Russian Ironclad Novgorod - 1874

NOVGOROD under construction
Novgorod in the shipyard, under construction in 1873.

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19th century Russia provided a ferment of ideas and technologies comparable to any other nation. It is tempting to say, "Only in Russia could such crackpot ideas receive royal patronage," but this was not the case. Not only was A.A. Popov's idea of a circular ship not yet discredited; ideas with even less merit did receive official sanction in the experimental frenzy of late-19th century invention. Along with than the many earthbound flying machines created some 40 years later, Admiral Popov's circular ironclads were among the most spectacular failures of the age. Above, Novgorod on the stocks, half of her six giant propellers projecting purposefully from beneath the turn of the hull. The ship had no external keel, only a smooth, flat-bottomed dish shape with screws and rudder protruding from the aft side; with no keel to cut and hold her in the water, she proved extraordinarily difficult to handle.

1:1200 model of the shipAndrey Alexandrovich Popov had impressive credentials as a marine architect. He was already Russia's foremost designer of ironclad warships, responsible for the Admiral Lazarev class monitors and the turret ship Piotr Veliky, one of the most advanced battleships in the world in the 1870s. In his spare time, Popov had been toying with the idea of a circular-hulled battery. The idea's selling point was that a flat-bottomed circular hull could support far bigger guns than a conventional hull of the same displacement, allowing commanders to bring heavy artillery closer inshore for more accurate bombardment. Using his considerable influence at the Russian Admiralty, Popov brought his idea to the attention of Tsar Alexander II. This far-sighted monarch (reigned 1855-1881) had freed Russia's serfs in 1860 and continued to reform many sectors of Russian society, including the armed services. The admiral emerged from his audience with enthusiastic royal backing; the circular ironclad project was soon approved by the Admiralty. Later, his enthusiasm undiminished by the ironclads' dismal performance in war, the Tsar commissioned a lavish royal yacht built on the same principles, the ill-fated Livadia.

Plan of the HENRI IVThe project that took root from these conversations became the ironclad Novgorod, named for the first trading outpost of what was to become the Russian empire. Even more of a technical challenge than the Piotr Veliky had been, she took 6 years to construct. Built at the Galerniy Yard in St. Petersburg, the ship was taken into sections and transported by railway to Sevastopol. Once there she was assembled for use on the Black Sea. There, upon her debut in 1874, she was the first and only ironclad on that body of water and -- with her two 11" muzzle-loading guns -- a definite deterrant to the Turks, who had no comparable ironclads on the Black Sea.

The ship's layout can be appreciated from the model shots at right. The gun barbette lay in the center; the two stacks on either beam, with a navigating platform, like a bridge wing, around each. The pilothouse and aft superstructure -- the true command center -- lay directly aft of the gun pit. The crew lived and ate in the low, forward deckhouse below the eminence of the barbette, with its central mast and tentlike, conical awning.

A second and larger "Popoffka" -- as the Tsar dubbed the round vessels -- followed in 1867, and was called Rear Admiral Popov in honor of its inventor. This was but a repeat of the Novgorod's features on a larger scale. Unfortunately, neither ship proved practical. With no clear bow or keel, the ships spun like a saucer and proved impossible to control at low speeds. The main guns were designed to aim and fire independently, but this too proved problematic in practice When a gun fired, it imparted centrifugal motion to the round hull. Absorbing the recoil, the ship would spin like a saucer in the opposite direction, having no deep keel to hold her in the water. A dozen shallow longitudinal bilge keels were installed to correct this defect (see rear elevation drawing); to no avail. After prolonged testing and many attempted fixes, the ships were relegated to serving as anchored batteries. They would be towed into position and firmly fixed by a triangle of taut anchor chains once there. At least there was no fault with the ships' guns, other than the partial masking of their arcs of fire by placement of the funnels -- a disadvantage readily overcome by careful positioning vis-à-vis target while anchoring. Below decks, most of the space was taken up by boilers, bunkers, and engines; like many early ironclads, the Popoffkas were poorly ventilated. They turned into virtual ovens in the torrid Ukrainian summers.

