The Butterfly Effect: Why the Appearance of the Russian Sailing Frigate Excited Greece

Фрегат "Штандарт". Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Фрегат "Штандарт". Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

The complex international historical and educational expedition of the Russian Geographical Society "The flame of Cesme: The Greek Gambit" took place from October 8 to October 23, 2021 on the frigate "Shtandart". The purpose of the study was to search for material traces of the presence of the Russian fleet on the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Here, after the defeat of the Ottoman Fleet in the Battle of Chesma in 1770, a Russian colony existed for several years — the so-called Archipelago Province.

500 miles of the "Shtandart"

The initiators of the expedition are the Kostroma Branch of the Russian Geographical Society and the film company “Skyfirst”. The project is supported by the Presidential Grants Fund and is being implemented as part of the Russia-Greece Cross Year.

The members of the expedition have been exploring the historical route of the Baltic Fleet of the Russian Empire to the Eastern Mediterranean in 1769-1774 for several years. A part of the Russian squadron remained forever at the bottom off the coast of the Greek islands. And we are talking mainly not about military losses. In several years, the southern sea and sea worms had destroyed wooden ships accustomed to the cold Baltic. They could no longer go back to Kronstadt. The main task of the expedition was to identify the remains of the ships if possible and to clarify some details of the daily life of the Archipelago Province.


Члены экспедиции во время шторма при переходе Наксос - Хиос. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

The expedition route on the frigate "Shtandart" totaled more than 500 nautical miles. The Aegean Sea is famous for its unpredictability in autumn. Several days, during long crossings in the open sea, the expedition crew was in severe storm conditions (up to eight points on the Beaufort scale), accompanied by thunderstorms and downpours. It is worth noting that the frigate "Shtandart" is an exact replica of the 18th century ship. It was built according to the shipbuilding standards of that time 22 years ago and is set in motion by wind, sails and strong hands of sailors.

The return of the "Svyatoy Yanuariy"?

This year, the weather reduced the diving time off the coast of Paros Island – the first stop of the expedition. Nevertheless, the divers carefully examined the remains of a large ship located at a depth of eight meters near the shore.

“We found the place where the galley was, and determined by the texture of the ballast (cast-iron ingots) that it was really a Russian ship,” says Alexey Nikulin, lead scientist of the expedition, director of the film company “Skyfirst”.  “It is difficult to say exactly which one. Several ships had been left here. The largest of them are the frigate ‘Nadezhda Blagopoluchiya’ (eng. ‘Hope for Prosperity’) , the bombardier ‘Grom’ (eng. ‘Thunder’), the battleships ‘Tri Svyatitelya’ (eng. ‘Three Saints’) and ‘Svyatoy Yanuariy’ (eng. ‘Saint Januarius’).


Во время погружения. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Во время погружения. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

So far, the whole thing has been limited to a thorough inspection and video recording. Special permission from the Greek authorities is required to conduct archaeological surveys, it can be obtained next year.

Meanwhile, Alexey Nikulin believes that it could be the "Svyatoy Yanuariy" (another spelling is "Svyatoy Ianuariy"), one of the most famous Russian ships of that time. The researcher made his conclusion based on the study of a large array of documents, and now field studies.

In 1769, the "Svyatoy Yanuariy" was included in the First Archipelago Squadron of Rear Admiral Grigory Spiridov. It took part in the landing at the Koroni fortress, then was at the head of a detachment that conducted combat operations in the area of the Navarino fortress. Later it participated in the famous Battle of Chios. In 1774, the ship was sent for repairs, but the work was not completed, and in 1775, the "Svyatoy Yanuariy" was, according to some reports, sold for firewood. But its real fate is unknown. Perhaps this matter will be resolved by future archaeological research.

The “Svyatoslav”: Mistake or betrayal?

Perhaps the key task of the current expedition was the underwater exploration of the remains of the largest battleship that participated in the Greek campaign. On September 6, 1770, the “Svyatoslav” ran aground seven nautical miles off the east coast of Lemnos Island. The incident radically affected not only the course of the war, but also the future of the entire region. This story is somewhat reminiscent of the famous butterfly effect, when a seemingly insignificant event leads to a chain of large-scale consequences.

