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N.A. Kalanov "Names of the Russian Submarines"

A ship begins with its name
/Russian proverb/

The name of a ship usually arouses such a feeling in every seaman
that is difficult to describe briefly because it is not at all loud
but extremely subtle, delicate and modest. This feeling comes
straight from the heart, from the very bottom of the beautiful, fearless and masculine seaman’s soul.

Leonid Sobolev


The construction of the first Russian submarine has a direct connection to the name of the founder of the Russian Fleet – Peter I. In 1718, Peter was presented a petition from a Moscow peasant Efim Nikonov, where he wrote that he was able to build such a vessel that could destroy ships in the open sea with a help of shells and “swim in the waters secretly without being noticed”, i.e., without showing up from the water depths. Peter appreciated this important invention at its true value, and in January 1720 he issued a decree to start the submarine construction process. In all the official documents of that time it was called a “secret vessel’. Four years later at the Saint-Petersburg Galley Yard they started launching the vessel, but, unfortunately, its bottom was damaged and the test was terminated. After the death of the great Russian emperor, the royal patronage and interest to Nikonov’s invention faded, and the vessel “due to dilapidated condition” was condemned to demolition.

"Secret Vessel" made by Efim Nikonov
“Secret Vessel” made by Efim Nikonov (1721)


However, the first Russian submarine was not completely forgotten. Grateful descendants remember it and are still proud of its inventor and constructor. Without its own personal name, this vessel went down in the history of the Russian Fleet bearing the name of “Nikonov’s Secret Vessel”, and the year of its construction can be considered the year of the Russian Underwater Fleet foundation.

During the next decades, the idea of submarine construction never left the minds of the Russian shipbuilders and engineers; however, there were no technical solutions available at that time for the implementations of their plans.

Serial construction of submarines began after 1902 when engineer I.G. Bubnov built a submarine named the “Dolphin”.

Submarine the "“Dolphin”"
Submarine the “Dolphin” (1904 )


During the reign of Peter the Great, there existed a strict order in accordance with which it was the head of the state – the tsar or, on his behalf, the Naval Ministry (Admiralty Board) – who approved the warship names. By the beginning of the XX Century, the Naval Ministry had worked out a thorough ship-naming system following which certain classes of ships were given the names in accordance with the established tradition. For example, submarines, being “the new type of weaponry” had to bear names of “fish, animals and birds which sound noble, harmonious and euphonic”. These names should symbolize the military purpose and character of those submarines: invisibility and ruse of the maneuvers, risk and suddenness of attack. That way, the following submarine names appeared at the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea Fleets: “Cachalot”, “Whale’, “Ruff”, “Sea-Eel”, “Wild Boar”, “Cheetah”, “Tiger” and even the mythical “Unicorn”.

There were several vessels with “non-standard names”. For example, the Northern Fleet had a ship called “Pochtovy” (“Mail Ship”) that was built following the project of S. Dzhevetskiy, and “St. George” (it was named after the shipbuilding firm “Fiat – San – Georgio” where it was constructed). The Baltic Sea Fleet added to its arsenal a vessel “Field-Marshal Count Sheremetiev” that was built on the money voluntarily raised by the people of Russia and named in honour of the Russian commander, the first Russian Filed-Marshal-General and the hero of the 1709 Poltavskaya Battle.

Underwater minelayer "“Crab”"
Underwater minelayer “Crab” (1915)


Names of several pre-revolution submarines have gone into the history of the Russian shipbuilding and the military chronicles of our Fleet. First of all, these are the world’s first minelayer “Crab” and active participants of the military operations during the World War I such as the “Seal”, the “Wolf”, the “Walrus” and the “Panther”.

