The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
In 1703, Peter the Great had barely founded St. Petersburg and Russia’s decisive victory at Poltava in its Northern War with Sweden (1700-1721) was still six years off. To protect the country’s new frontier, Peter needed a navy on the Baltic.
Peter had been enthralled by sailing since an early age, and he acquired essential boatbuilding skills on the docks of Holland and Britain during his Grand Embassy, an 18-month journey to Europe in 1697-98. The tsar traveled incognito, as Peter Mikhailov, and labored with simple carpenters, not shunning difficult work. His own knowledge and the craftsmen he lured back to Russia enabled the creation of a great new fleet.
So it was that, in the spring of 1703, on the Olonetsk dock of the small town Lodeynoye Pole, the keel was laid for the first flagship of the Baltic fleet, the frigate Shtandart. For six months, 150 carpenters, blacksmiths, riggers, and sailmakers worked to complete it.
Atop the frigate’s mainmast fluttered a bright-yellow flag, His Majesty’s standard, featuring a two-headed eagle, the symbol of the Russian Empire. Each beak and each set of talons clutched a map showing the contour of a sea: to the Caspian, Azov, and White Seas was now added the Baltic, whose shores had been retaken from Sweden that year. The updated imperial flag also gave the ship built to lead the Baltic fleet its name: the Shtandart (“the standard”). The first ship’s first captain was Emperor Peter himself, officially listed at Peter Mikhailov.
So glorious a start would seem to herald an illustrious military future, but that prospect was never fully realized. The frigate saw few battles in the Northern War, and spent most of the time patrolling the Empire’s new borders. Since frigates were known for their speed and agility, they were typically used for gathering intelligence and protecting borders.
In 1719, however, the ship was “put out to pasture” in St. Petersburg’s Skipper’s Canal. Worms had eaten through its hull. Wood is not the most long-lasting of materials, and in their rush to create the new Baltic fleet the craftsmen had not taken enough time to properly dry the lumber. As a result, it was prone to rot, an affliction that could take down the greatest of fleets.
Years passed. The reign of Peter the Great came to an end, and in 1725 his wife ascended the throne, taking the name of Catherine I. During an inspection of imperial ships two years later, Catherine ordered that the decrepit Shtandart be taken out of the water, restored, and maintained as a monument to Peter. Sturdy cables were laid under the ship’s hull. The hoists creaked under the ship’s weight, and suddenly the cables cut through the worm-eaten wood, breaking Peter’s Shtandart to pieces. When Catherine found out, she issued a decree for the frigate to be built anew, to glorify Peter’s reign. “In honor of the name given by His Majesty Peter the First,” the decree read, “a new frigate shall be rebuilt and renewed.”
But as happens so often in Russia, it can take a bit of time from a measure’s signing to its execution...
To read more, follow the "Purchase Back Issue" link from the full story listing for this issue.
Free Weekly Russia File newsletter. Exclusive discounts.