During the Battle of Chios, the ship was in the rear guard. But a week later it headed a squadron sent to blockade the Dardanelles Strait. The plan was audacious, but, given the experience of the Battle of Chesma and the general victorious spirit of the Russians, it was not so unrealistic. Control of the Dardanelles meant the blockade of Constantinople. Cut off from supplies, it would have become extremely vulnerable. The capture of the capital of the Ottoman Empire by the Russians would have changed the entire geopolitical alignment in the vast territory from the Caspian Sea to Algeria.


Территория Османской империи. Фото: Gunes Baydin
Территория Османской империи. Фото: Gunes Baydin

The “Svyatoslav” was not destroyed by the enemy's guns, which fiercely shelled the squadron at the Dardanelles. When they couldn’t cross the strait in one go, the Russian ships, led by their flagship, took the positions they had prepared earlier nearby. But at some point the "Svyatoslav" left the squadron without permission and headed for the island of Lemnos. The meaning of the maneuver was not quite obvious. One of the versions is that its goal was to recapture this tactically important bridgehead fifty kilometers from the Dardanelles from a small, at that time, Ottoman detachment.

However, on the approach to Lemnos, a mysterious emergency happened. An experienced crew "missed" the shoal seven miles from the shore. The impact was so strong that the ship, having hit an underwater reef, sustained a large hole. Other ships of the squadron went to the rescue.


Ночная гроза. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Ночная гроза. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

Stormy weather interfered with rescue operations, and the waves were literally smashing the wooden ship. A few days passed this way. Then there was a fire. Whether it was a fatal accident, a diversion, or the crew itself set fire to the ship so that it would not get to the enemy – there are still a lot of versions about that. One thing was clear: having lost the “Svyatoslav”, the Russian fleet lost hope of taking the Dardanelles and Constantinople. And even Lemnos – the Turks managed to land troops on the island.

Englishman Gordon, the maritime pilot who was directly subordinate to another Englishman Captain Roxburgh, was found guilty by the court of the ship running aground. All of them were subordinate to the third Briton, Rear Admiral Elphinstone, who had a pennant specifically on the “Svyatoslav”. Moreover, according to Alexey Nikulin, it was Elphinstone who had found Gordon in Portsmouth, given him the rank of lieutenant and taken him as a pilot on the flagship.


Контр-адмирал Джон Эльфинстон. Художник неизвестен. Источник:
Контр-адмирал Джон Эльфинстон. Художник неизвестен. Источник:

Subsequently, the court accused the Rear Admiral of hiring an incompetent pilot. However, Elphinstone was not punished, but Gordon was sentenced to death. However, he managed to escape.

“The person of Gordon raised the most questions,” says Alexey Nikulin. “It is unclear where this man had come from, and it is unclear where he’d disappeared to. It is curious that British historians do not know anything about Gordon, although they have a fairly complete idea of the British who lived in Russia under Catherine.”

That is how the “English trace” appeared in the history of the destruction of the "Svyatoslav".

“Contemporaries of those events noted that France was not enthusiastic about the presence of Russians on the archipelago. But for England, a complete victory of Russia over Turkey would have been an unpleasant surprise as well. Considering all the facts together, my colleagues and I have a version that Gordon was a saboteur," says Alexey Nikulin. “We’d adhered to this version until we found ourselves at the place of the wreckage of the ‘Svyatoslav’.”

A tragic combination of circumstances

On the day when the RGS expedition got to the place where the “Svyatoslav” had sunk, the waves in the Aegean Sea were very big. So much so that, according to Alexey Nikulin, even experienced divers were feeling seasick.

Such a situation in this place in autumn is not uncommon. It was stormy on the day when the “Svyatoslav” approached the island. At the same time, the coast of Lemnos is flat here, it is barely visible even during the day in good weather. It's a long way to the island itself – the participants of the current expedition had crossed the distance of seven nautical miles on fishing boats in about an hour. In addition, it should be taken into account that the "Svyatoslav" went to the island early in the morning, before sunrise. The crew was constantly measuring the depth with the sounding line; it decreased gradually, until suddenly an ill-fated reef appeared.

“During the dives, we found that the reef rises in the center of the shoal so much that a person can stand on it,” says Alexey Nikulin. “And the ‘Svyatoslav’ had a draft of more than six meters. But what is interesting: if the ship had passed a few meters to the right or to the left, it could have been removed from the shoal and, most importantly, it would not have received critical damage. Analyzing all the related facts, taking into account that the shoal was not displayed on the sea map of that time, assessing the situation at the location, I am inclined to believe that, after all, there was not a diversion, but a navigational error and a tragic combination of circumstances. Of course, as the director of the future film, I feel a little sorry for the conspiracy version, but as a researcher and a sailor – and I have traveled almost 60 thousand miles as a captain – I simply cannot afford to fantasize.”


