Aurora, the Russian history-laden pre-Dreadnought Pallada class armoured six-inch cruiser, is kept in mint condition just off the Peter and Paul fortress in the Neva River, St Petersburg. This cruiser was one of only three, along with Oleg and Zhemchug, to break free and escape from the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Tsushima Straits, 27-28 May 1905. Another two destroyers, an armed merchant cruiser and a few transports were the only other Russian 2nd Pacific Squadron ships to avoid destruction or capture in the battle. A numerically inferior Japanese fleet destroyed, forced to surrender or put to flight the entire Second Russian Pacific Squadron of 38 warships (Avramov 2004 pp. 2-4), including seven battleships and seven armoured cruisers (see Mikasa). Russian losses included over 11,000 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Japanese lost only three destroyers and fewer than 700 killed or wounded.
The Russian cruiser lost her captain early in the Tsushima encounter when a 75 mm shell pierced the conning tower and killed or wounded everybody present. The ship’s next senior officer was wounded but assumed command. All told, Aurora lost 15 killed and 83 wounded before fleeing the carnage. One 152 mm and five 75 mm guns were destroyed and other damage included 18 holes in the hull and superstructure from shells ranging from 203 to 75 mm (eight- to three-inch).
Very few naval battles had such a profound effect. By crushing the Russian Fleet, a prerequisite to victory in the Russo-Japanese War, this “Japanese Trafalgar” demonstrated with an iron fist that Asian nations need no longer kowtow to the whims of the major European powers. Tsushima also probably contributed indirectly to dangerous existing unrest in Russia. Mutinies at Sevastopol, Vladivostok, Kronstadt and in the battleship Potemkin followed not long after the horrific Tsushima massacre news filtered back to Russia. A revolutionary uprising induced the Tsar to renounce some of his dictatorial powers in the October Manifesto of 1905.
Aurora, after internment in Manila, voyaged home to St Petersburg in 1906, to become a cadet training ship from 1906-12 and to contribute to fleet duties in WW I. In 1915 her main armament was changed to 14 x 152 mm guns. During a major 1916 refit in St Petersburg, Aurora’s crew were influenced by the revolutionary ferment of the city to the extent that on 13 March 1917 they mutinied and killed their captain after the latter had allegedly fired on the crew as they demanded the release of three worker-propagandists. A Ship Committee was elected that in turn elected a new ship’s captain. On 25 October 1917, the crew refused to take the ship to sea, but instead fired a blank shot that was the signal for a final assault on the Hermitage and other targets of the October Revolution.
In 1918-22 the ship was put into reserve and her large calibre guns removed for service elsewhere. In 1922-23 the ship was restored to her former condition and once more became a training ship. In 1934, as a hulk, Aurora was towed to a wharf at Oranienbaum, 34 km west of St Petersburg, where she continued service as a training ship until 1941. During WW II some of Aurora‘s guns and gun crews were stripped again, this time to repel Nazi advances in the Lake Chudskaya area (on the Russian-Latvian border) and ashore as an anti-tank battery at Kranoye Selo (40 km south-west of St Petersburg.) The ship served as a submarine tender and was included in the anti-aircraft defence system of the nearby Kronstadt naval base. Repeatedly bombed and shelled during WW II, Aurora settled firmly into the mud around 30 September 1941 and spent the rest of the war sitting there. Divers counted about 1300 holes in the hull and superstructure after WW II.
Refloated in 1945, the ship has been virtually rebuilt from the waterline down, with new frames and welded plates replacing rivetted joints. Since 1952 Aurora has been moored in the Neva River and, except for a major 1984-87 reconstruction period, she has served as a museum ship and tourist attraction since 1956. The oldest commissioned ship in the Russian Navy, she proudly wears the St Andrews cross naval ensign under which she was originally commissioned. Manned nowadays chiefly by naval cadets and commanded by a Captain of the First Rank, it is claimed that more than 28 million people have visited the ship since 1956.
Aurora’s reconstructed bridge.
Admission is free and the ship is open to visitors 1030 to 1600 (closed Mondays and Fridays and the last Wednesday of the month, but some websites carry conflicting information.) Engine-room tours may be arranged by appointment.
Confirm open days on http://www.saint-petersburg.com/virtual-tour/cruiser-aurora.asp, http://www.aurora.org.ru/eng/index. or with your travel guide company.
The Central Naval Museum is on the same side of the Neva River, just short of the Dvortsovy Bridge and across the road from the two big red rostral columns. A half day visit there is strongly recommended.
Abramov, G. (tr. V. Fateyev.) The cruiser Aurora. Central Naval Museum: St Petersburg, 2004.