The 'hero' ship of Russia and Newfoundland and Labrador

Mar 26th, 2014

Janet Harron

The 'hero' ship of Russia and Newfoundland and Labrador

At a time when tensions between Russia and the rest of the world are strained, Memorial University recently hosted two Russian filmmakers who came away greatly impressed by the wealth of the university’s archives. Their visit revealed some of the unexplored and unexpected historical bonds between Russia and Canada and, in this case, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Vladimir Pleshakov and Aleksey Rezvykh, both based in Moscow, are completing a historical documentary about the ship SS Bellaventure. The vessel, which was built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1908, was involved as a rescue vessel in the 1914 sealing disaster before being sold in 1915, along with her two sister ships, to the Imperial Russian Navy for work in the White Sea. The Bellaventure was re-christened the Alexander Sibiriakov after a 19th century Russian merchant oligarch who financed northern exploration and research.

The Sibiriakov became a well-known Arctic icebreaker along the Northern Sea Route (a shipping lane from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean; completely in Arctic waters, it is only free of ice two months of the year) where it supported convoys and distributed military materials from Russia’s Triple Entente allies -- the United Kingdom and France. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the ship retained its name (unlike other Russian ships and cities) and eventually acquired the affectionate nickname “Sasha.” In 1932 the Sibiryakov was declared a “hero ship” of the USSR after successfully navigating the Northern Sea Route in one expedition, which at that time was considered impossible. 

The Russian documentary team received a grant from the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Culture to travel to St. John’s in order to research the Newfoundland and Labrador chapter of the ship’s illustrious life.

“This story underlines a moment where Canadian and Russian history intersect,” said Dr. Stuart Durrant of the Department of German and Russian, who is also the honorary consul for the Russian Federation in Newfoundland and Labrador. “Their enthusiasm for the story is infectious and they have shared so much fascinating material with us about the history of theBellaventure after it was sold to Russia.” 

At the beginning of the Second World War, the Sibiryakov was armed. The ship carried troops, artillery shells and food rations across the White Sea and evacuated wounded military personnel. The Sibiriakov was sunk after a heroic battle against the battle cruiser Admiral Scheer on Aug. 25, 1942. According to Mr. Pleshakov and Mr. Rezvykh, many of the Soviet sailors onboard would not surrender and went down with their ship.

Between visits to The Rooms and the Archives and Special Collections Division at the Queen Elizabeth II Library, the filmmakers spent time at the Faculty of Arts’ Maritime History Archive.

According to archivist Heather Wareham, they viewed photographs, local newspapers and entries from the diaries of James Ryan Ltd. of Bonavista and Philip Templeton Ltd. of Catalina.

SS Bellaventure photo courtesy of the Maritime History Archive


Two of the Ryan diary entries can be viewed here and here.

“The second link is particularly interesting because it lists the names of some of the men lost from that area during the sealing disaster,” said Ms. Wareham. “They were very enthusiastic researchers, and were amazed by the amount of material they found. The Bellaventure was one of the rescue ships used in the famous 1914 sealing disaster, so I guess it was a ‘hero ship’ here as well.”

During their visit, the filmmakers also visited an advanced Russian class to discuss a film the students are studying. They were, according to Dr. Durrant, “a big hit.”

The filmmakers also met with archivist Jenny Higgins and retired history professor Dr. Shannon Ryan who have both recently published books on the sealing disaster. A copy of the finished documentary will be donated to Memorial.