I’m reading Constantine Pleshakov’s The Tsar’s Last Armada, about the Russian Squadron that sailed from the Baltic, around Africa and across the Indian Ocean, ultimately to meet the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. I was reminded of this fairly well-known image (above) of Russian seamen from the steam corvette Variag, taken in New York City in 1863 or 1864, during the American Civil War. At least four of the men are boatswain’s mates, as indicated by the calls (whistles) worn on chains around their necks. These are tough, experienced seamen, with probably fifty years or more of seagoing experience between them.
I thought of this image when I came across this passage in Last Armada, describing life aboard a Russian warship in 1904. Navies being what they are, I doubt that much had changed in the intervening 40 years:
Class tensions were much worse in the navy than in the army. A soldier would meet his officers exclusively during service hours. He had no idea how they ate or drank or spent their free time. Ships were another story. Sailors watched their superiors constantly. There was not much that an officer could conceal from their prying eyes.
In theory, men ate well. Meals were to be cooked with fresh meat, but it was impossible to stock enough cows or pigs to feed eight hundred men for several weeks. When the livestock supply on board was exhausted, meat had to be taken from the refrigerator of the Esperance. After the Esperance’s stock was emptied, crews were fed solonina — meat preserve of a yellowish color, often stinking and generally nauseating. On such days some sailors refused to take meals at all.
Officers had their own supply of everything. Each meal consisted of several dishes. Good cooks prepared them. Probably no officer in the Imperial Navy had ever eaten solonina — except when obliged to check the crew’s menu. Fine wine and elaborate spirits were served in the officers’ wardroom. It was both a restaurant and a club. Sounds of opera arias and Chopin mazurkas mixed with smells of exquisite sauces, coffee, liqueurs, and cigars. These sounds and smells told men of an infinitely better life. If this ignited anything in their hearts it was bitterness, if not outright hatred. No sailor could hope to become a commissioned officer. For that, he had to be born into a privileged class.
Some officers still beat their men. Many captains discouraged or prohibited this, but everybody knew that [Admiral] Rozhestvensky himself rarely felt guilty about giving a man a thrashing. When an officer was impressed with a sailor’s performance, he would buy him an extra shot of vodka or two. It was commonly believed this was the only kind of encouragement the brutes would appreciate.
For men on a warship, the day started at five o’clock in the morning, announced with a shriek of a flute on the upper deck. Immediately after that, non-commissioned officers started rousting the men. They never hesitated to use obscenities or fists; bullies by design, they usually made the point of being deliberately cruel. For this they were rewarded; some of them even shared a cabin for just two. Hundreds of sailors hastily jumped from their berths and hammocks. They had only a few minutes to dress and turn hammocks into neat, numbered cocoons. Then the cocoons had to be taken to the upper deck and put into special niches. The crew was ordered to wash. Elbowing each other, they hastily rinsed their faces with harsh seawater. The next order was “To prayer!” A priest arrived to sing the day’s hymns. Hundreds of voices on deck accompanied him.
Breakfast of bread, butter, and tea took half an hour. At seven o’clock the cleaning-up started. Decks had to be washed, brass polished, walls brushed. Shortly before eight, everybody had to be on deck in a solemn formation. The captain received reports from his senior officer, the doctor, and others. At eight o’clock sharp, simultaneously with Rozhesrvensky’s Suvorov, all ships raised the St. Andrew’s Flag, a blue cross on white that was the trademark of the Russian navy. Officers and crewmen took their caps off. Horns and drums played. The day was launched.
For two and a half hours, training proceeded. Then the cook brought a portion of the crew’s lunch to the captain: a bowl of meat soup, slices of bread, and salt. The captain had to taste the soup, and if he approved, the senior officer and head of watch had to taste it, too. All used the same spoon.
At eleven o’clock, flutes announced lunch. Men rushed to the deck where vessels with vodka already stood. Each was poured half a glass. If the meat was fresh, the soup was good: meat, cabbage, potato, beet, carrot, onion, pepper, and some wheat flour. After lunch, the crew rested for two hours, took tea for thirty minutes, and then returned to work. At half past five, all labors were finished. At six o’clock, dinner arrived, and vessels with vodka were brought to the deck again. After that the crew was free to relax. The only ceremonies remaining were the lowering of the flag and evening prayer.
Normally, crews were well fed and worked only eight hours a day, with a three-hour break in the middle. However, if something went wrong — be it the interruption of food supplies or some other emergency — the crew was the first to suffer.
A hard life, particularly when one knows the gruesome fate that awaited most of them in the Tsushima Strait .