Soviet Navy

Soviet Navy
Военно-морской флот СССР
Voyenno-morskoy flot SSSR
Naval Jack of the Soviet Union.svg
Naval Ensign of the Soviet Union.svg
Naval Jack (top) and Ensign of the Soviet Navy
Active 1917–1991
Country Soviet Union
Navies of Russia

Flag of Russia.svg Imperial Russia

Navy (1696–1917)

Flag of the Soviet Union.svg Soviet Union

Soviet Navy (1917–1991)

Flag of Russia.svg Russian Federation

Russian Navy (1991–Present)

The Soviet Navy (Russian: Военно-морской флот СССР, Voenno-morskoj flot SSSR, literally "Military Maritime Fleet of the USSR") was the naval arm of the Soviet Armed Forces. Often referred to as the Red Fleet, the Soviet Navy would have played an instrumental role in a Warsaw Pact war with NATO, where it would have attempted to prevent naval convoys from bringing reinforcements across the Atlantic Ocean from North America to Western Europe. Such a conflict never occurred, but the Soviet Navy still saw considerable action during the Cold War.

The Soviet Navy was divided into four major fleets: the Northern, Pacific, Black Sea, and Baltic Fleets; under separate command was the Leningrad Naval Base. The Caspian Flotilla was a smaller force operating in the land-locked Caspian Sea. The Mediterranean Squadron drew its units from the Black Sea, Baltic, and Northern Fleets; the Indian Ocean Squadron primarily from the Pacific Fleet. Other components included Naval Aviation, Naval Infantry (the Soviet equivalent of marines), and Coastal Artillery.

According to a 1980 Time article citing analysts from RAND Corporation, non-Slavs were generally prohibited from joining elite or strategic positions in the armed forces like the Navy, Strategic Rocket Forces and the Soviet Air Force because of suspicions of the loyalty of ethnic minorities.[1]

Most of the Soviet Navy was reformed into the Russian Navy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.



Soviet Armed Forces
Coat of arms of the Soviet Union.svg
General Staff
Strategic Rocket Forces
Red Army * Soviet Army
Air Defence Forces
Air Forces
Ranks of the Soviet Military
Military ranks of the Soviet Union
History of the Soviet Military
Military history of the Soviet Union
History of Russian military ranks

Early history

Aurora was unofficially the first Soviet Navy vessel, after it mutinied against Imperial Russia in 1917.

The Soviet Navy was based on a republican naval force formed from the remnants of the Imperial Russian Navy, which had been almost completely destroyed in the Revolution of 1917, the Russian civil war, and the Kronstadt rebellion. During the revolution, sailors deserted their ships at will and generally neglected their duties. The officers were dispersed (some were killed by the Red Terror, some joined the "White" (anti-communist) armies, and others simply resigned from the Navy) and most of the sailors left their ships. Work stopped in the shipyards, where uncompleted ships deteriorated rapidly.

The Black Sea Fleet fared no better than the Baltic. The Bolshevik revolution entirely disrupted its personnel, with mass murders of officers; the ships were allowed to decay to unserviceability. At the end of April 1918, German troops entered the Crimea and started to advance towards the Sevastopol naval base. The more effective ships were moved from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk where, after an ultimatum from Germany, they were scuttled by Vladimir Lenin's order. The ships remaining in Sevastopol were captured by the Germans and then, after November 1918, by the British. On 1 April 1919, when Red Army forces captured Crimea, the British squadron had to withdraw, but before leaving they damaged all the remaining battleships and sank thirteen new submarines. When a White Army captured Crimea in 1919, it rescued and reconditioned a few units. At the end of the civil war, Wrangel's fleet, a White fleet, moved to Bizerta in French Tunisia, where it was interned.

The first ship of the revolutionary navy could be considered the rebellious Imperial Russian cruiser Aurora, whose crew joined the Bolsheviks. Sailors of the Baltic fleet supplied the fighting force of the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution. Some imperial vessels continued to serve after the revolution, albeit with different names.

The Soviet Navy, established as the "Workers' and Peasants' Red Fleet" (Russian: Рабоче-Крестьянский Красный флот, Raboche-Krest'yansky Krasny Flot or RKKF) by a 1918 decree of the Soviet government, was less than service-ready during the interwar years. As the country's attentions were largely directed internally, the Navy did not have much funding or training. An indicator of its reputation was that the Soviets were not invited to participate with the Washington Naval Treaty, which limited the size and capabilities of the most powerful navies. The greater part of the old fleet was sold by the Soviet government to Germany for scrap. In the Baltic Sea there remained only three much-neglected battleships, two cruisers, some ten destroyers, and a few submarines. Despite this state of affairs, the Baltic Fleet remained a significant naval formation, and the Black Sea Fleet also provided a basis for expansion. There also existed some thirty minor-waterways combat flotillas.

