Today is Halloween, and we love to trade spooky stories of ghosts and ghost ships to get into the spirit. Today's ghost ship story, however, is more sad and pathetic than spooky: Soviet Cruiser Murmansk, once a ship that sent shivers down NATO admirals' spines, wound up an embarrassing rusted-out hulk stuck in a Norwegian fjord in the mid 90s. In many ways this ended up a perfect metaphor for the state of the former Soviet military at the time; as Putin rattles his saber today, it's easy to forget the prevailing attitude about Russia's military being a collection of antiquated junk at the time. It's also easy to forget that the commissioning of these ships was a nightmare scenario for Western naval planners who were wondering if the Soviets were on to something otherwise overlooked.

Topshot courtesy "FLJ3M" via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons License

Soviet cruiser Admiral Ushakov in 1981, image public domain via Wikipedia

The end of WWII and the start of the Cold War was perhaps the most transformative time in the entire history of naval warfare. Prior to 1939 most naval planners assumed naval battles would be massive slugged-out gunfights like the WWI Battle of Jutland, a highly strategic but ultimately tactically indecisive battle where the German "High Seas" Fleet failed to break the Royal Navy's control of the North Sea. But in late 1940, the British tried a daring air raid against the Italian fleet at their home port at Taranto with unprecedented and shocking success - so much, that a Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Naito was sent to Taranto and report on his findings, findings that a year later would later help the Imperial Japanese Navy formulate their plan to attack Pearl Harbor. As the United States repaired most of their battleships from that aftermath, they also pumped out a staggering amount of Essex class aircraft carriers, among the largest and most complex aviation vessels the world had yet seen up to that point. Air power from these carriers had sent the IJN to the ocean floor, and it had been assumed that the day of the big gun was over. After the war the USN was working to commission its Midway class, carriers so big they wouldn't be able to go through the Panama Canal. Furthermore, advances in standoff missile weaponry were starting to look promising, giving relatively small vessels like destroyers the firepower of a 50,000 ton battleship.


Soviet Battleship Novorossiysk at anchor, image public domain via Wikipedia.

At the same time, some people just couldn't let go. Just like before the war, when high-ranking officers like General Billy Mitchell ran into resistance debating the validity of air power versus surface vessels, many planners stuck to their big guns, both figuratively and literally. Something needed to be said for the impressive power of 14 or 15-inch rifles and the behemoth armored shells they sat upon. Surely, a measly little rocket or a bomber with a single torpedo or bomb couldn't crack a battleship, even though there was plenty of evidence from practical war experience to the contrary. The British had plans to construct big-gun battleships up until the late 40s when peace-time budgets and technological realities intervened, as did the USN; the French paraded around their battleship Jean Bart as their fleet flagship, finished in the late 40s after severe damage during the Allied "Operation Torch" landings (the invasion of Morocco, which as featured in the film Casablanca was under Vichy French occupation). The Soviets showed an usual amount of pride in their Novorossiysk, actually the Italian battleship Giulio Cesare handed over as war reparations. A First World War leftover, she was nonetheless extensively rebuilt between the wars, and Stalin ordered extensive preparations for the Soviet navy to take her in including new munitions factories to handle the unique Italian-caliber guns. She blew up in the mid 50s due to striking a leftover German naval mine, though a popular conspiracy theory persists claiming it to be the work of Italian frogmen operating with NATO's full blessing.


Soviet cruiser Komsomolets, public domain image via Wikipedia.

The Soviets also had plans for a number of new "big gun" ships, including battlecruisers and battleships. Fact and fiction tend to blend here as Cold War intrigue mixes with hoaxes too wild not to be believed, as well as the true validity of these projects versus Stalin merely exercising his ego in the name of national defense and security. Only two significant projects actually came to fruition, both light cruisers. The first, Project 68 Chapayev, was an evolution of the previous Project 26 Kirov, the newest and most advanced cruisers the Soviets had available to face the Nazis. Like Kirov, Chapeyev had heavy Italian influences and differed mostly in switching out Kirov's 7.1-inch guns to 6-inch guns and being "derated" to a light cruiser in the process but gaining an extra three guns in a fourth turret mount. Project 68bis (also known as the Sverdlov-class), as the name implies, is a further evolution with improved secondary/anti-aircraft armament but retaining the 12 6-inch gun layout. Their 130mm secondary armament was state-of-the-art at the time, based on Nazi efforts to knock down American bombers and perhaps the most advanced widely fielded anti-aircraft weapons available to the Soviet Navy when missiles were still getting off the drawing board and into deployment, but their main armament still represented pre-WWII "big gun" thinking.


Soviet cruiser Zhandov, note Turret "C" removed in favor of command facilities. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

That said, the simple fact that the Soviets were making these things at all made NATO and the USN wonder what they were on to, exactly. Could these newfangled missiles be overrated? Is there still value to all-gun cruisers in the age of massive carrier fleets? Many Western navies began to re-evaluate their cutting edge Cold War designs still on the drawing boards, and suddenly a bunch of ships started popping up with at least one 5-inch gun turret stuck somewhere, perhaps reinforced by the failure of nuclear cruiser USS Long Beach failing to shoot down a drone with no less than President John F. Kennedy present (resulting in two leftover WWII 5-inch guns installed on that vessel as backup). One of the influential decisions that lead to the Royal Australian Navy adopting the Charles F. Adams class destroyer as the Perth class was the fact that it had two 5-inch turrets - and that the Indonesian Navy had leased a Sverdlov from the Soviets. The Sverdlov class even gained mention in the original publication of Ian Fleming's Goldfinger, as the means SMERSH planed to use to smuggle Fort Knox's gold back to the wrong side of the Iron Curtain (the impossibility of that feat leading to both a script change in the movie adaptation and Sean Connery's quip nodding to said impossibility).


An alternate view of Murmansk, from this Reddit thread.

The furor and wonder over the Sverdlovs was pretty short lived when missile technology quickly matured, and a few of the cruisers ditched one or more turrets for either missiles or other uses such as command facilities. By the end of the Cold War the remaining Sverdlovs became yet another symbol of Soviet antiquated and failed communist military doctrine, much like the acres of abandoned MiG-21s lining deactivated military tarmacs, hundreds of T-55 tanks sitting silently on their treads or the dozens of November class nuclear submarines rusting and capsizing in harbor. The once proud cruisers were sold one-by-one for their scrap value, including Murmansk. Unfortunately things didn't go as planned - as is what often happens, the tow line broke and the unwanted ship went aground in the middle of the fjord, providing a curious and ghostly reminder of one of humanity's most intense and prolonged diplomatic periods.


The complex operation to finally scrap Murmansk, from this Reddit thread.

Being an eyesore and a navigational hazard, the Norwegian people wanted it gone, so a massive earthen coffer dam was built around it and water was slowly pumped out. Piece by piece of the cruiser's corpse was removed, with demolition finally completed last year. The Murmansk may be long gone, but the specter of the Cold War she was designed to fight still looms with Putin's military buildup and megalomaniacal aspirations.

H/T to Wolfgang-Gullich for a factual correction regarding the true circumstances of Novorossiysk's sinking and Daren McLellan for an update on the scrapping process.