On February 22, 1918, the evacuation of Russian ships from Revel, Estonia began, that went down in history as “The Great Ice Campaign” of the Baltic Fleet.
On February 18 that year the German forces attacked the Baltic states. The Russian squadron based in Revel (now Tallinn, the capital of Estonia) was in direct danger. The Baltic Sea was covered with ice, making vessels immobile, and the German forces could easily seize them.
The Soviet Sea Commissariat decided to transport the ships to the other side of the frozen Gulf of Finland, to Helsinki, and then return them to Kronshtadt in Russia. A fleet of icebreakers headed toward Revel on February 17, and in five days the evacuation started. When on February 25 the German forces occupied Revel, most of Russian vessels were already sailing across the gulf, leaving behind an old submarine, “Unicorn,” sealed in ice and a few support boats. The entire arsenal of land-based artillery batteries and turret guns based on the shore were destroyed in a series of explosions by the Soviet army to prevent the Germans from taking over them. All rescued vessels reached their destination safely.
On March 3, 1918, Russia and Germany signed the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. According to the disadvantageous terms of the treaty, the Soviet Army was to be disarmed and discharged, and Russian battle ships were not allowed to leave their ports. In addition, Germany was going to attack Finland, so the once-saved squadron was again threatened with destruction.
Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin voiced conflicting ideas on how to deal with the fleet. Lenin insisted on moving the vessels to Kronshtadt, and Trotsky thought it would be better to leave the squadron in Finland to help the Finnish Red Army fight the Germans and internal enemies. While contradictory orders were showered from Moscow, the final decision was made by captain Aleksey Shastny, who commanded the fleet to return to the Russian port of Kronshtadt.
He divided the squadron into three squads. The first group headed toward Kronshtadt on March 12, and came to the port on March 17. The second squad left Helsinki on April 5, when the Germans occupied the Hanko Peninsula. This group reached port on April 10, and the third squad returned to Kronshtadt on April 22. Many other Russian battle ships joined the evacuation from Finland, and as a result 226 vessels were saved during this operation. Aleksey Shastny was decorated with the Red Flag Order, one of the highest military awards of the Soviet time, and became the Head of the Sea Forces of Baltic Fleet.
Successful relocation of the vessels, though, did not ease the situation. The German army used the instability around the border and pressed for further disarmament on the Soviet navy, while more forces were moved towards Petrograd, now St. Petersburg. Tattered and torn fleets became a threat to the Brest peace treaty, poor and demoralized sailors became a highly volatile force ripe for a rebellion. Trotsky decided to take radical measures against this internal threat and issued a secret order to explode all the ships which somehow leaked and created a surge of fury growing into a full scale rebellion. The riot was suppressed, and the ships were sunk.
On May 27, the government charged Shastny with rebellion. The indictment said “Perfoming the feat, Shastny gained the popularity, and was going to use it against the Soviet Power.” He was executed -- according to some sources, shot personally by Trotsky in his study -- and the “Ice Campaign” was classified.