The Soviet Navy’s use of the Imperial Yacht “Standart” during WWII

PHOTO: the former Imperial Yacht Standart, refitted for wartime use during the Soviet years

It seems that royal yachts are today a thing of the past. In the Russian Empire, the last was the Imperial Yacht Standart of Emperor Nicholas II. A magnificent ship that survived its owner by more than 40 years and left it’s mark on Russia’s nautical history. Why was it renamed several times? Why was the luxury yacht converted into a warship? What combat missions did she perform during the Great Patriotic War? And why did Stalin dislike this ship?

PHOTO: Emperor Wilhelm II and Emperor Alexander III

Competition between two emperors

The history of the Imperial Yacht Standart began in Denmark at the Burmeister and Vine shipyard. On 29th August 1893, Alexander III, together with Empress Maria Fedorovna and Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich [future Emperor Nicholas II], arrived on the Imperial Yacht Polar Star in Copenhagen, where the Emperor ordered the construction of the ship.

“There was an unspoken competition between Emperor Alexander III and Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany. When Wilhelm built himself the ocean yacht Hohenzollern, Alexander III decided to outdo him with an even more splendid vessel,” claims the Russian marine writer Vladimir Shigin.

On 1st November [O.S. 20 October] 1894, Alexander III died. The sovereign never stepped on board the new yacht, however, he did manage to give her a name in honour of the first ship of the Russian fleet, and the beloved frigate[1] of his ancestor Peter the Great. Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich had no idea that he would inherit not only this ship, but the entire Russian Empire the following year. The new Emperor Nicholas II travelled to Copenhagen for the launching ceremony of the Imperial Yacht Standart on 21st March 1895.

In August 1907, Nicholas wrote to his mother, that ” . . . he [Wilhelm II] so much liked the Standart that he said he would have been happy to get it as a present and that after such a yacht he was ashamed to show the Hohenzollern.”

The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna replied: “I am sure the beautiful lines of the Standart would be an eyesore to Wilhelm. Still, his joke about how happy he would be if the yacht were given him as a present was in very doubtful taste. “

“I hope he will not have the cheek to order himself one here, this would really be the limit, though just like him, with the tact that distinguishes him!”[2]

PHOTO: views of the elegant and state of the art Imperial Yacht Standart

Floating palace

On 8th September 1896, the Standart made its first trip [without sea trials] to England. The British called the yacht a “floating palace”. Black lacquered body, furniture made of fine wood, and embossed leather [instead of wallpaper], were used for its construction and interior decoration.

The state of the art Imperial Yacht had 3 masts, a displacement of 5480 tons, a length of 128 m, a width of 15.8 m, a draft of 6.6 m, a design speed of 22 knots, 24 boilers and 2 propellers. Armament – eight 47-mm guns. The sharp clipper-head bow of the Standart was decorated with a gilded double-headed eagle. The crew numbered 373 officers and sailors, for whom the Emperor knew each one by name.

On the main deck (above the engine room) were the imperial cabins. Each block of cabins for the Emperor, Empress and Empress Dowager consisted of a living room, bedroom and bathroom. The same deck housed the dining room, the saloon, the cabins of the grand dukes and princesses, the yacht officers and the ship’s wardroom. On the lower deck there were cabins for children of the imperial family, rooms for servants, crew quarters and showers. The same deck housed a radio room, dynamo enclosures, workshops and some storerooms. Below this deck, in the bow of the yacht, there was a cargo hold and a powder magazine, and in the stern – refrigerators for perishable provisions. For the crew, much better living conditions have been created than on previous Imperial yachts.

PHOTO: Pavel Dybenko and his common-law wife Alexandra Kollontai 

What happened to Standart after the revolution?

In 1917, those very sailors, personally selected by Nicholas II, took part first in the February and then in the October Revolution. The central revolutionary organ of the Baltic sailors, Tsentrobalt[3], set up their headquarters in the former Emperor’s study. Not only did they loot the ship’s expensive wood and silk, they even took the Romanovs’ family silver. “The chairman of Tsentrobalt Pavel Dybenko and his common-law wife Alexandra Kollontai slept in Nicholas II’s bedroom. That is, they enjoyed all the benefits of the Imperial Yacht’s previous owners, the very same ones the Bolsheviks condemned and accused of living better than the common Russian people”, – writes Vladimir Shigin.

In the spring of 1918, the Standart took part in the Ice Campaign[4], following an order issued by Vladimir Lenin to save the Baltic Fleet from anti-Bolshevik forces.

In 1918, having lost its guards status and renamed March 18 (in memory of the first day of the Paris Commune), the yacht was mothballed and laid up for many years in the Military Harbour of Kronstadt.

Between 1933-36, the former imperial yacht was converted into a minelayer in Leningrad. By order of the commander of the Naval Forces of the Baltic Sea Lev Mikhailovich Haller (1883-1950) of 22nd January 1934, renamed Marty, after the French communist and secretary of the Comintern[5] – André Marty (1886-1956).

