The 1975 mutiny that inspired Tom Clancy’s book The Hunt for Red October was an unmistakable sign of big trouble in the Soviet navy.
At midnight on Saturday, Nov. 8, 1975, the rumble of a ship’s engines broke the stillness of the Daugava River. BPK Storozhevoy (Russian for “Sentry”) unhooked from its mooring buoy in the channel that bisects the city of Riga, then capital of Soviet Latvia. The 405-foot Krivak-class antisubmarine frigate made a tight turnaround, headed north toward the Gulf of Riga, picked up speed and disappeared into the night.
Four hours later and 500 miles to the east, a nervous secretary knocked on the door of Leonid Brezhnev’s bedroom in the Kremlin. Hearing no response, he screwed up his courage and opened the door to wake his sleeping boss. Had it not been for the urgent message he held from Baltic Fleet headquarters, the assistant wouldn’t dream of disturbing the general secretary of the Communist Party. A situation had developed, however, that demanded the Soviet leader’s immediate attention.
An irritable Brezhnev read the communiqué with alarm. A mutiny! From his bedside he ordered every ship and plane in the Baltic Fleet to hunt down Storozhevoy. “Bomb that ship and sink it!” he shouted. Within two hours, Yakovlev Yak-28 Brewers, Tupolev Tu-16 Badgers, patrol craft and destroyers were frantically searching for the wayward ship, armed with orders to send it to the bottom.
Sound familiar? It could almost be the plot of Tom Clancy’s 1984 best seller The Hunt for Red October, later adapted into the blockbuster 1990 film. In fact, Clancy did draw upon the Storozhevoy mutiny for his first novel.
In 1982 he came across an account of the revolt, written by Lieutenant Greg Young, in the library of the U.S. Naval Institute. In the film adaptation, American officers (Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn and James Earl Jones) play a nautical game of cat-and-mouse with a Soviet nuclear submarine captain (Sean Connery) that culminates in a thrilling confrontation in the North Atlantic. We know the fiction, but what really happened aboard Storozhevoy?
For one, the real life mutiny unfolded aboard a surface ship, not a submarine. Like Red October, however, Storozhevoy was a very sophisticated and capable weapon. Its mission— should the Cold War turn hot—was to sail into the North Atlantic and sink American submarines.
The biggest discrepancy was the motive of the protagonist: Clancy’s fictional sub captain, Marko Ramius, meant to defect to the United States with his advanced submarine. While the author did model Ramius on Valery Sablin, the 36-yearold Soviet officer who led the reallife mutiny, Sablin had no intention of defecting. His goal was more ambitious, idealistic and quixotic: Sablin meant to sail Storozhevoy to Leningrad, drop anchor—and overthrow the Soviet government. Everyone in the West assumed he was defecting, because that’s what Russians always did.
They were wrong. Just how wrong no one would know for nearly two decades, but this event raises some compelling questions: Why would a Soviet navy crew mutiny for ideological reasons? Was this a unique event? What did it say about the state of the Soviet navy? And was there a real-life counterpart to Clancy’s legendary intelligence officer—a prescient analyst who saw the cracks in the Soviet edifice that Sablin’s mutiny exposed and who foresaw the breakup of the Red Empire?
Valery Sablin was a true believer. He may have been the last adult in the Soviet Union who still imagined that Lenin’s revolution could succeed. Sablin felt that communism had not yet been given a chance to thrive under the right leadership. And to complete the “truth is stranger than fiction” irony, Sablin was a zampolit—a political officer, the very type of man the Communist Party placed aboard warships to enforce ideological conformity and ensure that crews did not defect to the West. He admired Nikita Khrushchev as a reformer who was trying to make life in Russia less oppressive and more prosperous. When the Central Committee abandoned that effort in 1964 and replaced Khrushchev with the retrograde Leonid Brezhnev, Sablin decided he’d had enough. He evolved from being a loyal apparatchik to an instrument of the Communist Party’s destruction. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “This machine needs to be broken from within, using its own armor against it.”
On Nov. 8, 1975, with his ship moored in the port of Riga, Sablin, then a captain, third rank, swung into action: He locked up Anatoly Potulniy, the captain of Storozhevoy, belowdecks and assembled the officers in a stateroom, where he unveiled his plan to overthrow the Soviet government. He asked them to vote their support or opposition to his scheme by choosing chess pieces from a board in front of them—white to support the mutiny, black to oppose it. Half the officers threw in their lot with Sablin; the rest were detained.
Next, he persuaded Storozhevoy’s sailors to take part. When KGB investigators later asked Warrant Officer Viktor Borodai why he had supported the mutiny, he spoke for many of the ship’s crew when he said, “Because it was the first time in my life anyone in authority had spoken the truth to me.” His interrogators then asked him what he thought the odds of success were for their mission. Borodai put them at 10 percent. The investigators were stunned; why would he take such a risk? Borodai answered, ”Because a 10 percent chance is still a chance.”
