Elena Govor, Alexander Massov





On the 19th of January 1888 a steam corvette “Rynda” of the Russian navy called in Australian port of Newcastle. It was a fast modern ship built in 1885 in Petersburg. It had a steel body, armored deck, 19 guns and one torpedo tube. The interior of the ship was full luxury including one of the last technical achievements – electric lights. The name of the ship originated from an ancient Russian word which in XVI-XVII century meant a bodyguard of the Tsar. A sculpture of a “Rynda” decorated the fore of the ship as a tribute to a tradition of sail fleet.


The crew of the corvette consisted of 396 men. During her visit to Australia she had 23 officers on board, including the commander, a surgeon and a priest. The officers were a real constellations of Russian aristocrats. The top star was the Great Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (Romanov) followed by Duke Mikhail Sergeevich Putiatin, Duke Sergey Alexandrovich Shirinsky-Shikhmatov, Count Matvey Alexandrovich Apraksin, all in ranks of midshipmen and lieutenants. Besides. The crew included representatives of renown Russian naval dynasties of the Ebelings, Langs, Tyrtovs, Shatelens and Kulstrems. An old sea wolf, captain of 1st rank Fedor Karlovich Avelan was in charge of the ship. Apparently, the newly built corvette was an uncommon ship designated for service and practice of then “golden” youth. However, its representatives had no indulgences: one could find in the logbooks notes made by the hand of midshipman Romanov, who did his shifts in stormy nights and tropical heat along with the rest. Meanwhile, the unofficial special status of “Rynda” gave her commanders a broader freedom in a choice of route, caused a particular interest to it during call to seaports and provided the navigators excellent opportunities not only for on-shore entertainment, but for observations as well.


The Naval Command initially planned to send “Rynda”, which was a body of the Pacific detachment, to the Tartar straight to conduct coastal survey and depth measurements. Suddenly her route was altered in an opposite direction – towards the Southern seas, and it had been initiated by the midshipman A.M. Romanov. This is how he described it in his diary: “ I’m proposing a wonderful plan so that to be sent to San-Francisco, then the Sandwiches, then Tahiti, New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand…. I will have to ask Alexey about it… I would arrange all this myself through the Admiral, chief of the detachment, but the problem is that he cannot let us go without a permission from above”. (Under the name “Alexey” A.M. Romanov implied the Great Duke Alexey Alexandrovich, general-admiral of the Russian Navy).

The captain of “Rynda”, Finnish-born Fedor Karlovich Avelan (1839-1916) (on the photo to the left) joined the Naval Cadet Corps when he was 10 years old. After this all his life was dedicated to the sea. It was his third trip to Australia. In 1871 he visited Melbourne as a lieutenant of the “Gaidamak” clipper, in 1881-82, being in charge of “Vestnik” clipper, he visited Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne and Glenelg. He was an excellent, well-educated commander, knew French and English very well. He undoubtedly had diplomatic abilities he had had to apply during his call in Samoa. His impressive figure always attracted attention, and, as the Australian newspapers wrote, he was “of commanding presence and ‘every inch a man’ ”. 


But the most colorful figure on board was the Great Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (Romanov) (on the photo to the right). A grandson of Nikolay I, son of the Great Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich and Olga Fedorovna (Duchess Cecile of
Baden), he was the Tsar’s Alexander III cousin. He was not a fragile aristocrat at all, but, on the contrary, a conscientious hard-working and broadly knowledgeable man. He was born in 1866 in Tbilisi where his father was then a Tsar’s vice-regent in the Caucasus. His upbringing was simple and severe. From an age of 7 Alexander and his brothers lived in a home barrack, slept on narrow firm beds. Wake-up at 6 in the morning, cold bath, modest breakfast, fencing lessons. The study – the children received a very good education in mathematics and languages (French, German, English). Then – military lessons: marching and horse riding. At an age of 12 Alexander himself decided to become a navy officer. In 1885, after an appropriate study, 19-year old Alexander became a midshipman. In order to receive the next rank he would have to participate in a three-year long around-the-globe navigation. Thus the Great Duke found himself as a midshipman on “Rynda”. The Australian newspapers described him as a tall, well-built stripling, exceedingly good-looking, and of dark complexion “with all personal characteristics of the Romanoffs”, and, at the same time, “jf a most unassuming and quiet demeanour”.


Apart from it, the Great Duke was interested in photography and due to it an album with photographs, including the Australian ones, was compiled during the navigation of “Rynda”.


