Dr. Alexander Sledkov reveals the Russian deep diving achievements during the last century

At the beginning of the 17th century, the profession of a diver (vodolaz in Russian, meaning, “getting into water”) appeared in Russia. In the peace treaty signed between Russia and Sweden in 1721 – after the war – the right to recover sunken goods from the bottom of the sea was granted. Since that time, the underwater work in Russia was carried out regularly and with growing intensity.

In 1829, a mechanic from Kronstadt named Gauzen, designed diving equipment consisting of a waterproof suit and metal helmet. The helmet was secured to a metal trunk, which was placed between the diver’s legs. As a matter of fact, this equipment was a kind of individual bell, ventilated from the surface by a manually operated pump through a flexible hose. Gauzen replaced the trunk, which essentially complicated movements, with two belts fixed under arms. However, if the diver moved from the vertical position, water would began to penetrate under the helmet. Despite this disadvantage, Gauzen’s equipment was used in Russia until the late 1870s.

In 1834, Karl Shilder, who had built the first metal submarine, equipped the sub’s crew with a “swimming dress”, supplied with a knapsack containing compressed air. Unfortunately, the exact description of the Shilder dress was not recorded.

The position of a diver in the staff of the Russian Navy ships was established in 1861. However, the foundation of the Kronstadt Diving School did not take place until 1882. It was located on the Island of Kotlin, near St. Petersburg, and was a first rate school. The training process at the school consisted of “winter course”, which dealt in greater detail with diving theory, and a three to four month “summer course”, which focused more on practical diving. Before the revolution of 1917, an average of about a hundred divers graduated annually from the school. As a result, by 1892, more than 700 ordinary divers and 133 diving officers had graduated. During this same period, only one person out of eight who applied was selected for training.

Military-Medical Academy at Black Sea harbour of Novorossisk: Blood test on a diver goes on by the academy physicians © Historical Diver

In 1854, during the Crimean War, a group of British ships arrived in Balaklava Bay on the Black Sea to supply the army, which was besieging Sevastopol. Among them was the ship Prince, later on nicknamed in Russia as the Black Prince, which carried the wages for the British army. Some days after arriving, 21 English vessels, including the Prince, were wrecked upon the rocks as a result of a hurricane. Only six sailors were saved.

Before sailing to Sevastopol, the Prince had unloaded its cargo of money in Istanbul. But the Russians did not know this, and in 1923, they decided to organise an expedition to search for the gold. The order was signed by the chief of ChK (which later became the KGB), Felix Dzerghinskiy. The ChK official, Zaharov-Meyer, was appointed the head of that expedition, which was called “The Expedition of Underwater Works of Special Purposes” (EPRON is the Russian abbreviation). The shipwreck of the Prince was detected one and a half years later. By that time, the expedition had already spent a significant sum of state money, and the question of expediency of the work had arisen.

Suddenly, in early 1926, the Japanese diving firm Sinkai Kogiossio Ltd. offered to recover the gold for the Soviet government, and to leave all its diving equipment in Russia. At the same time, the firm wanted to get 40 percent of gold cargo as its salvage fee.

During the summer of 1926, the Japanese carried out a huge amount of work, but found only seven coins and according to the conditions of the contract, took away only three coins with them. The Oghushi Peerless mask was among the diving equipment left by the firm, and it was later known in Soviet Union as the “raid mask”. In the process of the work, the EPRON’s physician, Konstantin Pavlovskiy, paid attention to the fact that the Japanese divers, even having dived to significant depths, breathed “at the bottom” five to six times per minute, and at a frequency of breath of more than eight breathes per minute, they usually were lifted to surface without any decompression procedure.

In 1929, to investigate the physiological features of operation in the Japanese mask, Pavlovskiy addressed the Faculty of Physiology at the Military-Medical Academy, where young Eugeniy Kreps worked. He assumed that at such decreased breathing rates the divers’ blood was poorly saturated with nitrogen from the air.