During the 1930s, as the industrialization of the Soviet Union proceeded, plans were made to expand the Soviet Navy into one of the most powerful in the world. Approved by the Labour and Defence Council in 1926, the Naval Shipbuilding Program included plans to construct twelve submarines; the first six were to become known as the Dekabrist class.[2] Beginning 4 November 1926, Technical Bureau Nº 4 (formerly the Submarine Department, and still secret), under the leadersip of B.M. Malinin, managed the submarine construction works at the Baltic Shipyard.[2] In subsequent years, 133 submarines were built to designs developed during Malinin's management. Additional developments included the formation of the Pacific Fleet in 1932 and the Northern Fleet in 1933. The forces were to be built around a core of powerful Sovetsky Soyuz-class battleships. This building program was only in its initial stages by the time the German invasion forced its suspension in 1941.

The Soviet Navy had some minor action in the Winter War of 1939–1940 on the Baltic Sea, limited mainly to cruisers and battleships fighting artillery duels with Finnish forts.

The Second World War

After the beginning of the Second World War, many sailors and naval guns were detached to reinforce the Red Army; these reassigned naval forces participated with every major action on the Eastern Front. Soviet naval personnel had especially significant roles on land in the battles for Odessa, Sevastopol, Stalingrad, Novorossiysk, Tuapse, and Leningrad.

Soviet naval cap

The composition of the Soviet fleets in 1941 included:[3]

  • 7 cruisers (including 4 modern Kirov-class heavy cruisers),
  • 59 destroyer-leaders and squadron-destroyers (including 46 modern Type 7 and Type 7U destroyers),
  • 218 submarines,
  • 269 torpedo boats,
  • 22 patrol vessels,
  • 88 minesweepers,
  • 77 submarine-hunters,
  • and a range of other smaller vessels.

In various stages of completion were another 219 vessels including 3 battleships, 2 heavy and 7 light cruisers, 45 destroyers, and 91 submarines.

Included in the totals above are some pre-WWI ships (Novik-class destroyers, some of the cruisers, and all the battleships), some modern ships built in the USSR and Europe (like the Italian-built destroyer Tashkent[4] and the partially completed German cruiser Lützow). During the war, many of the vessels on the slips in Leningrad and Nikolayev were destroyed (mainly by aircraft and mines), but the Soviet Navy received captured Romanian destroyers and Lend-Lease small craft from the U.S., as well as the old Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Sovereign (renamed Arkhangelsk) and the United States Navy cruiser USS Milwaukee (renamed Murmansk) in exchange for the Soviet part of the captured Italian navy.

Baltic Fleet

In the Baltic Sea, after Tallinn's capture, surface ships were blockaded in Leningrad and Kronstadt by minefields, where they participated with the anti-aircraft defense of the city and bombarded German positions. One example of Soviet resourcefulness was the battleship Marat, an aging pre-WWI ship sunk at anchor in Kronstadt's harbor by German Stukas in 1941. For the rest of the war, the non-submerged part of the ship remained in use as a grounded battery. Submarines, although suffering great losses due to German and Finnish anti-submarine actions, had a major role in the war at sea by disrupting Axis navigation in the Baltic Sea.

Other Theaters of Operation

In the Black Sea, many ships were damaged by minefields and Axis aviation, but they helped defend naval bases and supply them while besieged, as well as later evacuating them. Heavy naval guns and courageous sailors helped defend port cities during long sieges by Axis armies. In the Arctic Ocean, Soviet Northern Fleet destroyers (Novik-class, Type 7, and Type 7U) and smaller craft participated with the anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defense of Allied convoys conducting Lend-Lease cargo shipping. In the Pacific Ocean, the Soviet Union was not at war with Japan before 1945, so some destroyers were transferred to the Northern Fleet.

From the beginning of hostilities, Soviet Naval Aviation provided air support to naval and land operations involving the Soviet Navy. This service was responsible for the operation of shore-based floatplanes, long-range flying boats, catapult-launched and vessel-based planes, and land-based aircraft designated for naval use.

As post-war spoils, the Soviets received several Italian warships and much German naval engineering and architectural documentation.

Soviet Navy enlisted personnel stand at attention (1982).

Cold War

A Whiskey Twin Cylinder class guided missile submarine, an important platform for launching anti-shipping strikes.

