by Vladimir Yakubov

After Russia's loss in the Crimean war in 1856 Russia was forbidden to have any warships in the Black Sea by Treaty of Paris, leaving one of the most important parts of Russia - its only non-freezing sea ports and the area through which most of Russia's sea trade went, unprotected.  Hence in the late-1860s Russia started to think about abrogating the terms of the treaty in order to protect its coast against rapidly deteriorating relations with Turkey. It was obvious that in the beginning the strategy for the Russian fleet would be purely defensive against relatively powerful Turkish fleet and so in the 1869 it was decided to build armored warships to protect the coast and the ports. This where the Rear-Admiral Popov comes in, in the 1860s he was the unofficial head of the shipbuilding in Russia -officially the man in charge of the shipbuilding in Russia was Vice-Admiral Krabbe, but given the patronage system in Russia at the time and Admiral Popov's connections to General-Admiral (Commander of the Navy) Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, brother to the ruling tsar Alexandr II, he had a wide latitude in the projects that he could build. It was during the design discussions, Popov suggested an idea that he had for a while - building round ships which would have carried heavy armor and armament on smallest draft and displacement. To prove the concept a small round steam launch with a diameter 3.35m was built. It proved successful enough for the construction of the full size ships to proceed. In 1871 with the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian was Russia denounced the Treaty or paris and set about restoring it's Black Sea fleet.

Initially 6 round ships were planned, but to begin with two were laid down in St. Petersburg in the beginning of 1871. If you are thinking that this sounds wrong as St. Petersburg is on the wrong sea, you are correct, but since the south of Russia was really underdeveloped in those years the ship hulls had to be laid down and built in St. Petersburg, then disassembled, shipped to the Black Sea port of Nikolaev in pieces, and then assembled again. This caused the immeasurable delays as the railroad to Nikolaev was only completed in the middle of the construction and sometimes reached absurdity, when it proved easier and cheaper to buy Russian wood in England and have it delivered to Nikolaev, rather than to ship it from the interior of the country.  Nonetheless the construction of the first ship, called Novgorod, started on 17 December 1871, while the second one, Kiev, was laid down in January 1872.  Novgorod's construction proceeded relatively smoothly but Kiev became a platform for Popov's experiments - new, lighter engines were ordered for it, armament and armor was increased and in the end the construction was stopped to await testing results of the first ship.  Due to a bad financial situation in Russia at the time the other four ships were at first postponed and then cancelled all together. 

Due to various delays in supplying the materials Novgorod was launched only on 21 May 1873.  The ship was perfectly round with a diameter of 30.78m and displaced 2490 tons.  It was armored with 9" upper and 7" lower belts and 1" armored deck.  In the central circular barbette, armored with 9" armor, the ship carried two 26-ton 11" guns.  The machinery arrangement was unusual, ship had six boilers and six engines arranged perpendicularly in the hull making 3360hp, each engine turning it's own screw.  Three days after launch the sea trials of Novgorod began, during which it was determined that the top speed of the ship is 7 knots, which, as Popov triumphantly put in his message to headquarters, was equivalent to the speed of the other coast defense ships in the Russian navy at the time.  Soon afterward the guns were installed.  The gunnery trials showed a low rate of fire of 12-13 minutes per shot (which was also comparable to the other warships of the time), a maximum range of 4200m at the maximum elevation of 14.5 degrees and the ability to pierce 11" of armor at 730m.  It was during the gunnery trials a legend about these ships was born - the guns on the Novgorod were installed on a circular track and the trials showed that the brakes that fixed the guns into position were too weak and during the shot they rotated on the track.  The brakes were fixed but the legend mutated into the rumor the entire ship rotated during shooting and persists to this day. Initially there was no aft superstructure on the ship only a light deck aft of the barbette with a steering wheel, but based on the sea trials a real superstructure with an enclosed bridge was added.  Overall the trials, predictably, showed that the ship had problems going against the waves since it's low speed became even lower, but at the same time could ride out even a heavy storm with only light rolling.