Якорь с корабля "Святослав". Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Якорь с корабля "Святослав". Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

The majority of the expedition members adhere to the same version. Among them is a very experienced researcher of marine disasters, the head of the Tula Regional Branch of the Russian Geographical Society Oleg Zoloterev, who discovered the remains of the ship "Sv. Aleksandr" (eng. “St. Alexander”) in the Black Sea in 2005.

Despite the fact that the ship “Svyatoslav” was first discovered by the expedition in 2013, only now the Greek Ministry of Culture has officially given the opportunity to examine the remains of this Russian vessel, and record videos and take photos underwater. A group of divers and cameramen managed to inspect a significant part of the remains of the hull, guns, anchors, ballast, etc. At least 30 cast-iron naval guns, two Admiralty anchors and a significant amount of cast-iron ballast were found.


Орудия с корабля "Святослав". Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Орудия с корабля "Святослав". Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

“Since we do not have permission for archaeological work, we cannot perform any actions with the artifacts found,” says Alexey Nikulin. “I am sure if the top layer that has accumulated over 250 years were removed from the surface of the guns, we would see the brand of a Russian factory, I even suspect which one. The design features leave no doubt that these are the guns from a Russian ship. And since there are no other sunken ships of that era in this place, it is safe to say that we have identified the remains of the battleship ‘Svyatoslav’.”

What would have happened if…?

We are not professional historians, so we can afford the subjunctive mood. What would have happened if the flagship of our squadron had not run aground, the Russians occupied Lemnos, and then blocked the Dardanelles.

“The war would have ended in a couple of months,” Alexey Nikulin is sure. “The life of the Ottoman Empire had characteristic and very inflexible logistics. Similar to modern chain supermarkets: certain products and goods come without alternative from specific suppliers. Constantinople was supplied with many necessities by sea from the Middle East and the Greek islands. From there came food and taxes. The blockade of the Dardanelles would have led to famine and chaos in the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The fall of Constantinople would have had enormous, as we would say now, geopolitical consequences. Crimea and the Sea of Azov region would have become Russian much earlier. Greece would have gained independence, but I think the Russians would have stayed on the archipelago. We would have lived in some other Russia.”


Греческий и византийский флаги над часовней в городе Наксос. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Греческий и византийский флаги над часовней в городе Наксос. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

Nevertheless, the very march of the Imperial Navy ships into the Aegean Sea, the victory in the Battle of Chesma and the experience of the Archipelago Province have already made Russia different.

“Russian sailors showed not only heroism and military ingenuity. These people showed remarkable breadth of political thought,” Alexey Nikulin continues. “The way they arranged life on distant islands, in isolation from their homeland, when the correspondence took months, without having the relevant prior experience, causes great respect. And it makes us look at the Catherine era in a different way.”

Too many coincidences

The expedition members found interesting objects not only in the sea. A few years ago, in one of the oldest Greek monasteries of Longovardos on the island of Paros, they discovered several Russian icons of different periods. Two of them relate to the time of the Imperial Fleet's stay there.

The first icon "Saint Eustathius Placidas" was painted in a rare technique for iconography, reminiscent of the Palekh school. The name coincides with the name of the only battleship lost during the Battle of Chios. The remains of the "Svyatoy Evstafiy" (eng. “Saint Eustathius”) themselves were found by Turkish divers in Chesma Bay a few years ago.


Настоятель православного монастыря Лонговардос игумен Леонидас. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Настоятель православного монастыря Лонговардос игумен Леонидас. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

The participants of the expedition were interested in whether this icon was a ship's icon or it was painted in memory of the dead sailors from the ship "Svyatoy Evstafiy".

“There is testimony by Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy, the participant in the Battles of Chios and Chesma, that Admiral Spiridov was rescued from among the burning wreckage with a snifter of vodka in one hand and an icon in the other,” says Alexey Nikulin. “I assumed that the monastery of Longovardos has this exact icon."

Valery Igoshev, Doctor of Art History, lead researcher at the Department of Manuscript Restoration of the State Research Institute for Restoration, flew from Moscow in order to check this version. The expert was careful in his assumptions. The monuments found on Paros are certainly of great interest, but time is needed for their attribution. There are questions about the history of the appearance of icons, the time of creation and even the purpose and use in Greek temples.