In February 1946 the Red Fleet was renamed the Soviet Navy (Russian: Советский Военно-Морской Флот, Sovyetsky Voyenno-Morskoy Flot),[5] literally the Soviet Military Naval Fleet. After the war, the Soviets concluded that they needed to be able to compete with the Western powers at all costs, and began a program to achieve parity. The Soviet shipbuilding program kept yards busy constructing submarines based upon World War II German Kriegsmarine designs, and were launched with great frequency during the immediate post-war years. Afterwards, through a combination of indigenous research and technology obtained through espionage from Nazi Germany and the Western nations, the Soviets gradually improved their submarine designs, though they initially lagged the NATO countries by a decade or two.

The Soviets were quick to equip their surface fleet with missiles of various sorts. Indeed it became a feature of Soviet design to place large missiles onto relatively small, but fast, missile boats, while in the West such an approach would never have been considered tactically feasible. The Soviet Navy did also possess several very large and well-armed guided-missile cruisers, like those of the Kirov and Slava classes. By the 1970s, Soviet submarine technology was in some respects more advanced than in the West, and several of their submarine types were considered superior to their American rivals.[6]

The 5th Operational Squadron (ru:5-я Средиземноморская эскадра кораблей ВМФ) operated against the NATO naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea, especially the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

Carriers and aviation

Kiev, a helicopter carrier and the rest of her class constituted an important component of the Soviet anti-submarine warfare system.

Although the Soviet Union's wartime naval commander-in-chief, Admiral Kuznetsov, actively promoted the building of aircraft carriers after the war, Communist Party ideology termed them "instruments of capitalist imperial aggression" and accordingly deemed them unsuitable for the USSR. Moreover, among the armed services the Navy was lowest in priority in the consideration of the Party's management. Premiers Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev considered aircraft carriers overly expensive, time-consuming, and vulnerable to attack[citation needed].

The Soviet Navy still had the mission of confronting Western submarines, creating a need for large surface vessels to carry anti-submarine helicopters. During 1968 and 1969 the Moskva-class helicopter carriers were first deployed, succeeded by the first of four aircraft-carrying cruisers of the Kiev class in 1973. Both of these types were capable of operating ASW helicopters, and the Kiev class also operated V/STOL aircraft (e.g. the Yak-38 'Forger'); they were designed to operate for fleet defense, primarily within range of land-based Soviet Naval Aviation aircraft.

During the 1970s the Soviets began Project OREL, whose stated purpose was to create an aircraft carrier capable of basing fixed-wing fighter aircraft in defense of the deployed fleet. The project was canceled during the planning stages when strategic priorities shifted once more. It was during the 1980s that the Soviet Navy acquired its first true aircraft carrier, Tbilisi, subsequently renamed Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov,[7] which carries Sukhoi Su-33 'Flanker-D' and MiG-29 fighters, and Ka-27 helicopters. A distinctive feature of Soviet aircraft carriers has been their offensive missile armament (as well as long-range anti-aircraft warfare armament), again representing a fleet-defense operational concept, in distinction to the Western emphasis on shore-strike missions from distant deployment. A second carrier (pre-commissioning name Varyag) was under construction when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Construction stopped and the ship was sold, incomplete, to China by Ukraine.

Sailors of the Soviet Baltic Fleet in the early 1970s.

Soon after the launch of this second Kuznetsov-class ship, the Soviet Navy began the construction of an improved aircraft carrier design, Ulyanovsk, which was to have been slightly larger than the Kuznetsov class and nuclear-powered. The project was terminated, and what little structure had been initiated in the building ways was scrapped.

In part to perform the functions usual to carrier-borne aircraft, the Soviet Navy deployed large numbers of strategic bombers in a maritime role, with the Aviatsiya Voenno-Morskogo Flota (AV-MF, or Naval Aviation service). Strategic bombers like the Tupolev Tu-16 'Badger' and Tu-22M 'Backfire' were deployed with high-speed anti-shipping missiles. The primary role of these aircraft was the interception of NATO supply convoys traveling the sea lines of communication between Europe and North America, and thus countering Operation REFORGER.


Due to the USSR's geographic position, submarines were considered the capital ships of the Navy. It was submarines that could penetrate attempts at blockade, either in the constrained waters of the Baltic and Black Seas or in the remote reaches of the USSR's western Arctic. Surface ships clearly were much easier to find and attack. The USSR had entered WWII with more submarines than Germany, but geography and the speed of the German attack precluded it from effectively using its more numerous fleet to advantage. Because of its opinion that "quantity had a quality of its own" and the insistence of Fleet Admiral Gorshkov, the Soviet Navy continued to operate many first-generation missile submarines, built in the early 1960s, until the end of the Cold War in 1991.

