Shipping Wonders of the World

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Russian Shipping

In a remarkably short time the Soviet Union has built up a considerable mercantile marine with the object of handling all Russia’s overseas trade in Soviet ships. Unparalleled measures have been taken to achieve this end with efficiency


The Cooperatzia was built in 1929

A SOVIET MOTORSHIP of 3,767 tons gross, the Cooperatzia was built in 1929 at Leningrad, formerly Petrograd and originally St. Petersburg. She has a length of 332 ft. 6 in. between perpendiculars, a beam of 48 feet and a moulded depth of 27 ft. 9 in. Her two-stroke single-acting six-cylinder diesels were built by the Russian Diesel Works, Leningrad.

ONE of the most extraordinary incidents in the commercial history of the twentieth century is the development of the Russian shipping industry as it is to-day. The effect of the greatest sociological experiment in modern times on an industry which, while always changing, is always strangely the same, is of great interest.

The Soviet Government, which owns the entire Russian Merchant Service, has set out with the definite aim of handling the whole of Russia’s overseas trade with its own ships. The usual aim is to handle half the trade, leaving the other nations the other half, and even that aim has proved to be beyond the power of most countries. The effect of the Russian policy must be watched with interest and with a good deal of apprehension, lest it should be taken to its logical conclusion of every country carrying its own exports, so that every ship must spend half of her time in ballast.

That situation is still a long way ahead. What is of more immediate importance is that the Russian Government couples with this aim the scheme of making Russia the second shipping power in the world by the end of the third Five-Years Plan. The shipping and shipbuilding departments of the Soviet have found it difficult to keep abreast of their schedule, but every year large sums are cheerfully spent on increasing the producing organization, so that the chances are improved.

Attention devoted to the Navy in the Far East and Europe must, under the Russian system, be taken from mercantile interests and the future of the Russian Navy is beyond all calculations.

Immense progress has been made. The 3,970,000 tons of cargo which were carried in Soviet ships — sea-going, coastal and river — in 1924 were increased to over 16,000,000 tons in 1932. Between the beginning of the first Five-Years Plan and the autumn of 1933 the carrying capacity of the Russian fleet was increased by thirty per cent.

The introduction of such a volume of new tonnage at a time when the world’s market was already heavily overstocked naturally had its effect on shipowning all over the globe. The new Russian Merchant Service had to be studied carefully by every shipping man who came within range of its competition.

In 1913 Russian ships transported nearly 50,000,000 tons of cargo by sea and river and, with the poorly developed railway system, the coastal and internal waterway services were of the greatest importance to the country. Russian ships, however, were responsible for only about 11 percent of the overseas trade.

The ships and sailors which carried the Russian flag overseas mostly belonged to those Baltic provinces which are now independent republics, and with few exceptions the Russians themselves had no taste for deep-water work. The needs of the Navy were produced by coercion and there was no stint of money in State aid, but all progress was made against a body of opposition, passive and active.

The Orel was built in 1890 to the order of the Russian Volunteer Fleet Association

IN THE VOLUNTEER FLEET.  The Russian Volunteer Fleet was formed in 1878, and its cruiser-merchantmen were designed for use in war or peace. The Orel was built in 1890 at Newcastle-on-Tyne to the order of the Russian Volunteer Fleet Association. Of 4,528 tons gross. She had a length of 432 feet a beam of 48 feet and a depth of 24 feet.

The old Tsarist Government appreciated the importance of the subject well enough, but its efforts had little success. It established a shipping subsidy system which was one of the most generous in Europe to the services in which it was interested. Official help was given to the formation of the famous Russian Volunteer Fleet in 1878, whose cruiser-merchantmen were designed to act as corsair warships in time of war and as carriers in peace-time.

Many enthusiasts who brought forward schemes for the development of the shipbuilding or shipping industry found generous help in high places. Huge sums were paid out by the Imperial Treasury, but the results were meagre. One or two companies, spoon-fed by subsidies, flourished to a certain extent and tramps did a big business in certain trades, but the results were in no way commensurate with the money paid out or with the opportunities of the national trade.

Lenin signed the decree for the nationalization of all Russian shipping in February 1918, at a time when private owners possessed seventy-two per cent of the country’s tonnage capable of overseas work. The rest belonged to the State in various ways. A large proportion of these ships were in Russian waters at the time, locked in there by the war, and were immediately seized by the authorities without compensation. Many ships were outside Russian waters and had been prevented from entering them for three and a half years. During that period of war boom they had seized the opportunity of earning considerable sums. A large number had been used almost entirely on the munitions route to Northern Russia, including all the available ships of the Volunteer Fleet which were bound to serve the Navy in war-time.

When the nationalizing decree was signed the ships that were out of Russian waters naturally stayed out, and a number of the directors of the Russian Volunteer Fleet escaped to Paris and conducted their business from there.

