After the Russo-Japanese war the Russian fleet faced a critical shortage of battleships and the few that remained were rapidly becoming obsolete. The situation only worsened in 1906 when the British completed HMS Dreadnought, a revolutionary battleship design that began a naval arms race that would only end with the beginning of the Great War in 1914.
In light of these events the Russian navy decided that it would require four Dreadnought-type warships for their Baltic Fleet in the event of war with Germany. The ships would have to attain a speed of at least 21 knots, be armed with twelve 12 inch guns, and have a further 16 4.7 inch guns in casemates.The result was a ship that fell somewhere between a battlecruiser and a battleship, and was known as a 'Baltic Dreadnought'. It was a powerful design that could deliver a more powerful broadside than any contemporary British or German warship of the day. It was also quite fast, some 2-3 knots faster than other dreadnoughts. This was accomplished by using lighter Yarrow boilers rather than the heavier Belleville type found in earlier ships. It also featured an icebreaking bow to enable it to operate year round in the Baltic Sea. For protection against torpedoes and mines the ship had a double hull that reached as far up as the ship's deck. The ship had a major vulnerability though as it sacrificed armor for speed. In most places the ship's armor was one to three inches less than comparable ships.
Construction of the ships began in 1909 but almost immediately ran into difficulties as the Russian shipyards lacked the ability to construct such complicated warships. Work stopped in 1910 because of doubts regarding the strength of the ship's hull and poor workmanship. It took two more years for work to resume. By this time the yards had been improved and the terrible Russian administrative system had been fixed. The delay had allowed foreign navies to launch new battleships with 13.5 inch guns and neutralize any advantage the Russians were expecting.
All four ships were launched in 1911 where then underwent sea trials. The first of the class to be commissioned was the Sevastopol in November of 1914. The remaining three ships followed in December of that year.
Almost instantly the ships found themselves in the midst of the Great War, during which they operated in the Baltic Sea. Unfortunately memories of the defeat at Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese war were still fresh on the minds of the Russian admirals who were afraid to commit the ships in major operations for fear of losing them. This mindset severely limited the capability of the Gangut class and they were restricted to covering minelaying ships and defending the Slava during the attacks on Moon Sound.
In September of 1915 the commander of the Baltic Sea decided to launch a battleship sortie into the Baltic, but is was interrupted by a mutiny over bad food aboard the Gangut. It was only on 11 November that two battleships, the Gangut and Petropavlovsk, would sail toward Gotland as a way of masking mining operations in the Gulf of Riga. They did little else for the remainder of the war.
The ships fell under Bolshevik control in early August of 1917 and were demobilized six months later on 29 January 1918. All four Gangut class warships were then moved to Kronstadt in April where they sat idle This situation did not last long as the Civil War intensified and foreign troops began landing in Russia to fight the Bolsheviks.
Sailors of the fledgling Red Navy managed to take control of the Petropavlovsk and use the ship until she was torpedoed in a British torpedo boat raid on 18 August 1919. The Poltava was even less fortunate. She suffered a serious fire in the forward boiler room on 24 November 1919 and was so severely damaged that it was decided not to repair the ship at the time.
Most of the former Tsarist-era battleships that had fallen into the hands of the Bolsheviks were scrapped between 1922 and 1924. Only the four Gangut class ships would be spared although all would be renamed by the victorious Bolshevik forces. The Petropavlovsk was repaired and renamed the Marat and recommissioned in 1922. While the badly damaged Poltava was again added to the fleet lists in 1926, but the promised repair work never began and the ship was eventually scrapped.