Russian Maritime Museum, St Petersburg
The Dvortsovy Bridge crosses the Neva River from the Admiralty and Hermitage. Near the bridge’s end, is the first of two red Rostral Columns. The Central Naval Museum entrance and another Rostral Column lie directly behind the white building in the centre.
St Petersburg is filled with architecturally brilliant museums displaying priceless exhibits. The Hermitage Winter Palace, with its rare and historic paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Picasso and other masters, is virtually downtown, at the bottom of the Nevsky Prospekt. The Central Naval Museum (Birzha) lies just across the Neva River from the Hermitage, but it takes a little dedication to find it. Its contents, however, are as rewarding to the maritime scholar as the Hermitage paintings might be to the dedicated art lover.
To find the Naval Museum, cross the nearest bridge from the Hermitage and Admiralty, the Dvortsovy Most, and walk towards the pair of distinctive red-hued Rostral Columns. These tall stolid columns each carry half a dozen carved granite ship prow replicas. Before reaching the second column, cut left at a pedestrian crossing. Dodge traffic on the busy six-lane road and once on the other side look hard for a nondescript dirty little side door on the left hand side that leads down into a pokey little cellar entrance to the Naval Museum. It is open Wednesdays to Sundays, 1030 to 1800.
Pay your tariff, take a deep breath, and walk up grotty stairs back into magnificent earlier times. Like so many other aspects of Russian history, the 1500 dramatic exhibits here seem larger, more colourful and more elaborate than real life. Many of the intricate scale models are huge.
St Petersburg must be one of the most historic cities in the world. It has been a major seaport for centuries and was the capital of the Russian Empire. The city was renamed Petrograd (1914-24), then Leningrad (1924-91) before reverting to its original name. It spreads out across a number of islands in the Neva River delta, which in turn empties into the Gulf of Finland. For two important centuries it was the centre of Russian culture and power. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution started in St Petersburg but perhaps its greatest claim to fame was when, as Leningrad, it repulsed a decimating 900-day siege by three determined German armies between September 1941 and January 1944.
St Petersberg is also famous for both its distinctive “Kremlin-ugly” and classical Russian-style architecture. Here is the Cathedral of the Resurrection, within walking distance from both the Hermitage and the Central Naval Museum.
Harrison E. Salisbury, in his The 900 days: The siege of Leningrad, Pan Books: London, (1969) states that the precise number of deaths during the siege may never be known (p. 617). Of the 2.5 million Leningrad civilians at the start of the siege, about one million were evacuated and another one million died of starvation or enemy action. All told, between 1.3 and 1.5 million Russian lives were lost from all causes in the siege. Salisbury also discusses the contributions of the Russian Navy to the city’s defence. Two battleships, two cruisers, 13 destroyers and 300-odd other naval craft helped to defend the city, despite being hemmed in by mines and subject to frequent air and artillery attacks. There were also 286 Russian naval aircraft and 400 naval coastal and shore battery guns thrown into the battle. More than 83,000 sailors fought ashore. The ships supplied devastating and frequently critical naval gunfire support (pp. 419-429).
There are many exhibits in the museum. This is a beautiful well-worn and obviously cherished 17th century shipwright’s model.
The Naval Museum acknowledges Peter the Great (Tsar 1682-1725) as father of the Russian fleet. He visited European shipyards, learned the trade of the shipwrights, and laid the Russian fleet foundations from virtually nothing. He ordered commencement of the naval museum in 1709. Early progress was slow, yet the demand was urgent because during the age of colonisation by sea power, at the beginning of the 18th century, Britain possessed about a third of Europe’s naval power, France and Holland together had about another third and the rest of the nations together shared the remaining portion. Ship quality and training matched Peter’s bold initiative and Catherine the Great’s later leadership. The technically advanced Russian fleet gradually subdued the thorny and powerful Swedes in the Baltic and with strong British and French support went on to defeat a substantial Turkish fleet at the Battle of Navarino in 1827. This tradition continued unabated until the British-trained Japanese decimated the Russians in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima.
Upstairs, on the museum’s crowded ground floor, are enormous 10- to 15-metre models of sailing ships, early steam warships and even a very early submersible. Other floors carry models of more modern warships, including a large aircraft carrier and a number of sectioned nuclear submarines. Every salon has its own sentry attendant, usually an elderly female, but don’t expect much more than a “nyet touch” or “nyet camera” response.
This model of the huge Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov carries a variety of very interesting fixed wing fighter models. A sister ship hull, initially Riga and ultimately named Varyag, has been purchased by Chinese interests.
No employee seemed to want to (or could) speak English. This was disappointing because there were many very interesting modern weapons on display, including what looked like sea-skimming rockets. There seemed to be no explanation other than bare names on cards in the Russian Cyrillic or Roman alphabets. Attempts to link a full-sized weapon with a ship model by sign language failed. Maybe the sentries did not know. Clearly an English-speaking navy-oriented guide is required to obtain full benefit from the visit, but this person might require knowledge quite different from the standard art historian guides who so eloquently explain the Hermitage and other artistic treasures. If the navy-oriented guide option is chosen, it’s probably best to tie this into a package deal made before arrival in the city. The best guides all seem to have full time jobs and they might require a few days to organise their reliefs to take time off. Alternatively, you might risk one of the many English-speaking ex-naval officers or merchant seaman captains begging for food or money inside the museum.
The famous cruiser Aurora may be inspected in model form in the museum and here, in real life, within long walking distance from the maritime museum, on the Neva River in St Petersburg.
The 6-inch cruiser Aurora, moored in the Neva River, is historic on at least two counts. Firstly, she was hit but survived the Battle of Tsushima and returned to St Petersburg in time to play a seminal role in the revolution of 1917. Secondly, it was her crew who fired the blank shot on 25 October that set off a massive ground assault on the Winter Palace, the very last stronghold of the Provisional Government. Aurora lies just beyond the Naval Museum, around the corner past the Peter and Paul Fortress (with its distinctive skinny spire). She is kept in sparkling condition. 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.
St Petersburg is easily worth all the expense, visa negotiations and bottled water problems presently associated with travel to Russia. Primary tourist targets might well remain the Hermitage and Summer Palaces, but don’t overlook these maritime crown jewels in the Birzha Central Naval Museum. St Petersburg is living history. It is just one unique and historic place after another.