Lesser Known Histories of the Soviet Merchant Fleet

Martin Bollinger is a McLean-based senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, specializing in aerospace and defense. He is a published author in the field of Russian maritime history, most recently of the book Stalin’s Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet and the Role of the West.

Question: How did you become interested in the history of the Soviet merchant fleet?

Bollinger: Quite by accident. I’ve always been interested in ships and maritime history. One day I was watching a program on television in Australia about the Chelyuskin and its attempt to traverse the northern sea route in 1933-34 and it was a pretty dramatic effort; it was crushed and sank. The passengers were stranded in the middle of nowhere, the United States offered assistance and Stalin refused it, and the argument the program gave for it was that there was a merchant ship stuck in the ice near the Chelyuskin called the Pizhma and supposedly 12,000 gulag prisoners died on the ship.

I became intrigued and looked into it and found out that it couldn’t have happened. I wrote an article about that… I had never published anything academically before and at that point got the bug.

Question: How did you become interested in the history of Stalin’s use of U.S. merchant ships to transport prisoners?

What I like to do is take very precise and accurate analysis of little things and bring them together to help reveal broader patterns. I find that looking at ships is interesting because they are big, slow, and expensive, and people notice them. If you can track what’s happening with the ships it helps shed light on more fundamental changes that were underway. So the idea of trying to track down the operations of this fleet and the role of not just the Soviet enterprises, but the role that other countries like the United States played in it inadvertently, helps reveal things that otherwise would go unnoticed.

I also found the level of scholarship that had been performed on this was quite low.  In some cases historians that study Russian history don’t know anything about ships, so they just take for granted when somebody says something about a ship without checking it. They made a lot of fundamental mistakes because they just didn’t look at the right data. I tend to cut across disciplines. I dabble in Russian history even though I’m not by any means knowledgeable about Russian history more than anyone else, but I’ll use the maritime information to help shed information on what was happening in that area. For example, there are a couple of enterprises in the Soviet Union at the time that were jockeying around for influence in the Russian Far East, and you can actually understand how that ebbed and flowed by how the ships were being used and who had control of them.  Nobody had looked at it from that angle before.

Question: Did you come across any new discoveries in your research?

Bollinger:  I wrote about whether a Russian freighter encountered the Japanese fleet steaming to Pearl Harbor; people speculated about it but no one ever bothered to figure out where the ships were and what routes they would have taken.

Unbeknownst to many observers there was actually a lot of movement between the United States and Russia. The U.S. started sending supplies, particularly of gasoline, to Vladivostok almost immediately after the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, well before Lend-Lease was formally established. There were all kinds of freighters going back and forth, though the path they took shifted. The U.S. had surveyed a path north of the Aleutian Islands. Ships would leave San Francisco or Los Angeles and they would go north of the Aleutians then come all the way down the coast of Kamchatka.  

People didn’t know that and assumed they were taking a southerly route. Even if they took the southerly route, if you look at the actual speed and when the ships left it would have been extraordinarily unlikely that they would have encountered each other. I checked the log book records written in 1941 of the lighthouse at the Alaskan pass to confirm that the ships were going through the pass, and they were. I tracked every single Russian ship and where it was at the time and it was relatively easy to figure out that Soviet ships and the Japanese fleet wouldn’t have been near each other.

Question: How many ships did the United States build for the Soviet merchant fleet?

Bollinger: There were 117 cargo ships provided to the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease. In addition there were four other ships that are often included in that category that shouldn’t be because they were either gifts in lieu of Italian reparations or they were salvaged by the Soviets. So the right number is 117.

Question: Why was U.S. chosen to provide these ships instead of other countries?

It was largely the fact that the U.S. had the production lines up and running and had a lot of surplus ships from World War One. When the lend-lease program was put in place it was relatively easy to transfer those ships over to the Soviet Union.

Question: How many foreign ships were used in the Gulag fleet and what was known about the role these ships were playing in the Gulag operations?

Bollinger: There were five core ships in the Gulag fleet and a bunch of other ships that were used temporarily in support of the operations. Those ships were in fact acquired from different places: three from the Netherlands, one from the UK, originally one from Sweden, and then later the United States added one. Towards the end there were six altogether. With the ships, they weren’t built [for the Soviets]; they were bought second hand, but the U.S. government did sell some ships that it owned directly to the Soviet authorities. My view is that they did not know what the ships were being used for.

