwithstanding, Russia still struggles to design and build large, modern warships that can compete with foreign contemporaries.
The Russian navy continues to contemplate filling its gaps by refurbishing aging hulks, rather than acquiring new platforms. And the name Sevastopol continues to resonate in difficult ways for Russia, and for Russia’s neighbors.