At that time, academician Leon Orbeli was the head of the Faculty of the Academy of Physiology. Starting in 1929, hyperbaric physiology and diving medicine were included in the sphere of scientific interests of Leon Orbeli. At the beginning of 1935, Leon Orbeli headed an Interdepartment Commission on Emergency-Rescue Affair of the Navy, which united the department of physiology of the Military-Medical Academy, EPRON and the Training Group of Diving that produced diving instructors. A high-pressure chamber with hand pumps and some equipment for scientific research was soon mounted at the facility.

Since the summer 1930, the researchers from the facility carried out expeditions at the marine base of EPRON in the Black Sea harbor of Novorossisk, where they continued the experimental checking of their own assumptions. In the autumn of the same year, Kreps visited Great Britain, where he met John Scott Haldane and discussed with him a number of issues concerning decompression regimes. In 1939, the commission directed by Orbeli got a status of “The Constant Commission on Emergency-Rescue Affair of the Navy,” and it existed till the late 1980s.

In the early 1930s, the personnel of the Academy, having studied the designs and construction of equipment by Davis, Dreger and Belloni, began working to create modifications of Russian oxygen rebreathers. Simultaneously, research on decompression regime calculations, thermoregulation, toxical action of high-pressure oxygen and carbon dioxide, nitrogen narcosis, etc. was carried out. However, soon afterwards it became clear that nitrogen in respiratory gaseous mixtures should be replaced with a less toxic gas. This was in spite of the fact that in 1932, compressed air diving had been carried out to depths of 105 metres by Alexandr Razuvaev at the inspection of the submarine worker (Rabochiy in Russian). There had been other deep air dives too, including one to 113 metres by Ivan Chartan, and another to 137 metres by the diver Vladimir Medvedev.

In 1919, Elihu Thomson, from the USA, offered helium as a component of a respiratory mixture, and American divers used this gas in a number of research and practical dives. Helium also generated interest in the Soviet Union.  In 1936, Pavlovskiy and Êråps began researching the influence of helium-oxygen mixture on animals. In 1939, on the Black Sea, some experimental dives to the depths of more than 100 metres were performed from rescue tow Shahter (Miner, in English), which showed the significant advantages of this new gas mixture.

In 1946, between these events and under the direction of Orbeli and Kreps, Soviet divers Viskrebenzev, Ivanov, Kiyko, Kobzar and others achieved a 200-metre depth in the Black Sea from the ship Altay. They used an open diving bell, nicknamed Phaeton and close-circuit apparatus “ISA”. In 1952, divers Shvez and Martinovskiy – and I may have that name wrong – achieved a depth of 255 metres in the Barents Sea using a closed bell descending from the ship Hibini.

In 1940, in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), during tests in a chamber, a depth of 200 metres was achieved by divers breathing heliox at pressures of 18, 19 and 20 atmospheres. During these experiments, the divers experienced shivering of fingers and hands, which was reflected in a distortion of handwriting.

1941: A Russian diver at the entrance to a chamber talks with Eugeniy Kreps and EPRON's physician, Konstantin Pavlovskiy. At this time, Russian divers already achieved dry dives to 20 atmospheres in this chamber. © Historical Diver

Vladimir Smolin was the physician that recorded ECG in 1956. This ECG was deforming by electrical activity of rigid muscles, i.e., the additional electrobiological signal deformed the usual electrocardiogram. It was an unusual picture of ECG. At first, Smolin could not understand why it happened, but some years later, the rigidity of muscles during HPNS was discovered. He encountered this during the record attempts of Soviet divers to depths of up to 300 metres in the Caspian Sea in GKS-3 equipment.

Photo of GL Zalsman, who discovered High Pressure Nervous Syndrome at the end of the 1950s © Historical Diver

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The original article was written by Dr. Alexander Sledkov for the Historical Diving Society Asia section in Asian Diver Issue 3/2013. 

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