Admiral’s name dooms fate of Russian ships

From Ocean Navigator #139
July/August 2004
What a heavy burden is a name that has become too famous. -Voltaire (1694-1778)

When Pavel Stepanovich Nakhimov was born in Gorodok in 1802, few of the inhabitants of that tiny Russian village 120 miles west of Moscow could have guessed that this native son’s name would eventually be associated with bad-luck ships.

Pavel Nakhimov first entered Russian history books in 1853 when, as admiral of a squadron of the Russian Black Sea fleet, he blockaded – and then destroyed – most of the Turkish navy at Sinope. His name quickly became a household word across the czar’s realm, and perhaps predictably, Nakhimov’s popularity precipitated a proliferation of baby Pavels as parents proudly named their newborn male progeny for the hero of Sinope.

When the port city of Sevastopol (in the Russian Crimea) was attacked by the combined forces of Britain, France and Turkey in 1854-55 it was left to the freshly minted national celebrity (now commander of the port and military governor) to save the day. Nakhimov’s strategy for defending the city and the Russian navy’s main Black Sea base at Sevastopol proved brilliant. But on one of his many visits to inspect Russian defensive positions he was unlucky enough to be killed by a sniper’s bullet. Nakhimov assumed a mythic quality in Russia, much as Admiral Horatio Nelson had in Britain, with his name eventually lending itself to Russian monuments, schools, public buildings, medals of bravery and, not surprisingly, Russian ships.

One of these, the cruiser Admiral Nakhimov, was launched in 1885 and served in the Russian Imperial Navy during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. It was during that conflict that the cruiser suffered an ignominious end when, after being struck and disabled by a Japanese torpedo, it was scuttled by its crew to prevent capture by enemy forces.

Another luckless ship was destined to share the same watery fate of that Russian naval cruiser, some 80 years later. It began life as the German luxury liner S.S. Berlin, launched at Bremen in 1925. Berlin had a troubled past. In 1939 a deadly explosion in the boiler room killed nine of Berlin’s crew. It was sent for repairs, but while in dry dock Adolf Hitler’s Nazi government decided it would be converted to a hospital ship, in preparation for war duty. Berlin fared reasonably well until near the end of the conflict when it hit a mine and sank quickly. Given the history of this ship and its condition after the war, it is odd that the Soviet government decided to claim the sunken hulk as a prize. Berlin was raised, refurbished, and then returned to passenger configuration for Soviet use. Understandably, the Kremlin wanted to give the resurrected German passenger liner a new name. Berlin became Admiral Nakhimov.

So the former Berlin, raised from a watery grave after having suffered two deadly explosions, was given the name of another vessel that had sunk. Evidently superstition was not part of the Soviet psyche in the years following World War II. In fact, Admiral Nakhimov, ex-Berlin, went about its duties as a Soviet cruise ship without serious incident, until the night of Aug. 31, 1986. As Capt. V.G. Marko guided the vessel out of the port of Novorossiysk, it was struck fatally on the starboard side by the Soviet bulk carrier Pyotr Vasev, and sunk for a second time, with a loss of 423 lives.

Given the Nakhimov/Berlin tragedy, and the earlier Nakhimov cruiser debacle, it is beyond comprehension why Russian Navy brass in 1992 would decide to rename one of their modern Kirov-class heavy missile cruisers, a nuclear-powered ship that had been named Kalinin when launched. It was rechristened Admiral Nakhimov. Sailors serving aboard this missile cruiser who knew the fate of the two previous unlucky ships with the same name must have wondered at their superiors’ rationale in creating yet another Admiral Nakhimov, especially on a vessel powered with a nuclear reactor.

Fortunately, the nuclear-powered cruiser is still afloat. But while researching this column in December 2003, the author by chance discovered some real-time news in the Russian press. The daily newspaper Pravda reported that, on Dec. 2 at 07:23 Moscow time, a Russian tugboat sank in the Sea of Azov (a body of water connected by the Kerch Strait to the Black Sea), not far from Sevastopol, where Adm. Pavel Stepanovich Nakhimov had won acclaim almost 150 years before. The name painted on the wheelhouse of the unfortunate tug was Admiral Nakhimov.

By Ocean Navigator