The Almaz was built at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg as an armed yacht for Viceroy Yevgeny Alexeiev -- bastard son of Tsar Alexander II, and thus the illegitimate uncle to Tsar Nicholas II. A skillful gamesman at court, Alexeiev parlayed his influence with the Tsar into an appointment as ruler of the recently acquired colonies in Manchuria and the Russian Pacific seaboard. The Almaz was to transport the Viceroy in style, attended by a picked Russian Navy crew. Typical of imperial Russian practice at the time, the cost of the Romanovs' personal extravagance was heaped upon the Russian people; and no emissary of Petersburg outdid the extravagance, arrogance and stupidity of Alexeiev. A favorite of the Tsar's, the Viceroy did his best to provoke the Russo-Japanese War. Having brought on the war, Alexeiev then did his autocratic best to lose it by arguing with the C-in-C and the remaining generals and admirals. When he didn't get his way, he used his influence at court to throw his weight about arbitrarily. The ship that was to be his floating home followed in the tradition of official yachts such as the Admiralty yacht Enchantress in the Royal Navy and Teddy Roosevelt's Mayflower in the USN.
With svelte lines tapering to a clipper bow with bowsprit, Almaz was one of the loveliest warships afloat. Her 3-masted rig imitated the many schooner-rigged racing yachts of the time, but she never spread any canvas beyond a steadying sail or two in a big blow. She was bound to be a focal point in any naval review or other display of military ceremony. Her sumptuous Viceregal Suite, magnificently paneled and decorated, served for entertainment and accommodation of distinguished guests. A gourmet galley, cold locker, and wine cellar stocked with priceless vintages contributed to the Edwardian excess of the Viceroy's little parties. At the same time, the ship had an up-to-date communications room with high-quality German radio equipment so he could track developments and issue orders while cruising in complete comfort.
The ship's name means "diamond" -- joining her with Izumrud (Emerald) and Zhemchug (Pearl) in the tsar's Gemstone Fleet. As a warship, Almaz' value was small. Beyond the 50 mm of Krupp Cemented on her three 5" gun shields, she carried not a bit of armor, no torpedoes, and only a sketchy assortment of 2" and 3" guns. But as she had a good turn of speed, she was thought to be usable as a despatch vessel (aviso) in a pinch. Even so, in the one great action she joined, the fleet included more suitable messengers -- the 24-knot small cruisers Izumrud and Zhemchug, both of them genuine warships.
Specifications for the Almaz:
Dimensions: 365'10" OA x 43'8" x 16'5" LWL: 325'2". Displacement: 3,338 tons. Armament (1903): (4) 3", (8) 2" guns. 1905 revision: (3) 4.7", (10) 3", and (2) 2" 3-pdr guns. Armor: 50 mm KC on 4.7" gun shields. Propulsion: (16) coal-fired Belleville boilers; (2) inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 7,945 hp, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 21 kts. Fuel capacity: 800 tons of coal. Endurance: 3,350 nm @ 10 kts. Crew: 295.
Dimensions: 111.5m OA x 13.3m x 5m LWL: 99.1m. Displacement: 3,338 tons. Armament (1903): (4) 75 mm and (8) 47 mm guns. 1905 armament: (4) 75 mm, (10) 75 mm, and (2) 47 mm. Armor: 50 mm Krupp on 75 mm gun shields. Propulsion: (16) coal-fired Belleville boilers; (2) inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 5,925 kW, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 36.1 km/hr. Fuel capacity: 800 tons of coal. Endurance: 6,200 km @ 19 km/hr. Crew: 295.
It is a mark of the Russians' desperation that Almaz was recruited to join the relief fleet sent out to Port Arthur in late 1904 -- the Baltic Fleet reclassified as the Second Pacific Squadron, to replace the Pacific Squadron sunk or disabled by Japan. True, in 1904 Almaz was new and her engines were in prime condition. Preparing for the mission, her armament was enhanced with three 4.6" guns and an additional four 3-inchers. Her posh saloons were stripped for duty as supplementary bunker space on the 18,000-mile trip. She departed Oct. 16 with the 48-ship armada of R. Adm. Zinovy P. Rozhdeztvensky, operating as a unit of the First Cruiser Division under Adm. Oskar Enkvist.
The nightmarish voyage out has been related elsewhere in this site. Almaz' name does not pop up as a noteworthy performer or sufferer on the long trip. Upon making contact with the Japanese, her instructions were to flee, using her superior speed (10 knots faster than the designated uniform speed) to dash for Vladivostok, bringing despatches and news of the fleet's approach. This she did as the Russians steamed into the jaws of Togo's waiting Japanese battle fleet. She traded shots with Japanese cruisers, but put on all speed and escaped while watching the initial phases of the Russian débacle through long telescopes.
At the Second Pacific Squadron's destination, anticipation was high -- anticipation tinged with dread. A contemporary chronicler, Sidney Tyler, relates:
"For two days, Vladivostok had been buzzing with rumor and excitement. The fact that a battle between the rival fleets was imminent ... was made known through telegrams from Europe, and when it was learned Monday morning that a Russian cruiser had been sighted off Askold Island, headed for the harbor, the city was filled with the wildest reports....