In some respects, including speed and reactor technology, Soviet submarines achieved unique successes, but for most of the era lagged their Western counterparts in overall capability. In addition to their relatively high speeds and great operating depths they were difficult Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) targets to destroy because of their multiple compartments, their large reserve buoyancy, and especially their double-hulled design.[8] Their principal shortcomings were insufficient noise damping (American boats were quieter) and primitive sonar technology. Acoustics was a particularly interesting type of information that the Soviets sought about the West's submarine-production methods, and the long-active John Anthony Walker spy ring may have made a major contribution to their knowledge of such.[8]

The Soviet Navy possessed numerous purpose-built guided missile submarines, such as the Oscar class, as well as many ballistic missile and attack submarines; their Typhoon-class boats are the world's largest submarines. The Soviet attack-submarine force was, like the rest of the Navy, designed for interception of NATO convoys, but also targeted American aircraft-carrier battle groups.

Over the years Soviet submarines suffered a number of accidents, most notably on several nuclear boats. The most famous incidents include the Yankee-class K-219, and the Mike-class Komsomolets, both lost to fire, and the far more menacing nuclear reactor leak on the Hotel-class K-19, narrowly averted by her captain. Inadequate nuclear safety, poor damage control, and quality-control issues during construction (particularly on the earlier submarines) were typical causes of accidents. On several occasions there were alleged collisions with American submarines. None of these, however, has been confirmed officially by the U.S. Navy, which maintains a policy of secrecy regarding nuclear incidents.


After the dissolution of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy, like other branches of Armed Forces, eventually lost some of its units to former Soviet Republics, and was left without funding. The Black Sea Fleet in particular spent several years in reserve, until 1997 when an agreement that ceded some of its ships to Ukraine was made.

Heads of the Soviet Naval Forces

Commanders of Naval Forces of the RSFSR ("KoMorSi")

  • Vasili Mikhailovich Altfater[9] (15 October 1918 – 22 April 1919),
  • Yevgeny Andreyevich Berens (24 April 1919 – 5 February 1920),
  • Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Nemits (5 February 1920 – 22 November 1921).

Commander-in-Chief's Assistant for Naval Affairs (from 27 August 1921)

Commanders-in-Chief of the Naval Forces of the U.S.S.R. ("NaMorSi") (from 1 January 1924)

People's Commissars for the U.S.S.R. Navy ("NarKom VMF USSR") (from 1938)

  • Army Commissar 1st Rank Pyotr Alexandrovich Smirnov (30 December 1937 – 5 November 1938),
  • Army Commander 1st Rank Mikhail Petrovich Frinovsky (5 November 1938 – 20 March 1939),
  • Admiral[11] Nikolai Gerasimovich Kuznetsov (from 27 April 1939).

Commanders-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy ("GlavKom VMF") (from 1943)

  • Fleet Admiral Nikolai Gerasimovich Kuznetsov (to January 1947),
  • Admiral Ivan Stepanovich Yumashev (17 January 1947 – July 1951),
  • Fleet Admiral of the Soviet Union Nikolai Gerasimovich Kuznetsov (20 July 1951 – 5 January 1956), second term,
  • Fleet Admiral of the Soviet Union Sergey Georgyevich Gorshkov (5 January 1956 – 8 December 1985), considered the officer most responsible for reforming the Soviet Navy,
  • Fleet Admiral Vladimir Nikolayevich Chernavin (8 December 1985 – December 1991; CIS Navy through August 1992).

See also


  1. ^ [The U.S.S.R.: Moscow's Military Machine The U.S.S.R.: Moscow's Military Machine], Time (magazine), June 23, 1980
  2. ^ a b Periods of Activities (1926–1941), Online (Accessed 5/24/2008), SOE CDB ME "Rubin", Russia, Saint-Petersburg
  3. ^ Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1922-1946
  4. ^ reference
  5. ^ Красный Флот (Советский Военно-Морской Флот)1943-1955 гг
  6. ^ J.E. Moore, 'The Modern Soviet Navy', in: Soviet War Power, ed. R. Bonds (Corgi 1982)
  7. ^ "The Self-Designing High-Reliability Organization: Aircraft Carrier Flight Operations at Sea." Rochlin, G. I.; La Porte, T. R.; Roberts, K. H. Footnote 39. Naval War College Review. Autumn, 1987, Vol. LI, No. 3.
  8. ^ a b Norman Polmar, Guide to the Soviet Navy, Fourth Edition (1986), United States Naval Institute, Annapolis Maryland, ISBN 0-87021-240-0
  9. ^ Military ranks were abolished in 1918–1935.
  10. ^ A naval rank from 1935.
  11. ^ Fleet Flag-officer 2nd Rank from January 1938, Admiral (June 1940), Admiral of the Fleet (February 1944), Rear Admiral (1948), Admiral of the Fleet (1953), Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union (March 1955), Vice-Admiral (February 1956), Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union (1988, posthumous).


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