Work, But No Pay

During the war of 1914-18 munition-carrying contracts continued and immediately after the Armistice the shipping boom gave every ship plenty of employment at good rates. Unfortunately for the owners all payment was withheld, in many instances owing to doubts as to legal ownership and the fear of being forced by the courts to pay twice, Eventually several of the ships had to be sold to pay and feed their crews, while huge sums which could not be touched were standing to their credit. Later a number of Russian Volunteer Fleet ships were handed over to the Soviets with the privately-owned vessels, but others, including many of those of the Black Sea Steam Navigation Company, escaped to French waters with General Wrangel’s fleet.

In the early days of hopeless disorganization little effort was made to use the merchant ships which the Russian Government owned, and overseas trade was at a standstill. By the beginning of 1922 the authorities had all the existing ships that they were likely to obtain.

Lenin was one of the few Soviet rulers who appreciated the importance of the shipping industry, and how it could help in the formation of the new State. He was also far shrewder than some of his colleagues and, although he had been instrumental in securing the nationalization of the Merchant Service, he encouraged a measure of private ownership on more than one occasion when it appeared advisable. After the bad harvest of 1922 he even formed mixed shipowning companies in partnership with foreign capitalists.

In a country whose administration was founded on a political belief it was difficult or impossible for anybody with a less assured position than Lenin to go against that principle, even when the circumstances of the time demanded it, and after his death his successors could not make the same concessions. The definite policy was the complete nationalization of all industries, and from the political viewpoint shipping was one of the most important.

The Lieutenant Schmidt was built at Rostock in 1913 as the Frascati

A RUSSIAN SHIP’S NAME is often transliterated on her bows for the benefit of those who do not understand the Russian characters. The Lieutenant Schmidt, a vessel of 2,492 tons gross, was built at Rostock, Germany, in 1913, as the Frascati. She is registered at Vladivostok, the “Mistress of the East”, on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The length of the Lieutenant Schmidt is 297 ft. 3 in., her beam 40 ft. 1 in. and her depth 15 ft. 7 in. In the left background is the Katendrecht, a Dutch vessel of 5,099 tons gross.

Steps were therefore taken to increase the status and efficiency of the industry, for which new and better ships were needed, but Russia had never been a commercial shipbuilding country. Surprisingly few steamers of any size had ever been built in Russian yards. The naval establishments existed for the Navy only, and commercial ships had always been bought abroad. Those produced in Russia were mostly river and coastal craft only, more often than not built of wood.

Russia had, for the time at least, no intention of reviving the Navy, so that the naval dockyards on which the former Government had spent huge sums were converted to the work of building up the merchant fleet. The yards had not been designed for this, and it was not easy to adapt them. They had been derelict for a long time while the machinery was deteriorating or being looted. It wanted mu-h courage and infinite patience to overcome the initial inertia of the vast shipbuilding plan sketched out by the Government and to get it under way.

An essential part of the plan was that the whole work should be carried out in Russia, by Russian labour and as far as possible with Russian material. But the shipbuilding industry could not tackle the work at once, and at first it was necessary to go abroad. German shipbuilders gave long credit with the assistance of their Government and were most favoured. The Free City of Danzig obtained some orders, as did also Italy, but the question of credits always made a difficulty, and without the help of their Government the British shipbuilders were unable to benefit.

The Krym was built at Kiel in 1928

BUILT AT KIEL, GERMAN,  in 1928, the Krym is a twin-screw vessel of 4,867 tons gross, registered at Odessa, on the Black Sea. She has a semi-cruiser stern and is fitted with refrigerating machinery. With a length of 362 ft 9 in between perpendiculars, the Krym has a beam of 51 ft 1 in and a depth of 25 ft 3 in. Her twelve-cylinder oil engines have a nominal horse-power of 1,163.

These foreign orders, however, were intended only to see the plan over its first difficulties. There was never any intention of building more than a few ships in that way while an immense organization was being perfected. The new Russian Merchant Fleet was to consist entirely of modern motorships and, while the naval dockyards and such few private yards as existed were mobilized for the building of the hulls, the gigantic Sojus Diesel Engine Works were built for the construction of the machinery.

Ruthless Scrapping

The all-important auxiliary machinery — windlasses and steering gear, for instance — was also produced in modern works, but it was the machinery, main and auxiliary, which proved by far the hardest part of the problem. After a little experience it was decided that the Russian-designed diesels should be virtually abandoned for a while, until the machinery for their production could be improved and the personnel trained. In the meantime the new ships should be propelled either by foreign diesels or by motors of foreign design built in Russia under licence.

The idea of having the merchant service composed entirely of modern motorships was never abandoned. In spite of the difficulties with the straightforward diesel, many of the ships later planned were designed with far more complicated and delicate diesel-electric machinery.

