The Protected Cruiser Zhemchug was laid down at the Nevsky Shipyards in Petrograd, Russia on 1 June 1902 and was launched on 14 August 1903, in the presence of Tsar Nicholas II. Construction was plagued by delays, including flooding in November, and an ice storm in December. However, with the start of the Russo-Japanese War in early 1904, construction efforts were greatly accelerated. Zhemchug was formally commissioned on 29 August 1904 and was assigned to the Second Pacific Squadron of the Russian Pacific Fleet. On 27 September 1904, she participated in a naval review off Reval attended by Tsar Nicholas II, and departed for the Far East the following day.
Under the overall command of Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, Zhemchug was part of the Second Pacific Squadron intended to relieve the Japanese siege of Port Arthur. However, she separated from the main squadron at Tangiers and transited the Suez Canal, and rejoined the main fleet at Madagascar. During the transit of the Indian Ocean, she acted as a scout for the main fleet and was frequently on detached duty. Conditions during the voyage were appalling, with the ship overloaded with coal for the voyage, even in the crew compartments, and the crewmen suffering from the unaccustomed tropical heat, poor food and poor hygiene and frequently mechanical failures. One crewman ran amok off Madagascar and had to be shot.
The Second Pacific Squadron took part in the decisive Battle of Tsushima from 27–28 May 1905 and, as part of Admiral Oskar Enkvist’s cruiser division, Zhemchug was one of the first ships to open fire on the Japanese Combined Fleet. She took severe damage in the battle, taking 17 hits, with 2 officers and 10 crewmen killed and 32 crewmen seriously wounded. However, she managed to escape sinking or capture after the Russian defeat, forming up with the surviving cruisers Almaz and Oleg as well as the destroyers Bodry, Grosny and Bravywhere. On the morning of the 29th the burning but still afloat Admiral Ushakov was sighted and the ragtag collection of battered warships worked their way North as fast as their engines would carry them.
Originally the plan had been to return to Port Arthur or Vladivostok however poor weather and concern over the bases’ longevity saw the ships instead sail to the small port of Anadyr where refuge was taken in the sheltered harbour. These four ships would still be in Anadyr for repairs by the time of the revolution on 17 October 1905 which saw the Tsar formerly declare the independence of the Far Eastern Provinces as part of the forced changes. All seven ships were thus seized by the new Sieranian Government and became the foundation of its Navy. The crew of the ships themselves mutinied against their offices during the revolution which resulted in a number of arrests and court martials until the revolution was resolved.
The Zhemchug herself was repaired by January 1906 and entered service as the first and at the time only ship of the new Navy capable of operation in open sea. Advances in Naval Technology however would see the ship become obsolete and in 1911 she was laid up in reserve. The First World War would see her reactivated as a patrol ship where she provided screen defense for merchant vessels and embarked on a number of unsuccessful attempts to track down the German Raiders.
After the war she served as the state yacht for a time, stripped of most of her armament and with rebuilt upperworks. Once the replacement was available however, the ships future was once more cast into doubt.
By the end of the 1920s there was talk that the ship was to be scrapped. By this time she, along with the Admiral Ushakov were the only surviving vessels from the foundation of the Navy. As the later ship was being used as an Ammunition Hulk, former crew and their families petitioned the Government and the Navy to preserve the Zhemchug as a symbol of their achievement during the revolution. Eventually the protests were successful and the Zhemchug was returned to Anadyr for a complete rebuild which saw her returned to the condition she had been on that day.
Today the Zhemchug is the only pre-WW2 ship to be preserved as museum and the only warship to be thus preserved.