The Russian seamen were eager to see Australia. Their curiosity was heated up by the stories of old travellers Avelan and Putiatin who had already visited the fifth continent. “Rynda” began her acquaintance with Australia from Newcastle. A formal reason was coal bunkering but, no doubt, there was another reason – collection of information. A call to Newcastle had been ordered by a special cable from the Naval Ministry, as this important centre of coal mining had been a subject of the ministerial interest for a long time. Apart from it, it was possible, that N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, who then was projecting establishment of a Russian colony on a Pacific Island, also had influenced the interests of the Naval Ministry. Hoping for assistance of the Tsar’s Government, Miklouho-Maclay had offered to provide it with information on the political situation in Oceania. Having received an instruction to inform about publication in newspapers about military preparations in Australia in case of Anglo-Russian war, location of military fortifications, coal bunkers, etc., Miklouho-Maclay wrote to the Naval Ministry: “Capture of a coal mining site, it seems to me, may become of the first importance.  I’m talking about Newcastle in the colony of New South Wales. Several hundreds of Chinese, brought about from one of Chinese seaports, under supervision of 2 or 3 energetic mining engineers can put occupied mines of Newcastle in proper order and turn them into a source of coal supply of naval ships. As far as I’m aware, Newcastle is fortified quite insignificantly and inappropriately to its role”. And really, the coal mining and defence system will take the main place in Avelan’s report on this visit.


The Russians didn’t even know what kind of disturbance had been caused in Newcastle by their ship approaching the coast. Citizens, gathered on the shore, were trying to guess the nationality of a ship approaching from the north.  Later on local reporters could not find out which signal had been raised above the fort – “I see an English naval ship” or “…German…”. It is noteworthy, that nobody had guessed that it was a Russian ship until ‘Rynda” entered the port and requested a pilot. It was not the first case when the Russian naval ships caught unaware the Australian coastal forts specially built for protection from the Russians. In 1862, for example, when “Svetlana” entered Port-Phillip and asked a fort if her salute would be returned, the Australians had to admit that they could not return a salute as they had no gunpowder. (This case was even discussed in the Parliament). In 1882 three Russian ships on board of which there were Avelan and Putiatin, entered the port of Glenelg and stayed there unrecognized all night!


As the Australian newspapers reported, the Great Duke and his suite spent the first night in the Great Northern Hotel. On the next day, 20th of January, the Russian seamen bought out in a local bookstore all available maps and plans of the haven of Newcastle, and the Great Duke, alone and recognized by nobody, went to see the city. On the same day the Major of the City and local officials received captain Avelan and lieutenant Ivan Lang. To a disappointment of the Australian hosts, the Great Duke was absent at the reception as he had preferred to see hydraulic cranes and workshops. The reception was going its way and the Major, greeting the Russians, expressed himself diplomatically that people of Newcastle ‘were glad to see any distinguished personage no matter what his nationality”. Nevertheless, he did not miss an opportunity to make a sarcastic comment about the Sydneysiders which would certainly provide the seamen with more entertainment whereas people of Newcastle have very little time for fun. The Russians immediately referred to it with a wish to visit a coal mine. However, for the beginning the Newcastle officials rode the Russians in a coach through the city, having also climbed on the top of the hill to the Fort Scratchley from where there was a panoramic view on the city and its suburbs. (Later on Avelan would give a detailed description of the fort in his report to the Naval Ministry). A local newspaper wrote that the Russian officers had sent long coded cables to St-Petersburg and Gatchina on that day. Petersburg really was paying a lot of attention to this visit as parents of the Great Duke flooded the Naval chiefs by cables with questions about climate of the visited places, routes of the navigation, etc. They would worry especially strongly after their son had injured his leg when hunting in New Zealand during the next period of navigation.


On the next day the citizens of Newcastle were frightened by sounds of gun salvos. Soon if became clear, that the Russians were not taking the city, but exchanging greeting salutes with the Fort Scratchley. Then the people, gathered on the moor, saw a glittering procession – captain Avelan and eight officers, including the Great Duke, two counts and a duke, were welcomed by the Major and aldermen. The best coach was given to midshipman Romanov, the captain and the Major, and the picturesque procession took off to see the Lambton coal mine. There the Russian seamen literally buried the manager under questions and, beside an external overview, wished to come down the main adit. A reporter especially emphasized the interest of the Great Duke to machinery. In the evening, together with other officers, he headed up the Hunter River towards Raymond Terrace. The attendees of the Victoria Theatre were those who were the most disappointed by the Great Duke’s interests. Its administration had twice advertised in a local paper that “a large and brilliant assemblage of our distinguished visitors will be present” at the night performance, and both times the expectations of public had been frustrated. On the 22nd of January, before the departure of the corvette, the “Rynda” priest Father Agafangel conducted a service, which attracted a lot of interest amongst the citizens, on board of the ship. One Russian and three Greek citizens of Newcastle were present there. In middayRynda” left Newcastle.


