• The Left Chapter

Sputniks of the Soviet riverways

A brief look at the hydrofoils of the USSR

A Volga Raketa, 1982

One little known (in the west) story of Soviet innovation and design in transportation is that of the passenger hydrofoil fleets that brought the space age to the riverways of the USSR.

A Sputnik model enters the port of Kazan, 1968

The USSR produced several highly advanced hydrofoil models under the guidance of pioneering engineer Rostislav Alexeyev. The first of these was the Raketa -- Rocket in English -- (1957) which was followed by other designs including the Meteor, the Kometa and the Sputnik. Many of the early ones were manufactured at the Krasnoye Sormovo Factory No. 112, also known as Red Sormovo in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod).

Meteor model on the Dnieper, Kiev, 1985 (Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The first Raketa voyage was on 25 August, 1957, when 30 passengers made the 420 km voyage on the Volga from Gorky to Kazan (420 km) in seven hours.

Hydrofoil on the Volga just outside of Volgograd, 1975 (Thomas Taylor Hammond (1920-1993) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Using canals and other techniques, the Soviets created a massive river transportation network that was critically important for both freight and passenger cargo. There were over 100,000 rivers in the USSR and by 1967 the Soviets had created a network of navigable riverways of around 142,000 km, which was twice that of the USA, France, West Germany and Italy combined. These included many of the most famous Soviet rives such as the Volga and Dnieper (which we have looked at before on The Left Chapter).

Inside a Raketa

The hydrofoil fleet was exceptionally fast and offered considerable comfort in a craft with truly sleek and appealing lines. Some models could reach speeds of up to 150 km per hour. On the Volga the Raketa and Meteor hydrofoils could make the the 400 km run from Volgograd (Stalingrad) to Astrakhan in 9 hours, while it would take 13 hours by train and 10 hours by bus. By the 1980s one passenger Volga hydrofoil fleet unit headed by Captain Fyodor Chernov had 26 vessels alone. At least 3,000 hydrofoils were manufactured during the Soviet era.

Hydrofoil on the Dnieper, 1975 (Thomas Taylor Hammond (1920-1993) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Other socialist countries, such as Vietnam, also acquired some of these hydrofoils.

Meteor hydrofoil in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 2012 (Ilya Plekhanov - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45608003)

Tragically with the collapse of the USSR the large, affordable public transit networks it had built collapsed as well. Most were privatized and many lines were split between different new countries.

Faded glory (Svetlov Artem, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56893701)

Many hydrofoils were simply scrapped. Some ended up as novelty bars or restaurants on land. Some became private yachts for the new oligarchs. Some remain in service. But the height of the Soviet hydrofoil era is now a distant memory.