Travel to Russia
The Russian Pacific Fleet played a unique role in the establishment of the friendly ties that Russia and Thailand have been enjoying for the past 120 years.
Russian Navy’s interaction with Siam had started long before 1897, the year when King Chulalongkorn the Great visited Russia and agreed with the Russian Emperor Nicholas II on the exchange of diplomatic missions. That historic meeting in Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg was prepared by 40 years of regular contacts, most of which involved Russian Navy ships. As early as in 1863 Clipper Gaidamak and Cruiser Novik of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Squadron dropped anchors in the Gulf of Siam near Bangkok on the way to St. Petersburg after a two-year service shift in the Russian Far East.
In 1860s the Russian Empire, notwithstanding the loss to the coalition headed by England and France in the Crimea War of 1853 - 1856, was an established continental power in Eurasia with one of the biggest armies in Europe and a considerably strong navy capable of projecting power in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the White and the Barents Seas. While its ground forces were in constant readiness to be deployed anywhere in Europe and many areas in Asia, the Russian navy’s main task before 1860s was to protect Western and Southern frontiers of the vast Empire.
Russian Navy ships as well as armed vessels of the Russian-American Company Under Imperial Patronage that governed Russian Alaska out of its San Francisco headquarters (the Company ships were also commanded by Russian Navy officers), routinely ventured far into the Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans, mostly on survey and cartography missions.
The exploratory status of Russian Navy’s expeditions in the Pacific had already begun changing by the time two Russian ships made that first call to the port of Bangkok. The urgent need to develop and protect the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia started to transform Russia into a new Pacific power. Now it needed allies along the strenuous route her ships had to take around half of the World from the Baltic Sea to the Zolotoy Rog (Golden Horn) Bay where the Russian Navy was building new naval fortress Vladivostok.
Most of the Asian shoreline along that route in both Indian and Pacific Oceans belonged to Russia’s key adversary in Asia, Great Britain. Calls at ports along the way were necessary. Steam engines were playing a growing role in ship propulsion, while most of the ports in Asia where Russian ships could get coal and fresh water belonged to either Britain or France.
The Kingdom of Siam was an independent sovereign state, one of the very few left in Asia that was coming under a serious threat from her new neighbors, Britain and France. Their colonies were moving their borders closer and closer to Siam’s core territories. Siam needed friends among World powers, strong enough and willing to challenge the might of her colonial neighbors. The choice of Russia as a prospective ally was logical for Siam, as well as the choice of Siam was for Russia, even though the two peoples knew next to nothing about each other at the time.
King Mongkut (Rama IV) warmly received the commander of the Gaidamak Lt. Captain (Lt. Commander in modern terms) Alexey Peshchurov and his officers during their short stay in Siam. Peshchurov wrote in his report to the Russian Imperial Government that the Siamese Monarch had asked multiple questions and shown keen interest in Russia’s political system, history and culture. The fact that both countries were ruled by absolute monarchs revered by their subjects as Fathers of their respective peoples became an important similarity that proposed the mode of the relationship: direct exchange of messages between the Monarchs. Captain Peshchurov left Siam with an envelope addressed to the Russian Emperor Alexander II. The envelope contained Royal visiting cards of King Mongkut. Confrontation with France and uneasy relations with Britain were still decades ahead but the great Monarch foresaw them clearly and impressed the importance of building a relationship with Russia upon his son and Heir, future King Chulalongkorn.
The following 20 years saw a slow and even-paced exchange of Royal letters between the Courts of Bangkok and St. Petersburg. However dozens of calls by Russian ships and visits by Russian Navy officers on their way to Vladivostok and back, as well as a visit in 1875 by famous Russian explorer Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay who always reported on his travels directly to the Russian Emperor, spoke of a steadily growing bilateral relationship.
In 1882 the officers of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Squadron serving under Admiral Avraam Aslanbegov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Pacific Command, took part in the celebrations of the 100-years Jubilee of the Chakri Dynasty of Siam.
Vice-Admiral Vsevolod Rudnev, the famous commander of Cruiser Varyag in the Battle of Chemulpo Bay in 1904, in 1882 was a Lieutenant under Aslanbegov’s command. He wrote in his memoire, that, after the celebration military parade, in which Russian sailors and a Russian Navy brass band had taken part, King Chulalongkorn took Admiral Aslanbegov to one of his palaces. The King showed him a wall on which coats of arms of various countries of the World were displayed, with highest decorations of those countries, awarded to the King as symbols of establishment of diplomatic relations. The Russian coat of arms had no decorations.
