The former Soviet Kiev class aircraft carrier
Minsk is rusting away, seemingly abandoned, in the middle of a man-made lagoon some 50 miles northwest of the Chinese city of Shanghai. It’s a visual that feels better suited to a movie or video game set in a cyberpunk dystopia or an Earth where nature has reclaimed areas in the aftermath of some kind of apocalypse. It looks to be a sad and lonely fate for the ship, which was already spared the scrapper’s torch once by Chinese businessmen in the 1990s.
The ex-Minsk‘s present home sits just off the Yangtze River to one side of the Sutong Yangtze River Bridge in Nantong, China. Its immediate neighbors are farms and associated agricultural facilities. Looking at satellite imagery of the site, to the immediate north of the Lagoon, there is what looks to be a viewing platform with a walkway leading back to various structures and a tented pavilion. All of this looks to be part of equally abandoned work on a planned theme park that was to feature the aircraft carrier at its center, but which never opened.
How the ship, which had previously been the centerpiece of another amusement park in Shenzhen, just to the northeast of Hong Kong, some 750 miles away from its current location, got to where it is now, is something of a saga.
The Minsk was first laid down in a Soviet shipyard, situated in what is now Ukraine, in 1972. It was the second ship in the Kiev class and was commissioned into the Soviet Navy in 1978.
The Kiev class design is something of an oddity among modern aircraft carriers, to begin with, having a bow and island that both look more reminiscent of what you might expect to see on a battlecruiser, along with a relatively small, angled flight deck. The Soviets categorized these 40,000-ton-displacement vessels as a “heavy aviation cruiser,” a term also applied to the more traditional looking Admiral Kuznetsov that followed.
Befitting this description, the Kievs had launchers for eight P-500 Bazalt anti-ship cruise missiles, also known to NATO as the SS-N-12 Sandbox, and two turrets with twin 76mm guns, among other weapons. This was all in addition to their air wings, which typically consisted of a dozen Yak-38 Forger jump jets and a slightly larger number of Kamov Ka-25/27/29 helicopters. Kuznetsov also had a similar anti-ship missile capability, with launch cells built right into its flight deck, as you can read about more here.
Minsk was assigned to the Soviet Navy’s Pacific Fleet and had a largely uneventful service life in the twilight of the Cold War, as did her sister ships Kiev and Novorossiysk. A fourth Kiev class carrier, Baku, was commissioned in 1987. It featured a new phased array radar, improved electronic warfare capabilities, launchers for four more P-500s, and turreted 100mm guns in place of the twin 76mm weapons, among other additions, which often led to it being described as the sole example of a distinct subclass.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the new Russian Navy took possession of all four ships, but found them difficult and costly to operate and maintain. Minsk was had already been effectively put into mothballs sometime between 1989 and 1990 due to “severe engineering problems,” according to the 1993 edition of Combat Fleets of the World. In 1993, Novorossiysk also suffered a major engine room fire.
With limited immediate options to rehabilitate those two ships – the shipyards where they were built and that had the facilities necessary to conduct major repairs on them were now in the independent country of Ukraine – and the equally poor state of Kiev, the decision was made to sell them off as scrap. By 1995, Minsk and Novorossiysk had made their way to South Korea to be broken. The fate of Kiev was more complicated and we will come back to that later on.
An attempt was made to get Baku, by then renamed Admiral Gorshkov, back into service. However, in 2004, that ship was sold to India and it subsequently an expensive and drawn-out conversion process that turned it into a more conventional short-take-off-but-arrested-recovery (STOBAR) carrier with a full flight deck and ski jump.
The former Novorossiysk was ultimately scrapped in South Korea in 1997, but protests by South Korean environmentalists prompted the sale of the ex-Minsk first to a Chinese shipbreaking company, Guangdong Ship Dismantling, and then to Si Ke Investment Company, Limited. Si Ke, established by Chinese entrepreneurs who had made their money primarily through video game arcades, bought the ship with the express purpose of building a theme park around it. They paid approximately $4.3 million at the time, close to $7.3 million in 2021 dollars, for what was left of the Minsk.
