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Fred T. Jane And The Imperial Russian Navy

July 15, 2015
Russian Ironclad c.1897

A Russian ironclad from 1897.

Russia’s most important naval arms show, the 7th IMDS, concluded with a flurry of glowing press two weeks ago. In its wake are a short stream of reports hinting at what’s up with the world’s second most powerful navy.

But Russia’s supremacy in the high seas today is undergoing a critical transition with uncertain results. There’s so much aging hardware leftover and so many investments are needed for the Russian Navy to maintain its status.

Thanks to the Internet Archive, a little perspective and a lot of context is added to what everybody knows about Russia’s maritime heritage. Available as a free download, The Imperial Russian Navy is irresistible.

Once upon a time, an imaginative Englishman set out to write the definitive volume on a European power’s naval might. More than a century after it was published The Imperial Russian Navy: Its Past, Present, and Future endures as a magisterial survey of a bygone era.

Its writer, Frederick Thomas Jane, was the unvarnished archetype of the modern military enthusiast. Passionate about warships at an early age, Jane became a superb illustrator, science fiction novelist, and the founder of Jane’s–the ultimate resource for all things military.

In 2007, the oil and gas consultancy IHS acquired Jane’s and its flagship publication, Defence Weekly, thereby creating IHS Jane’s.

Russian Soviet Marat battleship

Built in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, the battleship Petropavlovsk was renamed the Marat and enjoyed a lackluster career spanning both World Wars. It was partially sunk by a German dive bomber and later scrapped.

Published by W. Thacker & Co. in 1899, Jane’s guide to Russian naval arms, ships, and nautical history is a treat. Aside from detailed illustrations and cross-sections, the 700-page volume is rich with insights.

Russia as a single, cohesive state has always been a sprawling land power. Unfortunately, this meant its progress in the seas was uneven, an understandable drawback given its geography. Jane uses the first five chapters of his book to explain how, despite the modernization imposed by Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725), Russia’s shipbuilding and nautical tradition only manifested more than a century later.

The terrible Crimean War and the equally daunting Russo-Turkish War saw a limited role for the Imperial Navy, which had few ships, few officers, and a mass of conscript sailors. When it finally modernized at the cusp of the 20th century, Russia could boast a fleet on par with Europe’s finest.

Czarist Russia achieved its maritime preeminence by absorbing innovations from Britain, France Belgium, Italy, and even the United States. But mostly Britain. It’s fitting that in the Putin-era, Russia once again tried reaching outward to revitalize its ailing navy–the scuttled contract for French Mistrals comes to mind.

Jane’s book captures the Czarist Russian Navy at its finest, led by a professional-class of officers with cutting edge technology at their disposal. Jane reveals that Russia was a leading manufacturer of torpedoes and naval guns with a robust industrial base to support its geopolitical clout. Under Czar Nicholas II, the Imperial Navy reached a size that commanded the respect of its European rivals.

This is the extent of Jane’s book.

However, by 1904, the same year Jane’s companion volume The Imperial Japanese Navy was published, the Russo-Japanese War erupted. The Japanese humiliated Russia in Port Arthur and Tsushima. A long decline followed until the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles and submarines menaced the world anew.

In summation, Fred Jane’s Imperial Russian Navy is one hell of a read.


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