‘Gentlemen, I would have gladly awarded Orders of White Elephant to all of you if my country had diplomatic relations with the Russian Empire’, said the Monarch as quoted by Rudnev. The Russian Admiral wrote that fifteen years later in 1897, when the first Russian diplomatic mission opened in Siam and an Order of St. Andrew, the highest decoration of Russia, was placed on the Russian coat of arms in the Royal Palace, a set of Orders of White Elephant was sent to St. Petersburg. They contained a list of Aslanbegov’s officers who were awarded Siamese decorations.
Rudnev also wrote that, to his great surprise, in 1882 he found several Russian officers and engineers serving on Siamese steam-powered ships. They had been hired on long-term contracts by the Royal Siamese Government, the Siamese Navy and merchant shipping companies.
Exchange of letters and telegraph cable messages between the Siamese and the Russian Monarchs became much more active during the reign of the Russian Emperor Alexander III who ascended to the throne in 1881. An experienced military General and veteran of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 – 1878 who commanded the Russian Danube task force that liberated most of the Balkans from the grip of the Ottoman Empire, the new Russian Monarch became known as The Peacemaker Emperor. During his reign Russia never took part in any armed conflict and constantly conducted diplomatic efforts aimed at peaceful resolution of disputes between nations.
It was on the Russian Emperor’s orders that Admiral Aslanbegov officially visited Siam during the celebrations of the 100 years anniversary of the Chakri Dynasty before paying another official visit on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, to the United States of America.
When in 1890 the Emperor decided to send his son, Crown Prince Nicholas, the Heir to the Russian throne, on a diplomatic and cultural mission around the Asian Continent, he contacted King Chulalongkorn of Siam first by a letter delivered by a Navy ship, and then by cable. The letter remained confidential while the text of the cable in which the Russian Emperor formally addressed the Siamese King as an equal Sovereign and entrusted the safety of his son and Heir to His Siamese Majesty was published by every major newspaper in the World. Emperor Alexander III, having already normalized Russia’s relations with Great Britain, was at that time building an alliance with France. As his son Nicholas after him, Alexander III employed the deep respect he commanded with his French counterparts to do his part in the protection of Siamese sovereignty.
Crown Prince Nicholas arrived in Bangkok in March 1891 on board the fastest ship of the Russian Navy of that time, the Armored Cruiser Pamiat Azova. The visit became the first face-to-face meeting of a Siamese King and a member of the Russian Imperial family. From that day on, friendship between King Chulalongkorn and Crown Prince Nicholas Romanov, who three years later ascended the Russian throne as Emperor Nicholas II, became the main driving force in the further development of the relationship between the two nations. The two Monarchs met in person only twice: first in Bangkok in 1891 and again in St. Petersburg in 1897, but they maintained regular correspondence for nearly twenty years, and the Royal letters were mostly delivered by Russian Navy ships.
In 1911 the Cruiser Avrora brought to Siam a Russian delegation headed by Grand Duke Boris, an uncle of Nicholas II, to take part in the festivities on the occasion of the Coronation of King Vajiravudh, Rama VI.
From 1898 till 1917 the Navy also handled most of the diplomatic pouch coming in and going out of the Russian Imperial Mission in Siam. Commanding officers of the Russian Pacific Fleet were regularly received by members of the Siamese Royal Family, many were awarded Siamese decorations.
The last known official call to the port of Bangkok by a Russian Imperial Navy ship happened in 1914, during the First World War when Cruiser Askold operating as part of the Franco-Brito-Russian naval force in the Pacific was on the way to the Mediterranean on the orders of the Allied Command.
From 1920s to 1990s Russian Merchant vessels were regularly seen in the port of Bangkok and in other Thai ports, but there were no official visits by Russia’s Navy ships. Finally, in November 1997 a Russian Pacific Fleet diesel submarine accompanied by a supply ship came for a two-week call to the port of Sattahip. A Deputy Commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet was on board. There was a series of meetings between the Russian Admiral and his Thai counterparts, mutual visits by officers of the Russian submarine and HTMS Chakri Naruebet, daily tours of the submarine for officers of the Thai Navy. Even tours for general public were organized. The first official visit to Thailand of a Russian Navy ship in over 70 years became a true celebration of Thai – Russian friendship.
Many visits by Russian Pacific Fleet ships followed. Russian warships visits to Thai ports have once again become regular events, in revival of a good tradition of friendly calls born over 150 years ago.
Yevgeny Belenky is a Russian historian and journalist. He is currently RIA “Novosti” Chief correspondent for Southeast Asia.