The first step towards the foundation of Sovcomflot was the decision of the USSR Council of Ministers to permit the Ministry of Maritime Fleet to charter foreign cargo vessels under bareboat charters.
Sovcomflot was established as a joint-stock commercial company, on the basis of the all-union commercial foreign trade association "Sovcomflot", under Resolution No. 474 of the USSR Council of Ministers dated 16 April 1988. The relevant order of the USSR Ministry of Maritime Fleet, No. 81-pr, was signed on 3 June 1988. Sovcomflot regards this date as the day of its foundation.
Sovcomflot's status as a joint-stock enterprise was unique at that time. Its restructuring into a joint-stock enterprise was driven by "the need to further increase foreign currency revenues, boost the foreign currency earning capacity of foreign shipping and strengthen the material and technical base of maritime transport, through the development and improvement of commercial activities of the USSR Ministry of Maritime Transport in the field of international navigation".
At the beginning, Sovcomflot's capital was RUB 250 million. Its founders were the USSR Ministry of Maritime Fleet and the Far-Eastern, Black Sea, Novorossiysk, Latvian, Baltic, and Soviet Danube Shipping Companies.
The basis for Sovcomflot was established 15 years earlier, on 23 March 1973, when the USSR Council of Ministers decided to implicitly break the monopoly in foreign trade, and give the USSR Ministry of the Maritime Fleet the opportunity to purchase new and second-hand vessels through long-term leasing arrangements, known as bareboat charters. Ownership of the vessels was then transferred once their cost was paid from the charter revenue earned.
This innovative approach for the Soviet planned economy, whose introduction was facilitated by the Minister of Maritime Fleet of the USSR - Timofey Guzhenko, made it possible to renew the country’s fleet and implement the most advanced technical, commercial and financial management systems.
The first vessels purchased under the new scheme were two bulk carriers, Sovfrakht and Sovinflot, each with a deadweight of some 40,000 tonnes. For the next 15 years, over 100 vessels of various types were acquired under bareboat charters. For this purpose, the Foreign Exchange Operating Fund for Commercial Operations was established in 1976 at the USSR Ministry of Maritime Fleet. Earnings generated by the vessels under bareboat charters and commercial operations were placed into this fund.
This economic model allowed Sovcomflot to establish itself as a global company, with one of the world’s most modern fleets, without the need to attract any government funding. Sovcomflot was the first Russian shipping company created in accordance with international standards and global practices. By 1990 the total deadweight of its fleet was 1.8 million tonnes. In 1995 Sovcomflot was transformed into a joint-stock company, under full state ownership.