London Times, 24 August 1853, p. 8: THE RUSSIAN NAVY. (From the Allgemeine Zeitung.)
Very little is known of the Russian navy in all other countries of Europe, and, whatever notions may exist on the subject, they are vague and all but delusive. We are, however, enabled, from our own personal observation, to state a few facts with respect to the naval forces of Russia.
If a war fleet is to be good for anything besides firing salutes and rotting in harbours, the first thing requisite is the possession of a line of coast on the open sea with convenient ports. Next in importance come good ships, able crews and efficient officers. Russia has three inland seas. The one open sea she has -- the Polar Sea -- is blocked up with ice. The Sound and the Bosphorus are the outlets to the more important of her inland seas. Either opening is exposed to blockade. The Russian ports, excepting always those of Cronstadt and Sebastopol, are not fit for the harbouring of war fleets. Helsingfors, the best of the Finnish ports, is small. The port of Rotahensalm (?), at the mouth of the Kymmene in the Bay of Finland, is indeed fortified, and it is, moreover, the station of the so-called "Scheerean fleet" (?). Revel, in the Bay of Finland, is a commercial port; there were fortifications, but they almost dismantled. Baltishport, in Esthonia, at the mouth of the Paddis, is large, but altogether devoid of fortifications. Riga and Libau, in Courland, are commercial ports. Archangel has docks and is a fortified port, but it lost in the far north, and devoid of importance in the case of a war. It is the same with the ports in the Caspian, the port of Astrackan is being ruined by accumulations of sand. Asof and Taganro want depth, and the same may be said of all the ports in the Sea of Azof, of Feodosia, and Chersof. Between Cronstadt and St. Petersburg the water is so low that vessels of more than seven feet draught cannot reach the capital. The vessels from the Petersburgh Docks must be taken to Cronstadt by land, and at one time they were dragged by camels. Odessa is a mere commercial port, and Sebastopol is the only serviceable war port on the Black Sea, whose fleet is stationed there. The port of Odessa is large, of great depth, strongly fortified, and it has the advantage of regular tides and winds. The ports of Bessarabia are altogether unimportant.
As to the police of the ports, the maintenance of lighthouses, buoys, &c., it must be confessed that all these matters are in excellent condition at no small expense to the Russian Exchequer. But a strategical system of ports, such as England and France can boast of is altogether out of the question. The fleets of France and England may, in their own seas, venture on the boldest and most hazardous manoeuvres -- in case of need they have always a place of refuge under the guns of their war ports; but the Russian fleet, with nothing but Cronstadt and Sebastopol to back it, is in continual danger of being cut off, and cannot, therefore, ever be expected to advance to the attack. Its services are purely defensive. This being the case, what can be more natural than that Russia should desire to possess herself of better harbours and a more serviceable range of seaboard?
Let us now talk of the ships. For shipbuilding Russia has the best materials that can be found. Her forests supply her with oaks which are equal to the oaks of Canada of which the British ships are built; but of late years so great has been the waste that the forests of central Russia are unequal to the demand of the navy, and the Russians have been compelled to take their wood from the forests of the North. This wood is naturally wet, and they never give it time for proper seasoning. Consequently, it is soon wormeaten and rotten. It is generally said that a Russian vessel lasts but two-thirds of the time which an English ship is expected to last. In part, this may also be owing (at least in the Baltic) to the short, irregular waves, and the ice. The sails and ropes in the Russian navy are excellent. The Russian sailmakers were famous, even in the days of Peter the Great, and to this day Russian canvas is preferred to Scotch canvas. Russian hemp is quite as famous as Russian tar and Russian leather. The guns are all that can be desired. The vessels are very orderly and clean; they show to this day that Peter took his first lessons in Holland. The fittings of the cabins are splendid in the extreme, according to the manners and customs of the Russian aristocracy. The Russian captains and admirals are not by any means bluff, bearish old tars of the Drake, Tromp, or Ruyter stamp. Slippered they are and wrapped up in morning gowns, and got up in the most splendid style of ease; they loll on soft sofas of purple velvet, reading French novels, or they sit at the piano by the hour, playing Etudes par Chapin. The fact is the Russian naval officers care very little for the profession; not that they are ignorant -- the nautical academies at Oranienbaum, Petersburg, Cronstadt, Odessa and Nicolajen provide all sorts of theoretical knowledge -- but for all that, it's not in the grain; and in case of a war it will be shown that the Russian vessels are badly officered. Very much the same may be said of the crews. The Russians are not fond of salt water. The majority of the sailors come from the interior; they are inveterate land rats, and never saw the sea until they were enlisted in the navy. They have not, as the sailors of England and France, breathed the sea breeze in their cradle. The English are of Norman blood -- of the blood of the oldest sea kings of the world. The Russians come from the waterless Steppes of Mongolia. The vessels of England and France sail about in all waters, but it happens very rarely that a Russian ship of war ventures into the open sea. This is an important point -- the Russian sailors are not accustomed to the sea; they are not "weather-fast." The Russian fleets have scarcely ever been in a serious engagement, for of course Navarino must not be mentioned.