On the basis of the visit the Russian seamen compiled a detailed economical, military-strategic and hydrographical description of Newcastle. The main attention in the report of captain Avelan and surgeon Pavel Alexandrovich Burtsev was allocated to coal mining. In particular, Avelan highly appraised technical innovations in loading of coal into the ship. Apparently, Newcastle itself had not impressed the Russians. “It’s a tremendous store of coal and wool… - Burtsev wrote. – The city itself lacks vegetation”. In the meantime he noted, that the city had already had a museum with a rich collection of fossils found during mining.


The Australians’ impressions of the Russian visit were formed under influence of two controversial feelings – fear and curiosity. After the Crimean war the Australians suffered strikes of fear before a Russian military invasion in 1863, 1882 and 1885. These fears were agitated in Newcastle in the 70-ties when the Fort Scratchley was built. A sudden arrival of “Rynda” awoke these fears again, and a local paper wrote, that “many timid people ran away with the idea that the Rynda has come here with some wicked design to blew us all up”. Although the paper, not without humour, had been calming people down before the exchange of salutes, a panic had not been avoided. The same paper expressed serious fears in its front article “Free trade and the Grand Duke”. According to the author’s logics, the purchase of plans of the haven Newcastle by the Russians “doubtless will conduct a dozen of Russian ironclads to deal out devastation and, perhaps, rob us of our national independence”.


And nevertheless the interest to the Russians was stronger than suspicions and fear. “The Great Duke and his suite” had become the theme of the day. Local genealogists derived the Romanovs’ ancestry to a certain Lithuanian Prince, and discovered that the Grand Duke was a son of Charles I of Wurtemberg. But there were sensible comments there as well: “We are told that the greater the Russian aristocrat the more friendly is he to those beneath him. Do the so-called Australian “aristocrats” behave in a similar manner” – a newspaper asked. The Australians were interested in three Russian features – music-loving, Orthodoxy and discipline. Although the corvette had been closed for visitors due to coal bunkering, when the “Rynda” orchestra played, hundreds of listeners were gathering on the shore. They were especially impressed by “the soul-stirring Russian national anthem”. Reporters described an Orthodoxy sermon on board of the ship with interest, admired the excellent discipline of the Russian seamen. The Russians were leaving Newcastle, having won the hearts and scoured fears of its people. “Our late Russian visitors ridicule the idea of a Great European war, - one of the papers wrote. – The Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch professes a great regard for everything English and hopes that friendly relations will always subsist between the two great powers”.

was the next Australian seaport in which “Rynda” called (on the photo to the right - "Rynda" in Sydney). The visit of corvette to the largest Australian city coincided with a jubilee celebration dedicated to one hundred anniversary of the colony foundation. And here again the Great Duke had become the hero of the day. On the next day upon arrival of the corvette Lord Carrington, the Governor of New South Wales, sent a coach to ride Alexander Mikhailovich to the Government House. Yet the presence of the Great Duke at the celebration appeared to be impossible as, according to the legislation of the Russian Empire, visitors could not participate in state’s ceremonies of a foreign state. Sometimes he could not be present at the celebrations because he had to do his shift work along with other officers. On the 24th of January the Russian officers headed to the Government House again. This time they were guests of Lady Carrington…


The Thursday, 26th of January, became the main day of the jubilee celebrations. In the morning “Rynda”, as well as all ships anchored in the bay, decorated itself by flags, and at midday all forts and ships, including “Rynda” carried out the Salute of Nations of 21 salvos. In the evening the colonial authorities arranged a banquet for 1,000 persons at which Avelan was present. On the same day it turned out that the Russians could help the organizers of a picnic for children from poor families in the National Park. A British frigate “Nelson”, which had had to send an orchestra to entertain public, had been late to arrive in Sydney. In order to save the situation the picnic organizers decided to invite the orchestra from “Rynda” as its fame had managed to come from Newcastle to Sydney. The Australian newspapers even in this case managed to place the Great Duke in the centre of events. They reported, that deputation of the picnic organizers had come to “Rynda” and asked Avelan to request the Great Duke to allow his orchestra to play at the picnic… That was gracefully agreed upon.  The orchestra, of course, belonged to the ship and was not at discretion of the midshipman A.M. Romanov at all, but, as we can see, even the very presence of the Great Duke’s name flattered the Australian self-esteem. On the 27th of January the orchestra played continuously all the day in the National Park. The newspapers noted skills of the Russian musicians and admitted self-critically that an orchestra of such a level could not be met in Australia too often.