The “Panther” has a truly remarkable, heroic wartime history. Built in august 1916, the “Panther” became the world’s unique submarine that had been engaged in all the three wars: Imperialistic War, Civil War and the Great Patriotic War. During the military campaign of 1916, its crew destroyed an enemy’s gunboat and a ship – these were its first-won victories. After the October Revolution, the “Panther” took part in the legendary Ice cruise of the Baltic Sea Fleet, in the defense sea operations of Petrograd, in the battles against the Finnish ships on the Lake Ladoga. On 31 August, 1919, the “Panther” ruined the English destroyer “Winner” of the latest design near the Sekar Island. This victory opened the battle scoring of the enemies’ ships ruined by the Soviet submariners! It was this deed that made the “Panther” famous all over the world. It aroused not only elation, admiration and pride among the defenders of the Soviet Republic but also fierce rage and hatred among the enemies. After the Civil war, the ship was used as a training ship for the military drill and training of submariners. In 1922 the “Panther’ was renamed in “Commissar”, although the seamen kept calling it by its former name. In a sense, it was a display of love and loyalty to their ship, especially because for all of them the name of “Panther” was a synonym for the glorious days and triumphant victories of the past. During the Great Patriotic War, the ship carried out a military reconnaissance campaign, and later the “veteran” was used as a recharge station. The service life of this submarine was as long as 40 difficult marine years. Nowadays, a special memorable insignia “In the memory of the “Panther”” has been issued specially for the seamen-veterans – it is a unique distinctive decoration in our Fleet that is connected with the submarine name.

The next page in the history of the ship names was opened during the years of the October Socialist Revolution. Seamen of the Red Workers’ and Peasants’ Fleet laid the new foundation of the Soviet ship-naming tradition. Back in the war days of May 1920, the ship “St. George” was the first to be given a new “proletarian” name of “Communard”.

In July 1920, in the city of Nilokaev which was situated on the Black Sea, a submarine of “AG”-type “AG-23” was launched (“American Golland” – name of the engineering department that was responsible for the ship hull and details construction), and the foundations of the new submarine “AG-24” were also laid there. Following this remarkable occasion, a meeting was organized where all the seamen present unanimously decided that “AG-24” should be called in honour of Anatoliy Vasilievich Lunacharskiy, commissioner of the Communist Party Central Committee, who was sent by V.I. Lenin to participate in this meeting. The next submarines of this series were named as follows: “AG-25” – “Tovarisch Trotskiy” and “AG-26” – “Tovarisch Kamenev”.

After the Civil War, the restoration of the military fleet began. Old submarines, that had already served their time, were repaired and equipped with new installations and crews; the ship construction works, which had been terminated due to the war, were resumed. In the beginning of 1923, many Soviet Navy warships were given new names that reflected the spirit of those revolutionary times. The pathos and zeal of the class struggle was also reflected in the newly-established traditions. Soon the boards of the warships could boast of the names that clearly pointed out whose interests and ideas the Red seamen were now protecting. The following names were given to the ships which were defending the Baltic Sea boundaries: the “Worker”, the “Farm Labourer”, the “Proletarian”, the “Communard”, the “Tovarisch”, the “Red Navy Man”, the “Red Army Man”, the “Commissar”, the “Bolshevik”. The Black Sea boundaries were protected by the “Miner” (former “Nezamozhny”, till 31.12.1922 “AG-23”), the “Marxist” (former “Tovarisch Trotskiy”), the “Political Worker” (former “Tovarisch Kamenev”), the “Communist” (former “Tovarisch Lunacharskiy”).

Renaming of the latter 3 ships can be explained by the fact that by that time the Navy had had a tradition to name the destroyers in honour of the Party leaders while the submarines were to be named after the established revolutionary symbols and signs. Following this tradition, such ship names as “Stalin”, “Trotskiy”, “Zinoviev’, “Rykov” appeared. Nowadays, we believe that it is not acceptable to name a war ship in honour of a living person, but in those times it was perceived as an absolutely natural sign of respect to those people who were in power and had significantly contributed to the Revolution and Civil war. All the more so since the issue of the Fleet and Navy restoration was indeed of the highest priority, causing sleepless nights to the Communist Party government. Apart from the private visits which the party members paid to these ships, the patronage and protection of the crews was becoming more and more popular with the heads of the government. For instance, M.V. Frunze, the chairman of the USSR Revolutionary Military Council, was proclaimed a honorary seaman of the submarine “Political Instructor” (former “Nerpa”/”Seal”), whereas I.V. Stalin, the Secretary General of the USSR Communist Party Central Committee, was attached to the submarine “Communist” as a honorary Red Navy submariner.