Plans and Specifications of the Novgorod

Side elevation of 1874 ironclad NOVGOROD

Side elevation of the Novgorod as outfitted for war in 1878. Some details have been omitted for clarity. These two excellent renderings are presented with the generous permission of Armour, Ship & Aircraft website.

Deck plan of the NOVGOROD
Top view of the Novgorod. Click here for awesome enlarged view!

Specifications for the Novgorod:Dimensions: 101' diameter; 12'4" draft. Displacement: 2,491 tons std.; 2,671 tons deep laden. Armament: (2) 26-ton 11" MLR, (2) 4-pdr, and (2) 37mm guns. NOTE: The 11" guns were mounted on independently rotating turntables and so could be aimed separately. Armor: Wrought-iron armor, 9" belt, 2.3" deck. Propulsion: (8) coal-fired fire-tube boilers, (6) steam engines developing 2000 ihp; six independently shafted screws. Design speed: 7 knots. Actual speed: 2 - 3 knots. Crew: 150.

Metric specifications
Dimensions: 30.78 m diameter; 3.76 m draft. Displacement: 2,491 tons std.; 2,671 tons deep laden. Armament: (2) 26-ton 280 mm MLR, (2) 4-pdr, and (2) 37mm guns. NOTE: The 11" guns were mounted on independently rotating turntables and so could be aimed separately. Armor: Wrought-iron armor, 229 mm belt, 58 mm deck. Propulsion: (8) coal-fired fire-tube boilers, (6) steam engines developing 1,492 kW; six independently shafted screws. Design speed: 13 km/hr. Actual speed: 3.7 - 5.6 km/hr. Crew: 150.

Stern elevation of the NOVGOROD
Stern elevation of the Novgorod. Click here for awesome enlarged view!

Diagram of NOVGOROD's steam engines
Arrangement of the Novgorod's engines.  Enlarge

Diagram of NOVGOROD's gun mounting
Diagram shows fine points of of the Novgorod's 280 mm muzzle-laoders and their mounting.

Photos and Pictures of the Novgorod

Bow view, model of NOVGOROD

This and other model photos show a super-detailed 1:1200 model by Sergei Myagkov; our gratitude to the modeler and his photographer. Above, the Novgorod model as viewed bows-on. An enemy of the tsarist régime would find him or herself in dire peril staring down the barrels of these huge cannon. Only the endemic incompetence of the Russian navy could save him/her!

Beam/quarter view of Ironclad NOVGOROD, c. 1874
A vintage quarter view of the Novgorod. The platforms have not yet been installed around the funnels.

Painting of NOVGOROD under power - view from astern
The Novgorod at war; watercolor by Vladimir Emyshev. She was seldom as well-behaved as this.  Enlarge

2 Popoffkas in their berth

The two Popoffkas tied up at Sevastopol in the 1880s, stern quarter towards the viewer. Evidently, the Vice Adm. Popov (left) was an enlarged repeat of the Novgorod design.

The two Popoffkas saw action in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, in which they served with the Danube flotilla. During this time they proved untenable ships, pitching intolerably in the slightest chop and rendering their crews seasick. They were towed into action stern-first. Due to undesired rotational motion, they never achieved more than a fraction of their design speed under power. Aside from infrequent target practice, they spent most of their service life tied up at base. Decommissioned in 1903, they served as store-ships for another decade. Both were scrapped in 1912.

Relevant Web Resources

Imperial Russian Yacht Livadia - 1881

Model of the LIVADIA, Tsar Alexander II's imperial yacht

History - read on.    |    Specifications    |    Photos    |    Head of Novgorod Article

So mesmerized was Tsar Alexander II by Popov's ideas on the perfection of circular vessels, that he commissioned a royal yacht based on these principles. The ostensible cause was the Empress Maria Alexandrovna's tendency to seasickness. Popov designed the Livadia to be a haven of stability no matter what the weather; but given the performance of the ship on the voyage out to the Crimea, the opposite was more likely the result. Built at John Elder & Co.'s yard in Clydebank, Scotland during 8 months in 1880, the ship was named after the Tsar's palace at Yalta (right), in which the 1945 Yalta Conference was later held.

