The historical origins of Russia’s Baltic submarines

Cold War Coasts project leader Per Högselius is back from a trip to St. Petersburg, where he, among other things, visited Russia’s magnificent Central Naval Museum. Russia, of course, has a naval history on several different seas, but the Baltic Sea has always played a central role and it’s no coincidence that this museum is located in St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, Imperial Russia’s capital for over 200 years, was founded in 1703, in the midst of the Great Northern War against Sweden, on what was at that time still officially Swedish territory.

Over the centuries – especially from 1554 to 1809 – Sweden and Russia fought numerous wars against each other. In 1609-10 Sweden’s army even entered distant Moscow, while a century later, in 1719, Russia military attacks caused havoc in the Swedish archipelago, burning numerous coastal towns. The battles fought at sea, especially in the late 18th century, have become subject to famous marine paintings, now at display in regular art museums but also the Central Naval Museum and its counterpart in Stockholm, the Swedish Maritime Museum.

However, Sweden and Russia have also cooperated in the naval field. Especially in the late 19th century, Swedish inventors and engineers – such as Ludvig Nobel, later on more famous for his key role in Russian oil production – played important roles in the Russian military-industrial complex, developing new types of weapons and setting up new military factories in St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Moreover, Russia became a major importer of Swedish weapons. Some of these – like the anti-torpedo cannons pictured below (made at Stavsjö bruk, not far from Norrköping) – are now at display in the Central Naval Museum in St. Petersburg.

The museum’s real show-piece, however, is an original Russian submarine from 1881, built by the Polish-Russian inventor Stefan Drzewiecki (1844-1938). Drzewiecki impressed the to-be-emperor Alexander III with his ingenious and bold ideas and designs, which to most people at the time must have looked like science fiction. These vessels were the first serial-produced submarines in the world. Fifty copies were produced, some of which were shipped by rail to Sevastopol on the Black Sea, while the rest remained in the Baltic, where they were put to protect the Kronstadt naval base. In 1884 Drzewiecki managed to introduce battery-driven engines, and the vessel displayed at the museum (pictured here below) was one of the submarines that were retrofitted for battery-electric propulsion.

It is thus in the 1880s that we find the historical origins of the Russian submarines that, a century later, caused havoc in Swedish territorial waters, either in real life, like in Karlskrona in 1981, or in the Swedish imagination. It remains to be explored how Drzewiecki’s submarine designs were further developed over the decades, and how technology transfer from elsewhere contributed to shaping the more modern vessels that, still today, remain the most iconic artifacts of all in the militarized waters of the Baltic Sea.

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