The construction of the second ship was stopped in mid 1872 and the redesign work only resumed after the trials of Novgorod in August 1873 with what was called in the report by Admiral Popov "some changes shown by tests".  In reality what was supposed to be a sister ship to Novgorod, became a completely different ship.  The ship was actually 6m bigger in diameter, becoming 36.57m, which necessitated the disassembly of the already built components.  The armament was increased to two 12" guns and the maximum thickness of armor was increased to 18".  On 13 August tsar Alexandr II allowed the construction of the redesigned ship and in October the ship was renamed Vitse-Admiral Popov in honor of its designer.  The actual work started only in the spring of 1874 while the ship was officially laid down on 27 August 1874.  The work was constantly interrupted by the problems with the delivery of parts.  The ship was launched on 25 Sept 1875.  The general layout of the ship was the same as the first popovka, but with everything being bigger.  The main belt and the barbette armor was now composed of two layers - a 9" and a 7" layer.   The ship had an amazing 8 engines and 12 boilers, making 4480hp, driving six screws (two inner screws were driven by two engines each).  The armament consisted of two 12" disappearing guns and four 87mm light guns in the side sponsons.  Because of the expected war with Turkey the main guns were installed on the temporary mountings which were too weak for them, while the proper mounts were being made.  To improve the sea keeping the main superstructure was increased in size and resembled the hull of the normal ship.  The ship reached 8 knots during trials, and was 1.75 knots faster than Novgorod at full speed.  During the comparative trials between these two ships it was noticed that the outer screws were not effective and with only four screws the speed was only about half a knot less on either ships, the the outer engines and screws were removed to save weight, space and money.  After the removal of the outer engines Novgorod's engines made a total of 2000hp while Popov's 3066hp.

The Russo-Turkish war began on 12 April 1877 and both ships were assigned to the "active defense of Odessa", which mean that they spent almost entire war at anchor there.  They left port only three times during the war spending about 4 days at sea.  Turks were sited near Odessa only once and the ships moved out to intercept, but Turks never came close enough to fire.  The ships proved themselves to be dissatisfactory in any role but defense, and the critics during the war pointed out that such an expensive investment for the only two proper warships in the theatre was unjustified, as in the end the war was fought by the converted merchantmen  and mine launches, while the purpose built ships proved useless.  The ships has the endurance of only 5 days coupled with their low speed meant that they couldn't even get to the Turkish shore to attack it and given their slowness they couldn't even intercept the Turkish warships that were attacking Russian shoreline.  In general, designed as the main force of the Black Sea fleet, they proved to be completely useless against everything but the direct attack on the city that they were protecting.

After the end of the war on 12 February 1878, in the summer of 1878 both ships made a successful outing to the Danube river and even went up the river to Sulin.  both ships maneuvered adequately in the river.  In January 1879 Popov finally received proper mounts for it's main guns and during gunnery trials showed a rate of fire of 1 round every 14 minutes per gun, with the maximum range of 5500m.  Throughout the year machinery trials continued, and a good sea keeping of the ships showed a promise that they can be used on the open seas.  To increase endurance a sailing rig was proposed and to test out a concept three different small (two with 4.6m diameter and one with 6m  diameter) round sailboats were built.  They showed that it is possible to use sails to propel such a ship, but nothing was done to either popovka. 

Despite a somewhat dissatisfactory debute of of his creations, Admiral Popov didn't abandon an idea of a round ship and a while later he proposed a seagoing round ship with 24" armor, four 16" guns and 14 knot top speed.  Unfortunately the trials of hull models showed that to obtain a 14 knot speed with a round hull one would need 5 times the horse power compared to the 9 knot speed and the idea was shelved.  The trials showed that to reach the needed speed the hull had to be oval rather than round.  A perfect opportunity presented itself in late 1878 after Tsar's Black Sea yacht run-around and was destroyed. Admiral Popov obtained permission to build a round yacht for the emperor.  The good sea keeping qualities of the Popovkas seemed perfect for an imperial yacht Livadiya and he would get an opportunity to try an oval hull for speed. Yacht, also called Livadiya, was built in England in 1879-81 and was not perfectly round but oval.  It displaced 4420tons and had a top speed of 14 knots.  Everything seemed fine, but on the trip from UK to Sevastopol the yacht ran into a heavy storm in the Bay of Biscay and while the rolling and pitching was very light, the water was hitting the shallow round hull with such a force that it felt like it was hitting a brick wall.  The hull was heavily damaged and required it to be repaired in one of the Spanish ports. Since there wasn't a single dock in Europe that could hold the yacht, the repairs took over seven months.  After getting to the Black Sea, the yacht made only one trip in the its official capacity, during which it once again ran into bad weather and confirmed that the hull was hutting the waves with such a force that the superstructure vibrated and the hull was once again damaged.  After it returned to port the yacht was quietly stripped of all of its finery and left in the quiet corner of the port. 