As mistakes were revealed they were rectified. Faulty machinery was ruthlessly scrapped and replaced by more efficient machinery. All the time the greatest care was being paid to technical education and training.

Meanwhile steps were taken to buy enough ships abroad to carry out the necessary work until the new ones were built. Several cargo steamers were bought from the United States Shipping Board, and many from private owners in Europe. Nearly all were vessels which had been laid up for a long time and which were apt to give trouble. The tankers bought were all first-class vessels, and the greatest care was taken that they should be efficient.

The Bolshevik was built at Lubeck in 1899 as the Bianca and later renamed Neva

ICE-BOUND SEAS AND HARBOURS confine shipping on the Russian Arctic seaboard during certain periods of the year. Icebreakers are constantly on duty and much pioneer work has been done, such as the work of the Chelyuskin (see the chapter “The Chelyuskin Rescue”) in opening the North-East Passage to the Pacific. The Bolshevik (shown here) has a gross tonnage of 1,412. Built at Lubeck, Germany, in 1899, as the Bianca and later renamed Neva, she has a length of 241 ft. 2 in., a beam of 36 feet and a depth of 16 ft. 2 in.

No more ships were bought than was absolutely necessary, for they were intended only to tide the service over until the new ships should be completed. As far as possible foreign tonnage was chartered instead of being bought, and taken up only when it was needed. A large amount of tonnage was used in the seasonal timber business, although there were difficulties to be overcome in chartering terms, ice-breaking and other services, the question of shore leave in Russia and the enforcement of foreign countries’ precautionary and other regulations which do not appear in the Russian code.

All the time the authorities were working steadily to improve the shipbuilding capabilities of Russia itself. Every naval dockyard which had been built by the old Tsarist Navy was carefully adapted for mercantile purposes and a number of entirely new establishments, designed on the most modern and scientific lines, were laid down and put into working order as quickly as possible.

Plant and personnel had to be built up almost from nothing and the task was gigantic.

Despite this the first Five-Years Shipbuilding Plan was launched in 1925, to be completed by the end of 1929. There were five yards in the Baltic and four in the Black Sea, capable of turning out good mercantile work. These were to be used for the building of 110 ships of nearly 500,000 tons. At that time the whole Merchant Service totalled only 180,000 tons register and the ships averaged thirty-three years of age.

The programme that was laid down would have been a task for the best organized shipbuilding country in the world with the same number of slips at its disposal. For Russia with so much to be built up from the bottom it was impossible. The programme was to include fifty-four ships for the North European timber trade at once. Within a few weeks this number was cut down to thirty-one and even then it was impossible to carry out the programme.

Women Sailors

Labour was good, thorough and painstaking but terribly slow. Some of the shipyard managers proved unsuitable through their lack of knowledge and experience, but others did remarkably well. Standardization in design and specialization in the establishments were carefully studied and carried to great lengths.

If the Russians adopted unorthodox methods in the shipbuilding and marine engineering industries, these methods were no more original than those which had to be adopted on the shipping side. A department of the Soviet was formed as soon as the Merchant Service was nationalized in 1918. It was elaborated in 1920 and thoroughly reorganized two years later under the title of “The State Commercial Navy”. In 1923 the scheme was enlarged, and in 1925 the present Sovtorgflot was established which took into its hands all the owning and operating departments.

The organization and discipline of Russian ships are quite different from those of any other nation. The idea of running them by committees was quickly dropped; but, as with every other organization in the country, every ship has its workers’ representative and committee to deal with certain matters.

Women are to be found in most Russian ships, and nearly all the work of the stewards’ department is carried out by them. Many wireless operators of the fleet are women, and they have proved most satisfactory in that branch. Some work as sailors or deck officers, and at least one has been given the command of a ship.

One of the most interesting and picturesque sides of the Soviet Government’s shipping activities is the manner in which it has made use of the North-East Passage as a commercial waterway. For centuries this route defied the efforts of explorers and took a heavy toll of gallant life. In the latter part of the nineteenth century the North-East Passage was proved to be practicable, Recently, aided by constant scientific observation and the use of some of the finest ice-breakers in the world, the Russians have contrived to use it for regular services in either direction.

The Kamenetz-Podolsk was built at Sunderland in 1915 and registered at Petrograd

RUSSIAN SHIP AT GENOA. Against the romantic Italian background of the city of Genoa is outlined the profile of the Kamenetz-Podolsk. A vessel of 5,117 tons gross, she was built at Sunderland in 1915 and registered at Petrograd, now Leningrad. She has a length of 400 feet between perpendiculars, a beam of 52 ft. 5 in. and a depth of 28 feet.

You can read more on “Adventures of the Ice-Breaker”, “The Battle of Tsushima” and

“The Chelyuskin Rescue” on this website.