In 1925, the USSR Revolutionary Military Council adopted a new military shipbuilding programme where a special attention was focused on the submarines construction. That is why the first warship, designed by the soviet engineers and constructors, was a submarine. Following this project, a series of submarines appeared: the “Decabrist” (D-1), the “Narodovolets” (D-2), the “Red Army Man” (D-3), the “Revolutionist” (D-4), the “Spartakovets” (D-5), the “Jacobean” (D-6). These symbolic names have a direct connection to the Russian and International Revolutionary Movement. So they continued the well-established ship-naming tradition which not only reflected the stages of the working people’s struggle for freedom but also emphasized the succession of different generations of revolutionists as well as soviet people’s deep-seated faith in the revolutionary ideas and ideals.

Among the above-mentioned names one is especially worth noting and that is the name of “Spartakovets”. It is not at all difficult to trace the origin of this name – the submarine “D-5” was named in honour of the members of the revolutionary organization “Spartak Union” which was set up during the World War I by the German social-democracy party leaders. They were fighting against the German intervention into the Soviet Union Republic and were trying hard to disclose and unmask the predatory practices and extortionate nature of the war.

Unfortunately, the following submarine names broke the naming tradition. Thus, while constructing the new minelayers it was initially planned to name the first one “Leninist” (“L-1”), the following ones should be named “Marxist” (“L-2”), “Bolshevik” (“L-3), “Garibaldiets” (L-4), “Chartist” (L-5), “Carbonari” (L-6). However, in the process of construction the submarines “L-2” and “L-3” were renamed accordingly in “Stalinist” and “Frunzovets”. This resulted in the violation of the old marine tradition, in compliance with which there should not be two ships in the Navy which were named after a person, even though these names were different.

After such a precedent, a new tradition of the Soviet submarines naming was created. The next submarines bearing “people’s names” were: “Voroshilovets” (“L-7”), “Dzerzhinets” (“L-8”), “Kirovets” (“L-9”), “Menzhinets” (“L-10”). In 1936 the Chief Naval Committee made a decision on granting the next submarines of Leninets-type the following names: “Sverdlovets” (“L-11”), “Molotovets” (“L-12”), “Kuybyshevets” (“L-13), “Kalininets” (“L-14”), “Chapaevets” (“L-15”), “Bluherovets” (“L-16”), “Ezhovets” (“L-17”), “Smirnovets” (“L-18”) and “Gorkovets” (“L-19”).

The appearance of such names was a direct result of the cult of the “leaders of the nation” which was established in that historical period. Each new ship name was presented in the press as a “working people’s will and their love” to the Party leaders. While in reality, none of these names could be accepted as a name for any ship without being prior approved by Stalin, the ‘Farther of the Navy”. It was actually his “royal” benevolence and goodwill that the Navy ship names were dependent on.

However, such practice of ship-naming frequently experienced failures. Each new wave of repressions, which used to sweep over the high-rank officials, made it obligatory to rename those ships which had been named in honour of those individuals who turned out to be the “enemies of the Soviet people”. And there were many such individuals, namely: Trotskiy, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Bluher, Smirnov, Tukhachevskiy, Ezhov, etc. In order to stop this frequent renaming, in 1938 the Chief Naval Council made a decision on giving alphanumerical names to submarines and minelayers instead of personal names. That is why the submarines of “Leninist” type, beginning with L-11, were given only serial numbers.

There used to be another ship-naming tradition in the Soviet Navy. For example, for the submarines of “Sch-series” (“Schuka”) an ancient marine tradition was applied, namely they were named after “fish names” such as “Schuka”/”Pike” (“Sch-301”), “Okun”/”Perch” (“Sch-302”), “Ersh”/”Ruff” (“Sch-303”) and others. Pre-revolution Navy was equipped with more than 40 vessels bearing different fish names.