On the 30th of January the Russian officers were present at foundation of a new parliament building. In the evening a Ministerial dinner, at which Avelan was present, was held in the Parliament by the Government of New South Wales.


On the 31st of January the citizens of Sydney held a festival in the Exhibition Hall for sailors of navy and merchant ships anchored in the bay. There were 100 seamen from “Rynda” amongst 2000 guests there. The exhibition building was glamorously decorated. Above the stage, designated for the Governor and his helmsmen, there was the Australian emblem, and the Russian and French flags were hanged on both sides of it whereas flags of other countries were placed along the walls. The dining tables were served in the hall centre. Avelan mentioned in his report, that “meals consisted of cold meats, cakes and fruit; lemonade, soda water and half a bottle of beer per man were served for drinks”. Each seaman was given a smoking pipe, a couple of cigars and a box of wax matchsticks. Shortly after 9 p.m. guests of honour ascended the stage. The Great Duke was named on the fourth place after Lord and Lady Carrington and vice-admiral Fairfax. Lady Carrington was presented with a bouquet from English seamen, and then, to the sounds of the Russian national anthem, a Russian boatswain ascended the stage and, having kissed Lady Carrington’s hand, handed her a huge bouquet, on strips of which it was embroiled “from the Russian sailors”. “Our bouquet was much more elegant and richer [than the English one],” – Avelan didn’t desist of a comment in his report.  Lord Carrington immediately improvised a speech in which he, on behalf of his spouse, thanked the Russian seamen for such a sudden and elegant gift. “We welcome into the waters of Port-Jackson the gallant ship Rynda, we welcome the gallant sailors who sail under the blue cross of St. Andrew, and we especially welcome - though we are not permitted to do so in official manner – that distinguished officer who is on board, a close blood-relation of his Majesty the Czar. Though not permitted to offer him an official welcome, we offer him a right royal welcome with all our hearts”.


On the 1st of February, on the day of cessation of celebrations, a firework took place. “Rynda” and other ships anchored in front of Farm Cove and lit illumination, which changed colours from white to red and green. The sailors, standing aloft were igniting multicoloured Bengal lights. Fireworks on shore and forts accompanied the illumination of the ships. “Rynda” remained in the centre of attention after the cessation of the celebration: on the 2nd of February Lord and Lady Carrington visited her. “Rynda” saluted with 17 salvos during their getting off the ship.


The ship life was on its course. By the 8th of February the engine had been completely overhauled and painting of boards and exterior of the ship had been completed. On the 9th of February at 9 a.m. the corvette left hospitable Sydney. On the 12th of February “Rynda” arrived in Melbourne having given a Royal salute of 21 salvos. Reporters, as well as in previous ports, were describing the construction and the arms of the ship in full detail, admiring the ship orchestra. They noted that had been given a courteous reception by the officers, which could speak English well, the Russian sailors seemed them to be of robust physique. However, already several days after the “Age” newspaper launched a campaign for restriction of the rules of entry of foreign naval ships into the haven of Melbourne. The arms of “Rynda” and her assault potential had served as convincing arguments; the paper noted that “Rynda” could damage the fortifications using its artillery and torpedoes. Other articles told about an oncoming war between “semi-barbarous and despotic Russia” and England. Nevertheless, the people of Melbourne exposed the necessary hospitality, having proudly emphasized ‘that it does not matter in the least to what nationality the stranger belongs”. On the 22nd of February a reception with playing of organ music took place in the Town Hall, and two days after – reception in a Melbourne club. The Major of Melbourne also paid a visit to the ship.


A rather widespread event was not avoided. In the night of the 3rd of March a torpedo machinist of the 3rd class Ivan Egorov, a well-behaved, married man with children, jumped the ship. The reason of defection was a romance with a local woman. By an agreement with her, a boat approached the corvette in the night and Egorov escaped on it. His further fate remained unknown.


On the 6th of March “Rynda” left Melbourne. Ahead of her there were New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Samoa, Sophia, Ualan. Years after, being in exile, A.M. Romanov would write: “Reflections of these places ignite in me a strong spleen, which once even was a reason of my intention to reject my title and stay overseas for good… I often remember about all that after the Revolution, and it seems to me, that a remote island in the Pacific would be the most appropriate place for a man whose life was ruined by the wheels of the history… Maybe, one day my dreams will come true. Although it is sad to visit places I used to be happy in forty years ago, I firmly believe that neither ocean, nor tropic islands, nor mountains will betray me. Only people betray…”

E. Govor, A. Massov. Rynda” v gostiakh u avstraliitsev (k 110-letiyu vizita v Avstraliyu). Avstraliada, N16, Sydney. 1998.

Russian ships in Australia