Sablin’s mutiny was not an impulsive act. He had pulled together his plan over many months, convinced his crewmen were more loyal to him than to Potulniy. Sablin appealed to the sailors’ patriotism, as well as their sense of injustice; everyone understood that the “workers’ paradise” was in fact a police state.
The 58th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution provided the historic date for Sablin to kick off what he saw as his new revolution. Storozhevoy was scheduled to be in Riga for a commemorative naval parade. For inspiration, Sablin turned to one of the most famous mutinies in history.
The 1905 Potemkin mutiny had a shattering impact on Russian society, and Sablin took that as proof a small spark could ignite a tinderbox of unrest.
The battleship Potemkin was assigned to the Black Sea Fleet when its sailors revolted over bad soup. A side of beef hanging outside the galley had become infested with maggots, and the men refused to eat the borscht made from it. In an escalating standoff, the ship’s officers ordered the sailors to eat the soup on pain of death. The crewmen responded by killing the officers or throwing them overboard. They seized control of Potemkin and sailed it to various Black Sea ports, spreading insurrection along the way. Government troops eventually put down the revolt at a cost of 7,000 lives, but it nearly toppled the regime of Tsar Nicholas II. Sablin hoped, 70 years later, to recreate the spontaneity of the Potemkin example.
His plan was part dream and part lie: Sablin first told his crew a whopper, claiming that other units of the Soviet military were standing by to join their rebellion and awaited only Storozhevoy’s call to action. He evidently believed that all he had to do was lead by daring example, and his fellow officers—similarly frustrated by the corruption and hypocrisy of the Soviet regime—would rally to his rebellious colors. Leaving Riga at midnight, Sablin planned on getting an eight-hour head start, which would put him near Leningrad on the morning of November 9 before anyone was the wiser. Once they reached the “City of Three Revolutions,” Storozhevoy would drop anchor, and Sablin would broadcast his political manifesto to the Soviet people via the ship’s radio— and the response would be, presumably, a fresh revolution.
Sablin had put together a list of demands to make upon the Soviet government. These included declaring Storozhevoy “free and independent from state and party institutions,” granting a half-hour of broadcast time every night on state radio and television, allowing the ship an anchorage and mooring buoy at “any port in Soviet waters,” and allowing his crewmen “unmolested” shore leave. Finally, Sablin demanded that Brezhnev and the Politburo refrain from using any kind of “violent coercion against the crewmen’s families, parents or loved ones.”
Once his demands were met, Sablin expected the naval garrison in Leningrad, particularly on Kronstadt Island, to join him in marching on the admiralty and the general staff building; Kronstadt sailors, after all, had provided key support to Lenin in 1917. Six decades later, Sablin hoped for a similar response. Given the Russian navy’s long history of mutiny, he also counted on the support of his fellow sailors. Once these events unfolded, as he was confident they would, it would be only a matter of time before the new revolution swept from Leningrad to Moscow. Then, exit the Brezhnev kleptocracy, and enter Sablin’s brave new world.
It didn’t work out.
By 0600 on Saturday, Nov. 9, 1975, the pursuit squadron Brezhnev had ordered to hunt down Storozhevoy caught up with her in the Baltic Sea. Several attack pilots initially bombed the wrong ship, hitting and damaging another Krivak-class frigate. On overtaking their real quarry, skippers from the attack squadron signaled Sablin to stop engines and heave to. Sablin responded that he was taking his ship to Leningrad and implored his pursuers to join him.
Swedish military intelligence officers, meanwhile, were experiencing a rough dawn on Gotland Island. Sablin had turned off Storozhevoy’s radar to avoid detection, so the Swedes’ first indication that something was amiss occurred when blips filled their radar screens, showing what appeared to be every ship and plane in the Soviet Baltic Fleet heading straight for their installation. Until their translators got a handle on the situation and realized this was a search for a mutinous ship, the alarmed Swedes thought they might be witnessing the start of World War III. They listened in on conversations between Soviet jets and ground control and learned that some pilots were refusing or ignoring orders to bomb Storozhevoy. For a moment, it appeared Sablin’s mutiny might succeed.
Unable to rely on naval aviators, Minister of Defense Andrei Grechko ordered air force pilots in Sukhoi Su-24 fighter-bombers to stop the wayward ship, which they did at 10:32 that Saturday morning. They dropped 500-pound bombs on the fantail, disabling the rudder, then raked the ship with cannon fire. Soviet marines and KGB agents boarded the disabled Storozhevoy and arrested the crew. Miraculously, the only casualty was Sablin himself, whom Captain Potulniy shot in the leg after being released.
Sablin and 13 other mutineers were flown to Moscow for interrogation. After a closed trial, the avid Communist who tried to change the world was found guilty of “betraying the motherland” and sentenced to death. On Aug. 3, 1976, that sentence was carried out in the basement of Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, probably with a single bullet to the back of the head.
Sablin’s was not the only bellwether action in the Cold War Soviet navy: In 1959 another brilliant young captain, