On November 1, 1899, the Varyag cruiser, a legend of the Russian navy, took to the seas.
The cruiser was built in a dockyard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on a Russian government contract. To mark the end of the construction, the Russian community in Philadelphia built a church and conducted a special service to bless the new ship, attended by the local US authorities, the Russian ambassador and all of the residents.
The ship was an advanced model of an armor-decked two-mast cruiser, weighing 6500 tons. However, it did have its shortcomings – it was only capable of accelerating up to 19 knots instead of the stated 23 knots. Exceeding this speed limit caused the engine and the boilers to break down.
On February 9, 1904, right before the start of the Russo-Japanese War, the Varyag, under the command of Vsevolod Rudnev, was stationed in the neutral Korean port of Chemulpo Bay. The Japanese sent a flotilla of 15 ships to Chemulpo in order to cover land operations to be started soon. Rear Admiral Uriu demanded that Russian ships leave Chemulpo and surrender, threatening otherwise to sink them. Rudnev did not give in to the ultimatum, hoping to still be able to break out of the port on their own. The Varyag and the gunboat left Chemulpo and attacked the Japanese ships, managing to damage three of the Japanese cruisers and sink one destroyer (according to Russian reports). The Varyag and Koreets sustained damages and crew losses in this fight and eventually had to turn back to the port. At 13:00, the Russian captain, with the support of the rest of the crew, decided to scuttle the ship, with the crew safely delivered to the British cruiser Talbot, the French cruiser Pascal, and the Italian cruiser Elba. The Japanese allowed the Russians to go to neutral ports after receiving a promise that they would not take part in combat operations.
The Chemulpo battle immediately made the headlines of the foreign newspapers. Inspired by the media frenzy around it, a German poet, Rudolph Grents, wrote a poem hailing the Varyag’s feat, which, translated into the Russian language, became a beloved heroic marine song. Japanese propaganda also called Russian sailors the perfect example of soldiers following the samurai warrior code.
Captain Vsevolod Rudnev was decorated with a number of orders for the heroic operation, and so were all of the surviving crew, as the Varyag had become a symbol of marine courage.
However, it is debated whether the famous Varyag feat really happened, or if it was just another stunt the Russian government pulled to cover for its serious faults committed during the Russo-Japanese War. It has recently been revealed that the first intention of the Russian naval authorities was to sue Rudnev for giving up the cruiser to the enemy without even destroying it. After the Russian fleet lost nine ships without firing a single shot at the major Battle of Port Arthur, the failure at Chemulpo didn’t seem as devastating, and the authorities decided to present the Battle at the Chemulpo Bay as a feat, to pull the focus from the Port Arthur failures.
As for the Varyag, it was later salvaged by the Japanese and repaired. It then served with the Imperial Japanese Navy as the light cruiser “Soya”, until it was bought out by Russia in 1916. After the Russian Revolution the cruiser sailed to Great Britain where it was eventually confiscated and sold for scrap. In 1925 the ship sank in the Irish Sea while being towed to Germany.