By the way, one submarine of the above-mentioned series, “Sch-304”, has a very interesting story of construction and naming.

In 1922, following the resolutions of V.I. Lenin and the Communist Party Central Committee, given an important role played by the Navy in the country’ defense capacities, at the V Conference of the Russian Youth Communist League it was decided to take the Red Navy under their patronage. At the 12-year anniversary of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, the Central Committee of the Leninist Young Communist League chose to raise money, build a submarine during a year and name it “Member of the Komsomol”. A newspaper ”Komsomolskaya Pravda” published a poem “Submarine Komsomolets’ written by Vladimir Mayakovskiy:

Frightening the enemies’ ships,
Open your mouth with a honk;
We will build a submarine
On the Komsomol rubles.

The soviet youth responded to this patriotic call with enthusiasm and ardent zeal. In a year, on the 23d of February 1930, on the Day of the Soviet Army the foundations of the submarine “Sch-304” were laid, it was named “Komsomolets”/”Member of the Komsomol”. Thus, the tradition to build submarines with “komsomol” names started.

It is interesting that during these years a former English submarine “L-55” was adopted in the Red Banner Baltic Sea Fleet.

During the Civil war, this submarine participated in the English intervention against our country. On 4 June, 1919, near Kronshtadt, “L-55” was wrecked by cannonade of the minelayer “Gavriil”. In the end of 1929, specialists of Epron (Divers Organization of special purposes) managed to refloat and restore it, and after that the submarine started its service time under the red Banner. “The Englishwoman”, as our seamen used to jokingly call it, reserved to itself its former number “L-55”. It was done according to the old marine tradition. As far back as Peter’s time, the captured ships were allowed to keep their former names after their adoption in the Russian Fleet. And in this case as well, the “Englishwoman” was meant to remind our enemies of the fact that Russian Navy was always on alert and ready to protect the borders of the Soviet Union.

After 1940, the former ships of the bourgeois Estonia (“Lembit”, “Kalev”) and Latvia (“Ronis”, “Spidola”), which were named in honour of the ancient epic heroes of the Baltic countries, were adopted in the USSR Navy.

Among the Soviet submarines, which had personal names, there were three submarines of “P” type. They were named after the central newspapers of the Bolshevik Party such as “Pravda’, “Zvezda”, “Iskra” (initially they wanted to name them “Pravdist”, “Chekist”, “Iskrovets’).

However, not all the Soviet submarines had personal names; lots of them used to serve bearing different numbers on their boards. They used to call them “numbered”. While the seamen tenderly called them “Maluytka”/”Little one” (submarines of “M” type), “Katyusha” (“K”-type), “Eski” or “Stalinist” (“S”-type) and “Leninist” (“L”-type). Each of those submarines has a unique service history and is stamped in the people’s memory. On the whole, by 22 June, 1941 there were 212 submarines in the Soviet Navy.

Our Motherland has undergone a terrible ordeal and that was the Great Patriotic War. It made it absolutely clear that the importance of the underwater fleet just could not be overestimated as well as heroism, valour and patriotism of the Soviet submariners. Despite all the difficulties, trials and tribulations of the war times, the construction and modernization of the ships never stopped.

During those rough war times, the Naval General Headquarters had to cancel their decision on ship-naming prohibition of 1938. It was done due to the following events.

In the end of 1942, the widow of L.M. Lobodenko, a naval political worker, made a proposal for the government to address the seamen’ wives to collect money for the construction of a submarine which was to be named the “Revenge”.

18 June, 1943, a submarine with the above-mentioned name was put into service. Patriotic movement, which was initiated at the Northern Fleet, became very popular with the Soviet people, and it gave a powerful spur to the enhancement of the nation activity. Soon the Fleet received new submarines built on the financial support of the working people: the “Donbass Fisherman” (M-202), the “Heroic Sebastopol” (C-14), the “Irkutsk Fisherman” (M-203), “Kolkhoznitsa” (C-15), the “Soviet Svanetia” (C-17), the “Hero of the USSR Nurseitov” (C-16). By the way, the latter submarine, built on the money raised by the Kazakhstan Communist Party members, was named in honour of a living person. Nurseitov, marines brigade signalman, did not die the death of a hero in the battle, but was held prisoner. After the war, he came back to his Motherland.