LIVADIYA PALACE in Crimea, Tsar Alexander II's special hauntLaunched in 1880, the yacht Livadia was lavishly appointed. Decorated in high Gilded Age Gauche, her interiors were finished with the most exquisite materials: veined Carrara marble baths, vast fireplaces, leather wallpaper stamped with gold leaf patterns, the choicest rare wood paneling and marquetry. The palatial royal apartments on board rose 40 feet above the waves, complete with a large fountain, flower gardens, and other earthly delights. The vessel was intended for cruises on the Black Sea -- a notoriously stormy body of water. On the delivery trip, the ship proved unmanageable, tossing about like a cork and taking two miserable months to win her passage from Glasgow to southern Spain -- less time than Columbus required to cross the Atlantic in 1492. Even hardened sailors remained perpetually seasick during the calm voyage down the smiling Mediterranean to Istanbul; but the Grand Duke Alexis and the cream of Russian nobility, embarked for the festive inaugural journey, had long left the ship by then. They staggered down the gangplank to seek restorative therapy when she touched at Fuengirola, Spain. It seems they had already lost their taste for the Livadia's antics. In an ironic turn, Popov's attempt to try a radical alternative only ended by upholding traditional, tried-and-true principles of ship design.

So it is probably just as well the boat was never again used as a royal yacht. Only days after the ship was delivered at Sevastopol in 1881, the Tsar was assassinated by an anarchist's bomb, fatally setting back the cause of reform in Russia, and setting up a 40-year dynamic of reaction versus revolution.

LIVADIYA model, stern viewThe nation was plunged into mourning, and the poor Livadia soon had her fine fittings violated, her engines ripped out to power more practical workboats. She spent the next half century as a coal barge on the Black Sea. In the last segment of her career she lay abandoned, rusting away on a patch of shingle beach near Odessa. Her remains were finally dismembered in 1927, but not before her case was used by the Bolsheviks as a textbook example of tsarist corruption and self-indulgence. As indeed she was.

For their example of autocratic indifference and hauteur, however, the communists chose poorly. Alexander II, "the Liberator," was possibly the most enlightened and selfless of the Romanov rulers. For cruelty and for sheer incompetence, his successors, Alexander III and Nicholas II, made a far better argument for the Leninist point of view. The trend of events was illustrated by their fate: like their more worthy predecessor, both were assassinated by revolutionaries. This seething unrest laid down a path that led inexorably to the cruelest régime of all: the Stalinist dictatorship that endured from 1928 to 1953.


Specifications of the Livadia

Dimensions of the Livadia: 235' x 153' x 6'2". Displacement: 7,700 tons. Propulsion: (10) coal-fired fire-tube boilers, (3) compound steam engines developing 10,500 hp, shafted to triple screw. Screws were 16 feet in diameter(!). Design speed: 14 knots. Crew: 260.

Metric specifications
Dimensions: 71.6m x 46.6m x 1.9m. Displacement: 7,700 tons. Propulsion: (10) coal-fired fire-tube boilers, (3) compound steam engines developing 7,830 kW, shafted to triple screw. Screws were 5 meters in diameter(!). Design speed: 25.9 km/hr. Crew: 260.

Photos of the Livadia

Photo of LIVADIA in fitting-out berth
The Livadia's stern poised for launch - note triple screw and treatment of the disk section.  Enlarge

Photo of LIVADIA in fitting-out berth

The Livadia fitting out, shortly after her July 7, 1880 launch in Scotland -- a gala spectacle attended by more than 40,000. A more conventional, yachtlike hull perches precariously atop the disclike lower hull; the two are connected by sold structure and bracing struts. Crew quarters fill the forward deckhouse; posh royal apartments occupy the spacious superstructure abaft the bridge.

Photo of LIVADIA in fitting-out berth
The Livadia dimly glimps'd through the veils of Time. Yet another angle of that extraordinary hull.

Photo of LIVADIA's lavish interior
One of the imperial yacht's sumptuous parlors - a builder's photo.