Nicolas De Fer plan of St Petersburg 1717
The city of St. Petersburg began as an island fort at the mouth of the Neva River on land captured from the Swedes in 1703. From about 1712 it came to be regarded as the capital. In Russia’s battle for international recognition, St. Petersburg was much more than a useful naval base and port.
The navy, staffed mainly by foreign officers on both homebuilt and purchased ships, provided an auxiliary force in the latter stages of the Northern War, although Peter’s personal involvement in naval affairs has led some historians to exaggerate the fleet’s importance. The galley fleet was particularly effective, as exemplified at Hango in 1714.
In contrast with the army, Muscovite precedent afforded scant inspiration for the Imperial Russian Navy, the origins of which clearly lay with Peter the Great. Enamored with the sea and sailing ships, Peter borrowed from foreign technology and expertise initially to create naval forces on both the Azov and Baltic Seas. The best known and most successful of Peter’s technical schools was the Moscow School of Mathematics and Navigation (1701; from 1715, the St. Petersburg Naval Academy), which was run by British teachers.
Although the Russian navy would always remain “the second arm” for an essentially continental power, sea-going forces figured prominently in Peter’s military successes. In both the south and north, his galley fleets supported the army in riverine and coastal operations, then went on to win important Baltic victories over the Swedes, most notably at Gangut/Hanko (1714). Peter also developed an open-water sailing capability, so that by 1724 his Baltic Fleet numbered 34 ships-of-the-line, in addition to numerous galleys and auxiliaries. Smaller flotillas sailed the White and Caspian Seas.
More dependent than the army on rigorous and regular sustenance and maintenance, the Imperial Russian Navy after Peter languished until the era of Catherine II. She appointed her son general admiral, revitalized the Baltic Fleet, and later established Sevastopol as a base for the emerging Black Sea Fleet. In 1770, during the Empress’ First Turkish War, a squadron under Admiral Alexei Grigorievich Orlov defeated the Turks decisively at Chesme. During the Second Turkish War, a rudimentary Black Sea Fleet under Admiral Fyedor Fyedorovich Ushakov frequently operated both independently and in direct support of ground forces. The same ground–sea cooperation held true in the Baltic, where Vasily Yakovlevich Chichagov’s fleet also ended Swedish naval pretensions. Meanwhile, in 1799 Admiral Ushakov scored a series of Mediterranean victories over the French, before the Russians withdrew from the Second Coalition.