The era of Admiral Popov's experiments came to a close with the ascension of tsar Alexander III to the throne, who disliked the admiral's patron General-Admiral Konstanin Nikolaevich.  Admiral Popov, now without any official power, continued to pursue the idea of a round ship and apparently designed a 11000 ton oval battleship with eight 12" guns.  Meanwhile the Livadiya was so disliked by the new Tsar that he refused to use it an ordered it to be scrapped (even the suggestion to use it as a prison ship was met with refusal).  Admiral Popov fought to save his creation writing letters to everyone who would listen, as even those who wouldn't, asking to allow him to continue trials, promising or redesign the bow to solve the wave slapping problem. He was able to save the ship from scrapping but it never sailed again. In 1883 it was renamed Opyt and was initially proposed for a use as a troop transport but in the end the machinery was removed to be reused on other ships and it was used as a hulk.  In that form it survived into 1930s, when it was scrapped.  Two Popovkas had a different fate, up until mid 1880s they were the only large warships in the Russian Black Sea fleet, so both of them were kept in working order and periodically repaired.  After the proper battleships of the Ekaterina II class were commissioned the Popovkas left to quietly sit in port until in 1893 the question of their scrapping was raised.  Surprisingly the current head of the navy at the time turned out to be against scrapping them and wanted them to be repaired and placed in reserve.  When it turned out that both needed extensive (and expensive) repairs nothing was done, but the bureaucratic wrangling continued for the next 10 years, when finally in 1903, as completely useless, they were disarmed and were removed from the naval rolls.  They were both sold for scrap in 1911.

V.G. Andrienko, "Kruglue Suda Admirala Popova" (Admiral Popov's Round Ships), Gangut, St. Petersburg, 1994
"Novgorod" at
"Vitse-Admiral Popov" at

The Kit

The kit comes from NNT models from Europe.  It is well cast in tan resin and contains a very nice photoetch fret.  The kit consists of 29 resin and 26 photoetch pieces.  Since there are basically no references that are available on it - I found two wildly different drawings, two very blurry and one sharp photo and that is it, I was not able to verify the accuracy of the kit, except that the basic shape, size and the layout seem to correlate with the available photographs.  The diameter of the hull is also correct given the available information.

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The Hull

Given the paucity of the references I made the decision not to fiddle too much with changing the details of the ship unless they didn't conform to the photos that I had.  Therefore the hull was left as is, the only minor improvements I made was to slightly modify the front of the superstructure to better conform to the photos and to reposition the casemate covers on the sponsons.  The three rows of raised squares on the deck raised a question since I couldn't understand what they were for, but since they are clearly visible in the only good photo that I have I decided to leave them there and just lightly sanded them to make them less pronounced.  After cleaning up the hull I attached the smoke stacks, as they are the most prominent part of the ship and everything will later be aligned on them.  At this point I did the only major change to the ship - I scratchbuilt the large ventilator heads on the inside of the stacks.  The ones given in the kit were too small compared to the photos.  I also scratchbuilt two small ventilator heads in front of the superstructure as those given in the kit were too big (but not big enough to be used in place of the big ventilator heads).  The ventilator heads were scratchbuilt by taking the plastic tube and making a v-shaped cut in it and folding the ends to a 90 degree angle. I then faired it in using superglue and to make sure that the opening was perfectly round, cut off a piece of the brass tube and used that at the opening.