The aptly titled Minsk World opened in Shenzhen in 2000. A curious assortment of aircraft, including Chinese Q-5 Fantan combat jets, Soviet-made MiG-23 and MiG-27 Flogger swing-wing jets, and Mi-24 Hind helicopters, were put on display on its flight deck and down below in the hangar. The exact origins of the MiG-23s and MiG-27s, as well as the Mi-24s, are unclear, as the Chinese military never operated those types. Flying and non-flying examples of these types, and other Soviet military aircraft designs, certainly have been bought and sold on the open market, by commercial enterprises and private citizens, since the end of the Cold War.
Inert weapons, or mock-ups thereof, including missiles, bombs, and torpedoes, as well as other Soviet militaria were also displayed. Exhibits covering the Chinese military were also added. As seen in the video below, song-and-dance numbers were also regularly held at indoor and outdoor stages installed on the ship.
The original owners of Minsk World went bankrupt in 2006. The park and the carrier inside were subsequently auctioned off to a state-owned holding company, CITIC Group.
Before Minsk World opened, some experts and observers had suggested that the purchase of the carrier by a Chinese company was some kind of subterfuge to assist in the establishing of a carrier capability for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Kiev had also been sold to another Chinese firm with the stated aim of turning it into a tourist attraction. Around the same time, a more shadowy firm based in Macau, with ties to the PLAN, had bought Kuznetsov‘s unfinished sister ship Varyag from Ukraine, saying it planned to convert into a floating hotel and casino.
As it turned out, despite assessments from experts that it would be too onerous to return Varyag to any sort of operational state, the PLAN did formally commission that ship in 2012 as the Liaoning, and it remains in service to this day. There’s no indication one way or another that the acquisition of the Minsk, along with the actual opening of Minsk World, was in any way part of some larger plan on the part of the Chinese government to conceal its aircraft carrier ambitions. “Their target group is different,” an anonymous advisor to the Minsk World project had told The Washington Post in 1999 when asked if there was a concern about competition from a future hotel and casino created from the Varyag.
If there was any real competition to Minsk World, it could have come from Binhai Aircraft Park in Tianjin, China, some 100 miles southeast of Beijing, which is where Kiev went. Q-5s are also on display on that ship, as are mock-ups of Yak-38s. In 2011, the company that owns that park announced plans to turn that former carrier into more of a floating luxury hotel with at least five presidential suites.
“Previously, China didn’t have aircraft carriers. People find them mysterious and are curious about them. Even though China’s first aircraft carrier [the Liaoning] has now gone on sea trials, it will be quite hard for the public to ever visit it,” Liu Chang, a marketing manager at Binhai Aircraft Park told The Guardian newspaper at the time. “I guess people can come here to fulfil their curiosity.”
Binhai Aircraft Park remains open and pictures show the ex-Kiev to be, at least on the surface, well maintained. The same cannot be said of the former Minsk, which, along with the aircraft on display, looked to be in an increasingly dilapidated state even before Minsk World shut down for good in 2016. The park was closed after government officials decided to reclaim the land it sat on for other purposes.
The ship, which had been repainted sometime in the intervening years with the hull number “16,” the same as that on Liaoning, was subsequently moved to where it sits now near Shanghai, arriving there between 2017 and 2018. There had been plans to establish a new Minsk World, but that has not come to pass, though it’s not entirely clear why. It is worth noting that there has been a massive aircraft carrier replica, reportedly meant to be a near-full-scale mock-up of the American supercarrier USS Nimitz, that people can tour at the Military Education Center near Dianshan Lake, close to Shanghai, since 2002.
Whatever the ostensible plans for the remains of Minsk might be now, it is clearly all-but-abandoned. There is one video of the ship on YouTube, that an individual shot in 2019 using a camera on a quadcopter drone. There are no signs of activity on or around the ship whatsoever.