Subscribe to The Brown Daily Herald Newsletter

Sign up for The Brown Daily Herald’s daily newsletter to stay up to date with what is happening at Brown and on College Hill no matter where you are right now!



Soviet battleship becomes R.I. museum

Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2012

Correction Appended.

Bell Gallery curator Ian Russell was driving along the highway with his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day two years ago when he noticed a sign for a battleship in Fall River, Mass. The two stopped to check it out, and, captivated by the sight of a Soviet vessel in the middle of New England, he brought some visiting colleagues to see the ship again early this year. After speaking with Matthew Perry, the ship’s curator, it occurred to Russell that working with a treasure like the Hiddensee battleship might appeal to Brown students interested in history.

The battleship, stationed at Battleship Cove, has captured the attention of a group of students who are working on various activities to improve the Hiddensee exhibit’s quality and depth.

A military treasure

Battleship Cove is home to the largest naval warship collection in the world and features ships that date as far back as World War II. The Hiddensee is a Soviet missile corvette built in 1984 during a period when the Soviet Union made military ships for export, primarily to East Asia. Russell said people need top-secret military clearance to visit a battleship of the same model in India, which is still in operation today. The Hiddensee was a part of the East German navy during the Cold War and was therefore associated with the Soviet Union until the German navy gave it to the United States after Germany’s reunification. 

The USSR designed the ships with the latest technology for military power and to maximize profit in sales, Russell said. When the U.S. Navy received the ship in 1991, officials realized the ship’s technology was beyond their capabilities at the time and set about reverse-engineering it to incorporate the technical knowledge into American boats. With this new technology, the Navy was able to weaken the Soviet Union’s control on the military market, Russell said, adding that this is a prime example of the military-industrial Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. East Germany gave the ship to the U.S. as a snub to the Soviet Union, Russell said.

After the U.S. Navy used the ship from 1991 to 1996, it came to Battleship Cove, where it was largely ignored for 15 years. 

“Now she’s alive,” Perry said of the ship.

A hands-on venture

Two groups of Brown students are involved in the exhibition project. Students in Russell’s course AMCV 1904L: “Cultural Heritage, Curation and Creativity” will be working on the exhibit’s presentation to make the layout more accessible to visitors. The nine students in the class will submit proposals for ways to improve the exhibit, such as providing tours or thinking of creative ways to display the exhibit’s information. They will present these ideas to the curator for him to consider incorporating in the exhibit, Russell said. This is a chance for students “to not just have airy-fairy ideas but to really, practically get to influence a new curator on a project that’s going to go in a new direction,” Russell added.

Four undergraduate students taking HIST 1420: “Twentieth-Century Russia” are also volunteering to translate the Russian text on the boat and in its manuals. The promise of translating primary sources was a big draw for the students.

As a diplomat’s daughter and the sister of a West Point student, Ksenia Weisz ’15, a Herald copy editor, has had exposure to the military in the past. Weisz also grew up in Russia and lived in Germany for two years, so she said the project “kind of combines everything.”

Caroline Sagalchik ’13, whose parents emigrated from Belarus in 1991, said she is now taking classes focused on Eastern Europe to learn more about her heritage. As a DJ at the radio station WBRU, she hopes to work more closely with the radio room on the boat, she said.

Bethany Marshall ’14 said she grew up in a “gearhead” family, so working in the engine rooms will give her exposure to something in which her family has always been interested. But the main appeal for her was getting to put her Russian to use. On her first visit, Marshall said she identified a first aid kit that had been mistakenly labeled in English as radar equipment. 

“It’s like being a kid in a candy shop,” she said. “Every time I walk on the boat, there’s something new to see.”

‘Engaging’ opportunities and trials

Russell, who is also a research fellow for the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, said this ship presents an opportunity to question “unknown histories, forgotten histories or really stereotyped histories.” He also said he saw involvement with the ship as a way to challenge students in several ways. 

Military history is not “the first thing that a young, 20-something student these days is excited about engaging with,” he said. “Maybe it’s because it’s exotic, maybe it’s because it’s something they don’t normally encounter,” but Russell said the students he has taken to see the ship have reacted enthusiastically.

All of the students involved in the translation process speak Russian, but the translation work is very technical. Sagalchik said she uncovered a technical dictionary, but Weisz said the terminology is something she “frankly (does not) even know in English.” 

They also face a transportation problem. Battleship Cove is not accessible by public transportation. 

Despite these difficulties, the students, all of whom are affiliated with the Slavic studies program, said they want their work with the Hiddensee to be an ongoing project throughout their time at Brown. 

Mutual advantage

Perry, who is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, said the project represents a “symbiotic relationship between Battleship Cove and the educational community.”

Russell said he is enthusiastic about the significance of the overall experience, adding that students might forget the value of interacting with people outside of the community for both parties.

“In a university, we’re privileged to have the time and the space to just think and reflect,” Russell said. “In the professional world, they sometimes don’t actually have much time to learn a new skill or to take a new perspective.”

Russell, who has no background in Russian history and has never done anything concerning military history before, said he gets “involved in crazy things because they’re fun.” 

“Sometimes the most important work that you will do is not something that is part of your course curriculum,” he said. “When it works and supports their academic aspirations – well, isn’t that precisely what we’re supposed to be doing?”


An earlier version of the ar incorrectly reported that the parents of Caroline Sagalchik ’13 emigrated from Belarus in 1981. In fact, her parents emigrated in 1991. The Herald regrets the error.

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed. If you have corrections to submit, you can email The Herald at