With the soldier, present courage is partly derived from the reminiscences of a glorious past. The Russian sailors and marines have no past to think of. They stand in their high boots and stiff coats in the exact position prescribed by the rules and regulations of the service, so that their feet form an angle of 45°, and this position is their pride and their glory to preserve on the spars, at the pumps, and at the guns. The rules and the regulations of the service alone determine the movements of the Russian sailor; he will, in the very teeth of danger, go on winding up his anchor, while an Englishman would have cut his cable, turned the ship, and put on every rag of canvas, to the bending of the masts. The guns alone are quickly seized and cleverly handled, but the manoeuvring is generally by far slower than the manoeuvres of the British fleet. The shortness of the ships makes it difficult to turn them, and the signalling is far from being perfect. The ships are clumsy; the planks are thick, and remind one of the wooden walls of the Armada.
The various manoeuvres in the Russian fleet are executed with great precision; but it appears that every man has his peculiar post, and that he is fit for only one set of manipulations. Of course practice makes him perfect; but the question is how the same manoeuvres are to be performed in battle when many of the crew are killed or disabled? The Duke of York insisted on the same men being marines, gunners, and sailors; and surely his principle was the better one.
The stiffest mechanism prevails in the Russian naval service. The Russian sailor works his hours off, and having worked them off he goes to sleep. He takes no interest in the service, and the receiving his rations is, in his opinion, the important business of his life. He is not wedded to his ship as the British sailor; he is not a child of the ocean. When he sees a stray rope he does not coil it and put it aside, he reports the matter to his lieutenant, and the lieutenant refers to the journal for the name of the man who has neglected his duty, and, having found the culprit, he takes hold of his ears and pulls him up to the neglected rope. Such is Russian order and discipline.
With all this order, however, there is no penal law for the navy. Each captain has his own set of rules and punishments.
The administration of naval affairs in Russia is in excellent order, according to the books and records of the Admiralty. As to the real state of things, I do not hazard an opinion. But, since the Government bestow much care and money on the navy, it is just possible that their stores are well supplied. But for all that Russia is not fit to engage in a naval war, for she has no mercantile marine. Her trade is in the hands of the Germans, English, Greeks, and Swedes. In the case of all great naval powers the war fleet sprang from a trading fleet. The Russian fleet is not a natural offspring of the national inclination; it is a thing of order and command, and, as I said before, though possibly useful as a means of defence, it can never become an instrument of aggression.
The Russian fleet consists of five divisions, of which three are stationed in the Baltic, and two in the Black Sea. In the last war with Turkey Russia had 32 vessels of the line, 25 frigates, 20 corvettes and brigs, 7 brigantines, 6 cutters, 84 schooners, 20 galleys, 25 floating batteries, 121 gunboats, making a total of 464 sail, and carrying 6,000 guns. Since that time a great activity has prevailed in the Russian docks, and the result is that at the present day the Russian fleet consists of 60 vessels of the line from 70 to 120 guns, 37 frigates of from 40 to 60 guns, 70 corvettes, brigs, and brigantines, 40 steamers, 200 gunboats and galleys, the whole manned by 42,000 sailors and 20,000 marines, with 9,000 guns.
These remarks show that in a contest with any of the great naval Powers Russia has not a chance of success. The various Czars have, indeed, strained every nerve to create an efficient fleet, but all their endeavours are fruitless unless Russia succeeds in conquering and appropriating the coasts of Turkey, Greece, and Sweden -- the open sea, harbours, and a marine population.