UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Soviet Riverine Fleet

In WWII, the river fleet was assigned to support the war effort early. Later, at Stalingrad, the Volga. proved a major strategic barrier to the invaders and served the Soviets as a valuable means of transporting men and combat materiel. The war required a basic restructuring of river fleet work and much of it worked directly within the area of military activity. Many craft were armed and accomplished hundreds of crossings in military operations, particularly in the Leningrad and Stalingrad areas. The river fleet played a "large role" in transporting petroleum from the Caspian area around the clock to supply "the front and the economy." More than 4,300 craft and hundreds of wharves and ports were reported destroyed or captured during the fighting.

Concerning possible future military utility, the Volga River system has been described as the densest single Soviet transport artery, equal in capacity to many mainline railroads of equal length. Secondly, in the 1960s the Soviets were introducing a new river/sea class of shallow draft vessels of 5,000 tons to eliminate cargo transfers from maritime to river vessels. Mostly motor ships, these will transform the main rivers into transport conveyor belts" and "carry cargo from Soviet river ports to European cities," ostensibly by sea. Lastly, the inland system has been used for some years to transfer smaller naval vessels, including destroyers and submarines among the peripheral European seas.

Initially, the Soviet river fleet was controlled by the People's Commissariat of the River Fleet, and immediately after the Great Patriotic War by the Ministry of River Fleet of the USSR. Under the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR dated May 31, 1956 "On abolition of the All-Union Ministry of River Fleet", the river fleet operations were downgraded from the national to the local level of importance. Each republic controlled its own river traffic, with the large RSFSR River Fleet Ministry providing much common service for the smaller republics which have analogous smaller river fleet organizations. Only in the RSFSR there is a separate ministry of the river fleet; in the other republics river transport is assigned to lower-ranking republican bodies. Since 1955, river fleet personnel strength had apparently leveled off at around 350,000, about one-third of whom move freight and people, with the rest employed in overhead, water-ways maintenance, shipbuilding, repairs, etc.

The river fleet system had a personnel rank and grade structure and insignia somewhat similar to that of the merchant fleet, but the whole operation seemed somewhat slacker. Reportedly, 9,000 engineers and 22,000 technicians were turned out by river transport schools between 1959 and 1965. The river fleet system also had its own medical facilities, housing, and undoubtedly, the ubiquitous KGB surveillance.

Although little publicized, inland waterway transport was nevertheless a highly developed method of transport in the USSR throughout the Soviet era. Until the mid-1950's, river transport was second only to rail transport in volume of freight turnover, that is, ton-kilometers. By the end of the 1960s, however, it was outstripped in percentage of freight turnover by the maritime fleet and shaded by motor transport and oil pipelines, as well. While its proportionate importance appeard diminished, the system was actually carrying four times the bulk of pre-war days and still remained an important supplement to the heavily burdened rail system, particularly in long hauls of bulk commodities. Waterway improvements were, in many cases, been specifically aimed at diverting freight from the rail net in specific areas and critical points.

In terms of passengers and bulk cargo tonnages, by 1970 Soviet river transport handled, respectively, 5- and 2-times as much traffic as the Soviet maritime fleet. The average maritime haul was five to six times longer, however. Total length of Soviet rivers is about 2.5 million kilometers, of which one-half million can be adapted to navigation. About 140,000 kilometers of natural waterways augmented and improved by some 1,500 kilometers of canals, locks, and other forms of manmade waterways are in use.

The European Russian river/canal system roughly paralleled the rail net, fanning out from Moscow not unlike the railroads. A postwar improvement of strategic importance is the tying together of the Black, White, Baltic, Azov, and Caspian Seas by the Volga-Don and Volga-Balt Canals, making inland Moscow a "port of five seas." About 75 to 80 percent of all Soviet river traffic was carried on in the European USSR. Over half of all Soviet inland waterborne traffic was conducted along the Volga. Extensions of this system which reach the Caspian, Black, Baltic, and White Seas and even serve port cities in the Ural foothills, carried almost another quarter.

Over the 15 years up to 1970s, many locks had been built or modernized and automated and a system of regulating dams and huge reservoirs has been constructed permitting greater control of water levels. Most of the locks and dams were in European Russia. After years of low postwar priority, the Soviet river fleet and port facilities had also been improved and modernized. While little specific data was available on river craft, the Soviets had greatly increased the numbers of river vessels in the decade of the 1960s. The immediate postwar fleet consisted of powered vessels, totaling about 0.6 million horsepower, and unpowered barges, totaling 4 million tons. A decade later, horsepower total had tripled and the nonpowered barge fleet capacity had doubled. At that time, the Soviet river fleet reportedly had up to 3,500 tugs and a river tanker fleet capacity of 2.5 million tons.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:48:52 ZULU