During the war, the tradition to build submarines on the money raised by the Soviet Komsomol Members and youth expanded. Altogether, during the war, there were 16 submarines built on their money.

The following submarines were put in service at the Komsomol Flotilla: the “Yaroslavskiy Komsomolets” (M-104), the “Chelyabinskiy Komsomolets” (M-105), the “Novossibirskiy Komsomolets” (M-107), the “Leninskiy Komsomol” (M-106).

The war was finished; the Fleet received new, more powerful ships. The next generation of the Navy seamen keeps on carefully preserving the glorious traditions established by the Soviet seamen. And, of course, the best way of showing our respect and deep, sincere appreciation to the fallen valiant warships is to place their names on the boards of the modern ships.

In order to “celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the V.I. Lenin’s birthday and with the purpose of educating the new generation of seamen and inculcating in them respect and worship to the glorious revolutionary and military traditions”, a modern nuclear-powered missile carrying submarine was named “Leninist”. The submarine inherited this name from a heroic diesel submarine which had been engaged in the Baltic Sea military operations and wrecked while carrying out its mission on November 1941. The names of the most famous Northern Fleet submarines-heroes were granted to the modern atomic-powered vessels such as “Yaroslavskiy Komsomolets”, “Chelyabinskiy Komsomolets” and “Red Guard Man”.

The tradition of “komsomol” names kept on developing. The following names were quite popular and widely-spread: “Ulianovskiy Komsomolets”, “Pskovskiy Komsomolets”, “Magnitogorskiy Komsomolets”, etc.

The first nuclear-powered submarine 627 "Leninskiy Komsomol"
The first nuclear-powered submarine 627. "Leninskiy Komsomol”


The memory of the atomic-powered vessel “Leninskiy Komsomol” is especially piously revered. Its crew proved that they were worthy of bearing the name of their famous predecessor – submarine “M-106” which had had the same name and had died in those war times. In 1962, the “Leninskiy Komsomol”, for the first time in the history of the Soviet Navy, undertook a lengthy cruise under eternal ice of the Arctic Ocean. This submarine’s name is immortalized on the World map: the “Leninskiy Komsomol” – this how one of the peaks of the underwater Gakkel mountain ridge in the Arctic Ocean was called. This is the only one geographical name on the World map, which was given in honour of the Soviet submarine.

Of course, the events following the termination of the Great Patriotic War got their reflection in the ship-naming procedure. Unfortunately, not all of those names can be considered successful. Among these were the so-called “ceremonial”, “jubilee” names like “USSR 50-year Anniversary” or “Great October Revolution 60-year Anniversary”. Such “non-marine” names, which did not win the sympathy of the Russian seamen, were also rather inconvenient.

The tradition of “komsomol” names lasted that long only due to the directives and pressure coming from “above”. It happened so that nowadays there are more than 50 ships and submarines with “komsomol” names. Is it worth continuing this tradition? After all, members of Komsomol do not raise money for the ship construction any more, and the Komsomol itself is no longer what it used to be.

Nevertheless, I truly believe that the military Soviet seamen traditions should be preserved. Let this wonderful tradition of succession in giving the new atomic vessels the names of the heroic ships live so that these names would always remind the new generations of the glorious Soviet past and bring up the defenders of our Motherland in a proper way.


About the author

Nikolay Aleksandrovich Kalanov was born 1956. He graduated from the Higher Naval Engineering College. He served in the marine and space forces of the USSR Armed Forces for 20 years. Author of more than 20 papers and article dedicated to the marine themes. Dominant theme of his works is marine folklore, superstitions, history of the Fleet, history and traditions of ship-naming. He is an author of 3 books “Directory of the Collectors” M…1989; “How to start and register a business in Moscow” M…1992; “The Sea – The Great Journey”. Collection of proverbs and sayings of different nations about the seas, seamen and fish, fishery, sea flora and fauna. M…1995.