If you look at the history of the operations in Kolyma, the first indications that something was going on there reached the West around 1943, when a bunch of Polish prisoners were released from the camps and made their way to the West. The curious thing was the visit by Vice President Henry Wallace to that part of the Soviet Union in 1944. He went to Magadan, but didn’t indicate anything about a massive gulag operation there. I’ve often wondered how he managed to have the wool pulled over his eyes in a pretty impressive manner when he was there. I don’t think there’s evidence that the United States knew that the ships were being used for transport operations until about 1945 or 1946, and at that point the ships had long been transferred.  The U.S. repaired a lot of the gulag ships not knowing what they were being used for. What’s interesting is that the Soviet Union took advantage of U.S. capabilities during World War II to effectively top off the gulag fleet.

Question: How did the United States react after learning that the ships they supplied were being used in prisoner transport?

Bollinger: By that time the World War II had ended, the Lend-Lease operation had declined and gone away and you had this new period of postwar bitterness and rivalry that had arisen between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. So the issues around the ships just got embedded in the broader geopolitical struggle between them after 1945.

Question: Why did the Soviet Union pay for ships rather than build them themselves? Was it from a lack of production capacity or out of convenience?

Bollinger: A little bit of both. Shipbuilding in the Soviet Union had never been that established and what little existed was largely wrecked during the Russian Civil War. The first new ships started getting built in the late 1920s, largely in Leningrad, but the capacity there wasn’t nearly large enough to sustain the needs of the Soviets.

After the October Revolution, since ships are mobile and people can take them anywhere on the sea, many ships were seized by other countries or taken away from the Soviet Union. The vast majority of the Russian civil merchant fleet before 1917 no longer existed by 1926, creating a huge need to rebuild capacity. That corresponded with the Great Depression in the late 1920s which killed trade, and so there were many used, relatively new ships in the West that the Russians could snap up at low prices. There was a buying effort that went on from 1929-1934.

Then in 1934 what little domestic shipbuilding existed for merchant ships was shifted to military ship construction as part of a general buildup of the Soviet navy. So I think the Soviets understood the concept of buying when prices are down and took up a lot of the extra capacity in the global shipping market. The NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, had its own ship buying program and they sent the head of the operations in Magadan to Europe to buy a couple of ships and he did that primarily from the Netherlands and the UK.

Question: Was there a difference in quality between Soviet and foreign ships?

Bollinger: I think the Soviets did innovate quite well in tanker technology.  If you look at oil tankers in the 1930s, some of the most innovative designs were coming out of the Soviet Union. Other than that they really lagged behind the Western nations in their construction and design technology. What often happened is they would order a couple of ships from a Western builder and then use them as a model for an internal construction program. It wasn’t until the 1950s that you really saw the Soviets catching up with world class design capabilities for merchant shipbuilding, with the exception I mentioned of tankers, where they were pretty good all along.

Question: How would you assess the current condition of the Russian merchant fleet?  

Bollinger: I try to draw an analogy of what happened in the 1920s with what happened in the last ten years. In both cases the fleet cratered. The Soviet fleet, particularly in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s boomed, but since then it’s largely declined. [By the 1980s] the capacity of the fleet grew to 3,300 ships measuring 17 million tons. That does not include the fishing fleet, which is a huge thing in itself. By 2007, so 22 years later, [the combined capacity of] Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania dropped to about 6.8 million tons.  So about 10 million tons of capacity just came away in the last 20 years, and the fleet is down by more than half.

There’s been a lot of consolidation of the shipbuilding business, which at the end of the day, is probably a necessary thing in order to achieve more world class shipbuilding capability. Nonetheless, there is a lot of idle capacity right now in the shipyards. So there’s this period where this boom happened in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and then just as equally after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with perestroika and changing world economic conditions the fleet went back to a shadow of its former self.  

-- 03/10
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Submitted by sarahs on Wed, 12/08 - 15:38.
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Submitted by sarahs on Wed, 12/08 - 15:29.
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