Валерий Игошев (справа) и Алексей Никулин с иконой "Св. великомученик Евстафий". Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Валерий Игошев (справа) и Алексей Никулин с иконой "Св. великомученик Евстафий". Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

Nevertheless, it seems very likely that both icons are related to the presence of the Russian fleet in the archipelago – there are too many coincidences.

As experts have found out, the icon of St. Eustathius Placidas was painted by Greek masters of icon painting. However, given the rarity of the image itself and the fact that it was made in the second half of the 18th century, it can be assumed that the icon was created on the initiative of the Russian command in memory of the crew of the only battleship (under the same name) that sunk during the Battle of Chios.


Икона "Собор Двенадцати апостолов" предположительно попала в монастырь с русского корабля. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Икона "Собор Двенадцати апостолов" предположительно попала в монастырь с русского корабля. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

“The real discovery was the identification of another Russian temple icon, its name is ‘The Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles’. This one, most likely, was originally a ship icon and was rescued from the same ship,” says Alexey Nikulin. “This icon is bigger. It was painted in the first half of the 18th century. Moreover, there is an assumption that there is also a first, earlier layer under the image.”

Some of the other material evidence found, such as drawings of Russian sailors on church books or a Nativity scene dating back to 1774, is another reason for further study and analysis.

We have a lot in common

On the island of Naxos, the frigate was festively welcomed by local and port authorities, as well as a prominent character – a descendant of one of the founders of the Duchy of Naxos in the Cyclades in the 13th century, Nikolaos Michel Laurent Karavias Della Rocca-Barozzi.


Никас де ла Рош Бароци Каравиас. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Никас де ла Рош Бароци Каравиас. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

His ancestor was one of three deputies elected to the island parliament of the province during the period of Russian presence. The Duke not only told about very interesting episodes of the history of 250 years ago, but also showed the old monastery, where in those years there was a school for Greek children, who, according to the plan of Catherine the Great and Count Alexei Orlov, were to manage the revived Greek state and become a "breed of new people".

In the Strait of Chios, the expedition crew lowered the ship's flag and, according to tradition, laid a wreath on the water in memory of the Russian sailors and Greek volunteers who died in June 1770 during the Battles of Chios and Chesma.


Венок в память о русских моряках перед спуском в Хиосский пролив. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Венок в память о русских моряках перед спуском в Хиосский пролив. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

In addition, the members of the expedition restored a memorial on Lemnos dedicated to the Russian squadrons of Count Orlov and Vice Admiral Senyavin, who made a significant contribution to the liberation of Greece. The project manager, Candidate of Historical Sciences Roman Ryabintsev, Director of the Expeditionary Department of the Russian Geographical Society Sergey Chechulin, and head of the Center for Military and Maritime Heritage, Captain 1st Rank Sergey Mozgovoy visited Russian cemeteries on the island of Lemnos and laid wreaths, thereby honoring the memory of compatriots who found their last shelter on Greek soil in 1920-1921.

Separately, it should be said about the reaction of the Greek society to the RGS expedition. For several days, it was in the headlines of the media. Wherever the frigate "Shtandart" went, it was greeted extremely friendly. Excursions to the ship were organized for local residents and tourists, everyone could get acquainted with its structure and exhibition on board. More than five thousand people took advantage of this chance, most of them schoolchildren and students. And, of course, according to the ship's tradition, at the entrance to the port, the "Shtandart" saluted with a rolling volley fire. Russian diplomats in Greece also provided assistance to the expedition. The friendly reception was preceded by the fruitful months-long work of the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Greece Andrey Maslov and the head of the Group for Cultural and Humanitarian Cooperation Fedor Kalaidov.


Экспедиция РГО стала прекрасным примером народной дипломатии. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв
Экспедиция РГО стала прекрасным примером народной дипломатии. Фото: РИА Новости/Иван Секретарёв

“It is obvious now that the complex expedition of the Russian Geographical Society is just the beginning,” says Alexey Nikulin. “We will have to reset our relations, including international ones, and bring them to a new level. Russia and Greece have a lot in common, and this should be the basis of our future.”

We would like to remind you that another result of the RGS expedition will be a documentary film, which is being shot by the creative group of the film company “Skyfirst”. Its release is scheduled for 2022.

Video in the text: Oleg Zolotarev/VK

Nikolay Sumarokov