After the major parts were added to the hull and it was primed to make sure that all of the imperfections were taken care of, I detailed the hull using the various photoetch doors.  Since the ship rarely left port I wanted to show it in its natural environment - at anchor with various hatches opened, so I drilled out shallow indentations into the superstructure in the locations where the opened doors and hatches would be.  After painting the ship the indentations were painted black and the doors were added.  The overall effect came out pretty well.  The inside of barbette was also detailed by adding the internal ribs that were cut from a perforated photoetch sheet.  Various other minor details were added.

Now it was time for painting the ship.  The colors that the ship carried during it's career are not very clear, surviving photos show either light gray sides - dark gray hull and decks or white sides - black hull and deck.  I decided to paint it in the black and white Victorian color scheme for its visual impact and because other Russian ships of the era carried that color scheme, so it makes sense that this ship would also be painted that way.  First I airbrushed the ship black using PollyS acrylics and the masked it off and airbrushed Model Master white on the sides.  After the necessary touch ups were done I did the wash using the stuff called "Black-It-Out".  It's a water soluble ink-like stuff that once dry I remove with a Q-tip and a stiff brush.  The final step was drybrushing with a lighter color.


After the painting was done it was time to detail the ship.  Detailing was actually pretty simple because most of it involved adding the railings and ladders.  I used the railings from Lion Roar and ladders from bits and pieces of Kombrig photoetch.  The hatches came from Lion Roar's US doors and hatches set.  The hardest part of detailing the ship was adding the photoetch side bridges.  They came in the kit and consisted of 4 photoetch pieces each.  The main difficulty was in the fact that they were extremely fragile and fiddly, so it was hard to assemble them without bending them.  I drilled holes in the hull where the legs of the supports were to go into and then glued the legs into them.  The fit of the photoetch to the stacks was not perfect so I covered the top of the bridges with 0.005 thickness plastic that I fitted to the exact curvature of the stacks.  Various small bits an pieces were added around the ship to round out the detailing.  All of the photoetch anchor chains that I found were too big for the ship, so I created the chain using a different technique - I took a piece of round plastic rod I squeezed it with a flat side of the hobby knife in an alternating pattern to create an impression of a chain.



The ship was armed with two 12"/20 disappearing guns in a central barbette and four 87mm guns in the side sponson casemates. Unlike the rest of the ship I was fortunate enough to find good references on the armament.  I found a good photo of the interior of the barbette and a plan of the gun mounts, so I had enough information to super detail it.  To begin with I made the turn table for the guns from the perforated photoetch sheet and used that as the base for the guns.  I then made the cradles from the strips of plastic.  To show that the guns were on disappearing carriages I decided to pose one gun in the up and another in the down position.  The kit had some rudimentary PE details for the gun mounts which were incorrect but provided enough material to make the correct arms that raised and lowered the guns.  I used the gunbarrels from the kit as they were very well shaped and looked exactly like the barrels on the real ship.  The cylinders that raised and lowered the guns were made from brass rod and plastic tubes and various control arms were added, as were the photoetch ammo cranes, which came from WEM Askold set.

The 87mm guns were inside the casemates and in those days the barrels were short enough that when the casemate covers were closed the guns were not visible.  The kit also contains 9 generic small guns and suggests that 6 of them be placed on the forward superstructure in front of the 12" guns.  This is not only illogical as it would have interfered with the firing of the 12" guns (and most likely killed anyone trying to man those small guns) it is also not confirmed by any serious sources, so I left them off.


Masts and Boats

I used the boats from the kit, and made the simulated canvas covers for them from foil.  I used the davits from the kit to attach the boats to the ship.  Two bigger boats seen around the ship came from the spares box.  The masts were extremely simple pole masts that were made from a piece of a brass rod.  I always add the masts last, in order not to damage them while handling the model during construction.  Rigging was done using the string from pantyhose.


Weathering was done using pastels.  As the ship is shown in port and in peace time I went easy on the rust and grime and just added some soot to the smoke stacks and some rust around the anchor chains.



It was a fast and satisfying build of a very unique ship.  Given the lack of references it will make a nice break even for the most AMS addicted modeler and will make a very interesting model even if built straight out of the box.  Even the super detailing of the barbette can be avoided by putting the canvas cover on top of it as was popular at the time on the ships in the hot climates.  The ship makes a visually interesting model of this quirky ship and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in that era of warships.

The Ships of Vladimir Yakubov