On 25th December 1936, Marty officially became part of the KBF[6]. The ship was equipped with the latest devices for laying 320 mines, powerful artillery weapons (four 130-mm main guns, seven 76.2-mm universal guns, three 45-mm anti-aircraft guns and two coaxial machine guns). New steam engines were installed, providing a speed of over 14 knots and a cruising range of up to 2,300 miles.

In 1938, the ship became the flagship of the Baltic Fleet’s barrage and trawling formation. In 1939, the ship laid mines off the coast of Finland, for which she received a commendation from the Military Council of the Baltic Fleet. In the summer of 1941, Marty’s crew won the Red Banner Challenge of the People’s Commissariat of the Navy .

PHOTO: the Standart was renamed after the French communist Andre Marty

Naval battles with the participation of Marty during the Second World War

The Marty entered combat duty on 23rd June 1941. On 25th June, while performing a combat mission, Marty sank an enemy submarine. In September of the same year, it repulsed a German air raid. The ship withstood bombardment of ten enemy bombers.

In early November 1941, the Marty took part in the evacuation of the defenders of the Hanko Peninsula. Despite the damage sustained by a mine explosion, Marty took on board and transported to Kronstadt 2,029 soldiers, 60 guns, 11 mortars, shells and food, and about 800 tons of cargo.

On 3rd April 1942, Marty was one of the first in the fleet to receive the honorary title of Guards Units[7]. The Marty was awarded the honour again in 1948.

In 1948, the very same French communist Andre Marty, whose name the ship bore, criticised both Stalin and the CPSU[8], in an article, published in the newspaper L’Humanité[9]. This was enough for the name of the Frenchman to be removed from all factories and ships, and a new name was chosen for the hero ship.

Traditionally, all mine layers in the Russian fleet, have been named after large Russian rivers or lakes. Thus Marty was renamed Oka, and was converted to a floating barracks. Under it’s new name, the former Imperial Yacht served in the Soviet fleet until the end of the 1950s,

PHOTO: A still from the Soviet film “Мичман Панин” [Warrant Officer Panin]. 1960

The film “Warrant Officer Panin

The Oka embarked on its last voyage in the summer of 1960, when it was used as the auxiliary cruiser Elizabeth for the Soviet film Мичман Панин [Warrant Officer Panin] [10]. The film sounded the Imperial hymn God Save the Tsar one can only imagine the parallels? Thanks to the creators of the film, the ship can be seen in detail, including the engine room and the partially preserved interior decoration of the ship.

After filming, the ship was sent to its home harbor at Libau [today, Liepāja in Latvia] in the Baltic, where during exercises it served as a target for the testing of anti-ship missiles. In the mid-1960s, the former grand and luxurious Imperial Yacht was dismantled for scrap. Thus, one of the most famous Russian ships sunk into history.


[1] The frigate Standart was the first ship of Russia’s Baltic fleet. Her keel was laid on 24th April 1703 at the Olonetsky shipyard near Olonets. She was the first flagship of the Imperial Russian Navy and was in service until 1727.

[2] Excerpted from Dearest Mama . . . Darling Nicky: Letters Between Emperor Nicholas II and His Mother Empress Maria Feodorovna 1879-1917, published privately in 2021.

[3] The Central Committee of the Baltic Fleet (Tsentrobalt) was a high-level elective revolutionary democratic body of naval enlisted men for coordination of the activities of sailors’ committees of the Russian Baltic Fleet.

[4] The Ice Campaign was an operation which transferred the ships of the Baltic Fleet of the Imperial Russian Navy from their bases at Reval [Tallinn], and Helsinfors [Helsinki] to Kronstadt in 1918.

The Campaign was carried out in difficult ice conditions in February-May 1918. As a result of the operation, 236 ships and vessels were rescued from capture by German and Finnish troops and redeployed, including 6 battleships, 5 cruisers, 59 destroyers, 12 submarines.

[5] The Communist International (Comintern), was an international organization founded in 1919 that advocated world communism, controlled by the Soviet Union. The Comintern resolved to “struggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the state”

[6] The Red Banner Baltic Fleet ( KBF ) was an operational-strategic formation of the Navy in the armed forces of the USSR during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45).

[7] Guards units were elite units and formations in the armed forces of the former Soviet Union. These units were awarded Guards status after distinguishing themselves in service, and are considered to have elite status. The Guards designation originated during the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45, its name coming from the Russian Imperial Guard, which was disbanded in 1917 following the Russian Revolution.

[8] The Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

[9] L’Humanité is a French daily newspaper. It was previously an organ of the French Communist Party.

[10] Click HERE to watch the film on YouTube [in Russian].

© Paul Gilbert. 14 December 2021