A Sleuth Describes the Ill-Fated Soviet Mutiny That Inspired the Hunt for Red October
What happened aboard the Storozhevoy?
On Nov. 7, 1975 half the ship's 250-member crew was ashore in Riga, Latvia celebrating the 58th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. That afternoon Valery Mikhaylovich Sablin, the third-ranking officer and political commissar on board, had held what appeared to be his usual weekly seminar on Communist doctrine. But this one was restricted to a group of about 15 officers and petty officers Sablin had selected and molded for months. At about 2 the next morning, while members of the crew were still ashore, Sablin's men locked the captain and other officers on board in their cabins below deck and sailed without lights quietly down the Daugava River toward the Baltic Sea. They set a course for the Swedish island of Gotland, five and a half hours away, where they planned to ask for political asylum.
Was the escape detected?
A crew member not loyal to Sablin jumped ship before it reached the mouth of the Daugava River. After swimming ashore he tried to flag down a car, but no one stopped. He finally walked to the naval base near Riga, where an officer radioed the Storozhevoy but got no answer. Then the radio tower received a surprising alert on an emergency frequency: "Mutiny aboard the Storozhevoy. We are heading for open sea. "The message was evidently sent by an officer who had freed himself or a conspirator who had changed his mind. It will probably never be known how many men were loyal to Sablin, but to take over and sail the ship at least two officers and 12 petty officers would have been needed.
How did the Soviet navy react?
At about 6 a.m. Soviet naval reconnaissance planes were ordered to find the Storozhevoy, and nine ships were sent to stop her. When a pilot spotted the vessel in international waters, the ship was ordered by radio to stop. Pardons were promised to mutineers who would return to the Soviet Union. When the destroyer didn't alter course or respond, the order was given to attack, but some planes initially refused because the pilots were reluctant to bomb their comrades.
Did the Storozhevoy return fire?
No. It's not clear whether the men lacked access to the ammunition or whether Sablin ordered them not to return fire. Evidence of utter confusion on both sides is clear. As the ship began evasive maneuvers, the pursuing naval forces closed the gap. In the early dawn light, one of the pursuing ships of the same class as the Storozhevoy was attacked in error and actually sustained more damage than the mutinous ship.
How did the incident end?
The ship's rudder was hit, making the Storozhevoy difficult to steer. She surrendered at 8 a.m., only 30 nautical miles from Gotland. The boarding parties were greeted with appropriate salutes and normal military courtesies, as if nothing had happened. Sablin himself was on the bridge.
What brought these men to mutiny?
Until an ex-crew member is able to speak, the world will not know for sure. Soviet destroyers are much more heavily armed than similar Western vessels, at the expense of the crew's comfort. Most Soviet ships are cramped, drab and dimly lit. Bunks are three-tiered and each sailor has a two-foot, nonlockable box. Drinking water is available from a metal barrel with a community cup. Breakfast and dinner consist of porridge and small pieces of bread. Lunch is usually a thick potato or cabbage soup maybe mixed with a little cod, herring or pork fatback. Fresh fruit is unheard of.
How was morale on the Storozhevoy?
The ship won a citation for exceptional combat competence in 1974, but a month later a Soviet defense ministry newspaper reported major morale problems and that the ship's crew was not being properly indoctrinated as required by Soviet naval regulations. The average conscript in the Soviet navy earns about $4 a month. Promotion is dependent on the goodwill of a sailor's immediate superior. There is little rotation. Many spend 16 years on the same ship. Junior officers regularly get assigned to one ship for six years and thus have a chance to be judged by only one or two commanding officers.
What other factors led to the mutiny?
The Angolan civil war in 1975 led to a Soviet naval buildup off the West African coast. All navy leaves were canceled and all discharges for conscripts were postponed. A sailor on another ship, whom I interviewed later, remembered saying at the time, "What do we have to do with the fact that some black apes in Africa want to cut each other's throats? We want to go home."
What kind of man was Sablin?
He was born in 1939 into a well-connected Soviet family in Gorki, the son of a colonel and a descendant of a revolutionary who took part in the 1825 uprising against Czar Nicholas I. He was a man of the highest class in the supposedly classless Soviet society, just like Clancy's submarine commander, Marko Ramius, in The Hunt for Red October. Sablin was the ship's zampolit, who ensures that Communist Party directives are carried out, enforces discipline, acts as ship's chaplain and social worker.
How do you account for Sablin's disloyalty?
As with Viktor Belenko, who flew his Foxbat MiG-25 to Japan in 1976 and defected to the U.S., we can infer that Sablin was probably dissatisfied with the corruption, harsh stratification and lack of freedom in the Soviet Union. During the weekly obligatory lectures on Marxist-Leninist thought he would listen to complaints about food, living conditions and limited leaves, and he would often sympathize.
What happened to the mutineers?
In May 1976 Sablin and 14 conspirators were tried before the military division of the Supreme Court of the U.S.S.R. After a three-day trial Sablin was executed by firing squad. In accordance with Soviet judicial doctrine, Sablin's family was also punished. A brother on the General Staff in Moscow was transferred to eastern Siberia. Another brother, who taught in Moscow, was moved east to Ivanovo. The mutiny was so embarrassing that the trials were secret, but we know that a second officer was sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp. It is likely that the rest of the crew members were dispersed to various naval locations and that those officers who did not participate were dropped one grade in rank. The commander of the Baltic fleet was relieved of duty within three weeks of the mutiny and assigned to a lesser post in Moscow.
Was this an isolated incident?
I don't think so. There are reports of an attempted mutiny aboard a nuclear sub in the Baltic in 1969 and another aboard a diesel sub in a Norwegian fjord in 1972. Problems of alcoholism, poor food, hazing, desertion, ethnic friction and unhappiness over constant political indoctrination are widespread; in the final analysis the Soviet navy is not as overpowering as its number of ships and other quantifiable factors would indicate. The ships may bristle with armaments above decks, but below decks dissent is brewing.