"The inhabitants clustered in the streets, thronged the waterside, or climbed the frowning hills overlooking the harbor for a better view. Finally, toward 6 o'clock in the evening, a graceful cruiser with two snowy-white stacks, shot in view at the entrance to the Golden Horn and rounded to an anchorage beneath the bristling guns of the curving promontory. From afar the broken stump of her mizzen-mast and a shot hole showing black upon the white paint of one stack indicated that the cruiser had encountered the Japanese. As the anchor chain rattled in the hawse holes, the vessel wreathed itself in smoke -- it was an admiral's salute in honor of R. Adm. von Jessen. Scarcely had the boom of the last cannon begun to echo from the surrounding hills when von Jessen's flagship, the cruiser Rossiya, answered the salute, and a minute later the guns of the fortress took up the cannonade.
"Excitement beyond description seized the thronging spectators who, with frantic 'huzzas,' tossed high their caps.
"In a trice the boats were dropped from the davits, and in a moment the officers of the cruisers and torpedo boats in the harbor and the military officials from the fortress were swarming on board the Almaz to learn news of the fight.
"The story was short. According to the officers of the ship, the fleet under Rozhdestvensky met the Japanese ... near Tsu Island (sic) and the opposing fleets immediately closed in. Being lightly armored, the Almaz ... separated itself from the main fleet at the first opportunity and headed for Vladivostok ..., but not too soon to observe that the losses on both sides in the titanic combat were great.
"Early in the battle an officer ... while watching Rozhdestvensky's flagship ... for a signal, saw the Kniaz Souvaroff shudder from stem to stern, as if under a blow from a gigantic hammer, and hesitate in her course, while the waves rose high from her armoured sides. Then she commenced to list and sink ... The damage ... was so extensive that the flagship soon went down, leaving the deck officers and many of the crew struggling in the waves ... Under a grueling attack by the Japanese warships, aided by torpedo boats, mines, and submarines [!], the Borodino, Osliabya, and Orel were placed out of action and followed the flagship to the bottom. The fog, which had raised and lowered intermittently during the morning, began to settle down again, and the distance of the Almaz, which now succeeded in disengaging herself from the ... struggling ships, made it difficult for her to see clearly [any longer]."
Filled with misidentifications and exaggerations, this account nevertheless has the authentic ring of first-hand observation, made through the sea mists and gunsmoke at a distance: an appreciation of combat glimpsed fleetingly, from a pitching deck, through the legendary fog of war. The two destroyers Bravy and Grozny followed Almaz into port the next day with similar accounts, bringing an air of shocked gloom to the eastern capital. Almaz remained in Vladivostok, repairing her minor battle damage and removing the coal dust from her mahogany saloons, for the four remaining months of the war.
Below, photo from the launch of the Almaz at the Baltic Shipyard shows the elegant lines of her stern. It was decorated with exquisitely tasteful filigree work (there was a double eagle in the center, the ship's name in ornate Cyrillic letters at the forward end of the counter on either side, and an expanse of baroque curlicues in between). Attributes worthy of a viceregal palace afloat! Enlarge
Remaining in the Far East after the humiliating Peace of Portsmouth was signed in September 1905, Almaz was reclassified as an aviso in 1906 and as a yacht again in 1908. In 1911 she returned to the Baltic fleet. Three years later she was reassigned to the Black Sea fleet. In early 1915 she became the first aircraft carrier in the Russian navy. She was equipped with 4 seaplanes and unofficially reclassed as a hydroplane cruiser. Three heavy booms were added -- one on each mast -- for lifting planes onto the surface for takeoff and retrieving them after they had landed. Planes were stored on platforms erected in the aft section. As the fastest of the fleet's seaplane carriers, she often undertook independent missions, for instance launching air raids on Varna, Bulgaria in Oct. 1915 and June 1916.
The Tsarist régime collapsed early in 1917, and civil war soon after broke out between the Bolsheviks (Reds) and monarchists (Whites). In 1917 Almaz found a new identity as a headquarters for the Bolsheviks in Odessa. The civil war was especially hot in Ukraine and the Crimea, where the counterrevolutionaries were particularly strong. French interventionist forces captured Odessa in December 1918 and presented the Almaz to the Whites. The ship served the Whites in 1919 and was part of their rear-guard action and retreat. Along with a flotilla of White-controlled warships under Gen. Wrangel, she escaped through the Bosporus in 1920, jammed with refugees who had fought for the Tsarist cause. Entering the Mediterranean, these vessels -- ranging from the ancient pre-dreadnought Gyorgy Pobiedonosets to the battered dreadnought General Alexeiev -- were interned by the French authorities at Bizerta, in present-day Tunisia. The French had no interest in acquiring the mangy vessels and persistently offered them back to the Bolsheviks, after the remnant crews departed in quest of a new life.
Almaz was one of the very few vessels in the "Wrangel fleet" accepted back by the Russian communist government. She reverted to the Soviet Union in 1924. She was sold in 1934 and promptly broken up, her pre-revolutionary elegance an unwelcome reminder of Tsarist indulgence and narcissism, wholly inappropriate in the era of the New Soviet Man. It is unclear if Almaz performed any active naval duties during the intervening decade. Surely Stalin's commissars would have taken perverse delight in employing the Viceroy's pleasure boat as a coal barge, smudging her gilt arabesques with gritty coal dust, and insulting her once-pristine teak decks. But this is pure speculation; an indulgence of a most poppycockian propensity.
To this day the swanlike "cruiser yacht" has a following among modelers and Russian navy buffs.
The counter stern: 1:700 model of Almaz in 1903 fit, by Yevgeny Kotusov. Note narrow deckhouse, home of Alexeiev's Viceregal Suite and entertainment saloon.
1:1250 model of Almaz as Black Sea seaplane carrier, 1916. Her armament in this phase was (7) 47 mm and (8) 12-pdr AA guns; 4 Sopwith Pup seaplanes; crew 340. Below, two photos of the ship in this rôle.