Historically, ships were predominantly built to sail through temperate or mild waters but would struggle through extreme temperatures and climates. Ships eventually began to be purpose-built for the world’s polar regions and colder seas, with icebreakers becoming popular for both polar exploration and for the trade and defence of countries surrounded by ice water and pack ice.
Defining features of icebreakers included thick hulls, wide and usual bow shapes and powerful engines. They would work by forcing the bow of the ship through the ice, breaking or crushing it. If the bow was unable to break through the ice, many icebreakers could also mount the ice and crush it beneath the hull of the ship. It was with the icebreaker Agulhas II that the Endurance22 expedition was able to locate Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship.
To ensure economic prosperity and to have a military advantage in the icy Arctic waters, Russia needed to build the best and most durable icebreakers in the world. As such, Russia led the way in the development and construction of icebreakers. Here are 5 of the most famous Russian icebreaker ships in history.
1) Pilot (1864)
Pilot was a Russian icebreaker built in 1864 and is considered to be the first true icebreaker. She was originally a tug boat that had been converted into an icebreaker by having its bow altered. Pilot‘s new bow had been based on the designs of the historic koch ships (wooden Pomor ships that had been used around the White Sea since the 15th century). Once the conversion was finished, Pilot was used in the navigation of the Gulf of Finland, part of the Baltic Sea.
Pilot‘s ability to continue to operate during the colder months led to her design being purchased by Germany, which hoped to build ships that would be able to break through the ice in the port of Hamburg and other parts of the country. Her design would influence many other icebreakers throughout Europe.
2) Yermak (1898)
Another contender for the world’s first true icebreaker is the Russian Yermak (also known as Ermack). She was built in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in 1897-1898 for the Russian Imperial Navy (due to the superiority of British shipbuilding and lack of adequate yards in Russia, many Russian icebreakers were built in Britain). Under the supervision of Vice-Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov, the design of Yermak was based on that of Pilot. Her superior strength and power meant that Yermak could break through ice up to 2m thick.
Yermak had a varied career that included setting up the first radio communication link in Russia, helping to rescue other ships that had become trapped in the ice and serving in World War One and World War Two. She saw action after the Battle of Hanko in 1941, which she supported the evacuation of Soviet soldiers out of Finland.
Yermak was retired in 1964, making her one of the longest-serving icebreakers in the world. She was important to the people of Russia and had a monument dedicated to her in 1965.
3) Lenin (1917)
One of the most famous icebreakers in history was the Russian Lenin, formally St. Alexander Nevsky. Following her construction at the Armstrong Whitworth yard in Newcastle, she was launched during the midst of World War One. The timing of her launch, shortly after the February Revolution in 1917, meant that she was immediately acquisitioned by the British Royal Navy and commissioned as HMS Alexander, serving in the North Russia campaign.
In 1921, Lenin was given back to Russia, now the Soviet Union. When she was ordered by the Russian Imperial Navy her name was to be St. Alexander Nevsky in honour of Alexander Nevsky, a key figure in Russian royal history. At the request of the Soviet government, and to represent the political change of Russia, she was named Lenin.
Lenin supported convoys through the Arctic Siberian waters, helped establish the Northern Sea Route (opening global trade for Russia) and served in World War Two. She was scrapped in 1977.
4) Lenin (1957)
Another Russian vessel named Lenin was launched in 1957, and it was the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker. Nuclear power in shipping was an important step in maritime engineering. It meant that ships that were required to be at sea for prolonged periods of time or operated in extreme climates could do so without worrying about refuelling.
Lenin had a remarkable career clearing ice for cargo ships along the treacherous north Russian coast. Her service, and the dedication of her crew, led to the Lenin being awarded the Order of Lenin, the highest civilian decoration for services to the state. Today, she is a museum ship in Murmansk.
5) Baikal (1896)
A slightly different icebreaker, Baikal was built in 1896 in Newcastle upon Tyne to operate as a ferry on Lake Baikal, linking the eastern and western portions of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. When the Civil War broke out in Russia in 1917, Baikal was used by the Red Army and equipped with machine guns.
In 1918 Baikal was damaged during the Battle of Lake Baikal, a naval battle between Czechoslovakia and Russia during the Russian Civil War. This brought an end to her career as she was subsequently dismantled in 1926. It is believed that parts of the ship are still at the bottom of the lake.