Museum of the World Ocean
On the must-do list during a trip to Kaliningrad is a visit to the Museum of the World Ocean. Located near the centre of the city, the museum is a legacy to the Russian water craft which sailed upon the sea and below its waves, and to the art and spirit of oceanography throughout the ages.
The first thing that any visitor notices upon arrival is the three ships moored just to the side of one of the main Kaliningrad bridges. There are two ships, and then closest to the main road is a submarine with its tell-tale black body and turret sleeping quietly on the banks of the Pregolya River.
There are a crop of buildings inside the gated area of the museum and a number of static land exhibitions like a mast and crows nest taken from the deck of a ship, some smaller exploratory submarines, buoys, anchors and lifeboats.
One of the buildings is an administrative centre while another houses an exhibition of fish, whales and dolphins, and yet another is a tribute to the early years of the fishing society in Koenigsburg within a more historical setting.
Outside the submarine is a small information kiosk surrounded by torpedoes, guns and cannon turrets taken from boat decks and information posters with all sorts of historic material.
The submarine moored just as you walk into the museum is a B-413, known in NATO circles as a Foxtrot class diesel electric submarine, was commissioned in 1968 and retired from active service in 2000.
Our guide Galina Liubogoshenkskaja tells us that a feature of the museum is that all the water vessels are kept in working order, and you could, if the need arose, turn the key and head out into the seven seas in any of the vessels on display.
Indeed the Kosmonavt Viktor Patsaev is still in active service, communicating with the international space station, and guests are only allowed aboard only as part of guided tours because there are still some sensitive areas to be kept away from prying and spying eyes.
Our first venture was into the submarine, and on entering the nose of the underwater craft I am at once fascinated by the incredibly complex plumbing surrounding the six torpedo tubes at the front of the submarine, and surprised by the amount of space.
There is a specialist guide sitting in the torpedo area. All these guides are ex-sailors, and while they might not have served on the exact same ships, these are retired submariners who introduce you to the area and answer your more detailed questions.
The vast amount of space, he tells me, is an illusion. During service the whole front area would have been filled with torpedoes and the stereotypically cramped conditions of a submarine would prevail here as well.
I later learn that although the Foxtrot class submarines were not nuclear powered, they did carry torpedoes with nuclear warheads, and it was just such a submarine which was a player in the Cuban missile crisis. It seems odd to stand in a submarine that was an instrument of the Soviet Empire that was in the cauldron of the Cold War.
What strikes you most as you walk along the narrow corridors and squeeze through the seemingly miniscule portholes that protect each section, is the incredible mechanical complexity. This 1960s technology required pipes, cumbersome and hard wearing switches and large well worn wheels to keep the submarine either afloat or submerged, as needs dictated.
These Foxtrot class submarines became almost obsolete as a serious weapon system even by the 1980s, as its role was taken over by its nuclear powered cousins. There is a display housing models of the various classes of submarines showing that indeed the B-413 was dwarfed in size compared to its modern nuclear counterpart. The B-413 did however continue to play a more supportive role until the final examples were retired by 2000. They served first as part of the Northern Fleet, and later in the Baltic Fleet.
As we squeeze through yet another small circular porthole air-lock like you see in submarine movies, I ask the specialist guide sitting at the next post if there was a minimum height requirement for joining the submariners, as I squashed myself and my photo gear through what seems like the eye of a needle. Diplomatically he replies that in fact the last commander of this submarine was over two metres tall. A nice way of suggesting that girth might be more the problem than my height.
The command centre is narrow and cramped, and our guide further explains that there would have been eight people in this area during active duty. I ask where the periscope is, and he points to some stairs which lead to the turret, but tells us we are not allowed up there. I guess there’s still some things our old adversary still doesn’t really want to share.
We pass the cabins, the kitchen and diesel engines, before exiting past the escape tubes where yet another ex-submariner explained to us the emergency procedures for getting to the surface in case the submarine was somehow stranded on the ocean floor.
The next step of the tour was aboard the Vityaz, a retired research vessel which sailed the world oceans from 1949 to 1979. The first thing you notice is that this branch of seamanship is infinitely more comfortable and spacious than that of the submariner. A stately staircase, wide halls and doorways that wouldn’t even require a minimal bend from our skinny two metre tall submarine commander.
The extra space aboard the Vityaz allows the display of many expositions to do with oceanography and maritime discovery, especially from the previous two centuries. These enthralling exhibitions filled a giant gap in my knowledge of Russian efforts and history in marine exploration.
From the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between and below; fish and the ocean floor, sail and steam, communication and even the well restored captain’s lounge with original piano that would be the dream of a thousand cramped submariners.
Beyond these and many more exhibits and examples, the Museum of the World Ocean also promotes activities to do with the sea. There are sailing clubs and seminars especially designed for children, and to get them interested in the sea and all forms of water sports and sciences.
They also host festivals and birthday events that Galina tells me attract so many people that the whole of the museum gets so crowded you couldn’t drop an apple to the ground.
For old salts and landlubbers alike, this is a must.
The Museum of the World ocean
1 Petra Velikogo Embankment, Kaliningrad, Russia
Tel: 007 (4012) 34-02-44