The Soviet Cruiser ‘Kaganovich’ Navigated Political Purges
Naming ships after Stalinist flunkies got awkward
In 1938, the Soviet Navy laid down the Kaganovich, the fifth of six Kirov-class cruisers. Survivors of World War II, the Kirovs were responsible for mine-laying operations in the Baltic Sea and escorting troop ships reinforcing the besieged Black Sea port city of Sevastopol.
The cruisers represented the Soviet Union’s return to constructing powerful surface combatants following the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War, which badly damaged the Soviets’ shipbuilding industry. The Italian company Ansaldo provided blueprints for the Raimondo Montecuccoli-class cruiser the early 1930s, which formed the basis for the Kirovs.
But Kaganovich would not end service as the Kaganovich. Named after a high-ranking and doctrinaire Stalinist bureaucrat and one of the chief architects of the Ukrainian famine, the cruiser would undergo several awkward name changes due to the bloody, internecine feuding characteristic of the Stalinist era and its immediate aftermath.
Kaganovich was technically a “Projectbis2” upgrade of the Kirov class, which included the cruisers Kirov, Voroshilov, Maxim Gorky, Molotov and the fellow bis2 upgrade Kalinin. Kaganovich and Kalinin were larger than their sisters at 8,267 long tons displacement, with beefier turbines capable of getting the cruisers up to a speedy 36 knots.
The Soviets also adapted the Italian design to more rugged, given the harsher climactic conditions to which Soviet ships were exposed.
The Kirovs possessed relatively thin armor and the lead ship faced teething problems during trials. Another problem — the primary armament of three turrets with three 7.1-inch guns each sat cramped in the design, making their rate of fire slow.
The design improved over time, and the later cruisers including Kaganovich came festooned with anti-aircraft armament including eight 3.3-inch anti-aircraft guns, six 1.8-inch guns and 10 1.5-inch flak cannons — in addition to another six 12.7-millimeter DShK machine guns.
Two torpedo launchers with three tubes each rounded out the weaponry.
Above — the ‘Kirov’-class cruiser, later ‘Slava.’ At top — the ‘Kaganovich,’ later ‘Petropavlovsk.’ Photos via Wikimedia
Kaganovich and Kalinin would not see action during the war, as the two were constructed in the Soviet Far East and missed out during the Soviet invasion of Manchuria in 1945. Meanwhile, Lazar Kaganovich, the ship’s namesake, would see his good graces with the Soviet regime fray — and then fall apart.
His brother, Mikhail, managed an aviation plant until his 1941 suicide after Stalin accused him of disloyalty. Lazar, though, was one of Stalin’s most loyal subordinates and an exceptionally rare survivor of Stalin’s purges of the “Old Bolsheviks,” those were members of the party before the revolution.
He carried the nickname “Iron Lazar.”
It was Kaganovich along with Vyacheslav Molotov who oversaw the forced collectivization of Ukraine, which killed millions. As Minister for Building Materials from 1944 to 1947, he was highly influential in post-war reconstruction, shaping Soviet cities and architecture in brutalist fashion.
But Kaganovich the cruiser could be confused for his purged brother, so the navy renamed her to the more precise Lazar Kaganovich upon entering service in 1945.
Following Stalin’s death, former political commissar Nikita Khrushchev consolidated power and embarked on a program of de-Stalinization, clashing with the “Anti-Party Group” of hardliners including Kaganovich and Molotov.
Khrushchev had them expelled from the Communist Party and forced the conspirators into early retirement — but they survived, which couldn’t be said for so many of Stalin’s opponents and Kaganovich’s brother.
Cue another name change for the cruiser. Lazar Kaganovich became Petropavlovsk in 1957, and then suffered severe damage to her superstructure during a typhoon that September. The Soviet Navy sold her for scrap in 1960.
The Soviet penchant for erasing history and scrubbing names once politicians became disfavored extended to other ships in the Red Fleet. Following Khrushchev’s purging of the Anti-Party Group, the Kirov-class cruiser Molotov became Slava and became a training ship, flexing her muscles in the Eastern Mediterranean in 1967 during the Six-Day War.
Lazar Kaganovich the man, however, would outlive every Old Bolshevik. He died in Moscow at the age of 97 on July 26, 1991, five months before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union.