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.

Recurring spectres of U-137

On 27 October 1981 a Soviet submarine, often referred to under the designation U-137, ran aground in the Swedish archipelago near Karlskrona, the main Swedish naval base. The event shocked many Swedes, and it became one of few occasions during the Cold War when Swedish and Soviet naval forces actually met. The fear of an enemy attack from the opposite shores of the Baltic had been strong in Sweden since the late 1940s. U-137 turned these fears into a material encounter with the enemy.

Ever since, the spectre of Soviet and Russian submarines has continued to haunt the Swedish naval forces and the people who live in or visit the archipelago. The Swedish military has, on numerous occasions, stated that it has spotted one or the other submarine in the country’s territorial waters. But the borderline between reality and imagination has always been thin, being shaped by the lingering memories of U-137.

Today’s Svenska Dagbladet tells the story of how the Swedish navy on 21 October 2014 intercepted a coded radio signal in the outer Stockholm archipelago of Stockholm, in the sea just east of Huvudskär. At that time the navy was already active in the area, following earlier indications of enemy activity in Swedish waters. The navy had received calls from locals who had spotted unusual movements in nearby waters. Inevitably, anyone old enough to have experienced the U-137 events back in 1981 associated any strange appearances in the archipelago with a possible Russian submarine. In the 2010s the return of such vessels to Swedish coastal waters did not seem that far-fetched, because diplomatic relations between Sweden and Russia had been notoriously frosty for some time, and Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea was clearly increasing.

The signal from Huvudskär was taken as unambiguous evidence of a foreign submarine operating in the archipelago. Head of Sweden’s armed forces Sverker Göransson called a press conference, telling stunned journalists that he was 100% certain that “a smaller submarine has violated the integrity of Swedish territorial waters”. Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist commented: “The violation that has occurred is brutal and serious”. Both Göransson and Hultqvist, both born in the 1950s, had been young men back in 1981, and they still remembered the shocking images of U-137 on ground off Karlskrona.

However, it subsequently turned out that the coded signal came from an advanced meteorological buoy located in the waters off Huvudskär. As it happened, the Swedish weather service SMHI was in the midst of a mission to repair it. In this connection its repair ship, M/S Fyrbyggaren, communicated with the buoy through radio signals of a kind that were very similar to the ones that the Swedish navy was just listening out for. Two Swedish submarines were at the time hidden in the southern reaches of Stockholm’s outer archipelago, actively listening and looking day and night for any signs of the enemy, which they thought was hiding in Swedish coastal waters.

Events of this kind are likely to recur in the years to come. They are immensely popular in the Swedish media, mysteriously capturing the Swedish imagination in a way that few other things do.

Cold War Coasts: launching the website

Cold War Coasts: The Transnational Co-Production of Military Landscapes is a research project based at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and carried out in close cooperation with Tallinn University. The project merges environmental, military and cultural history, focusing especially on the transnational dimension of militarized coasts. The project’s geographical setting is the Baltic Sea, whose evolving militarized coastscapes we study from both Western and Eastern angles. Here on the website and the blog the project participants will report continuously about the project’s progress, while also commenting on developments in our own time with regard to military and environmental activities in the Baltic Sea region and beyond. We hope that you will enjoy it!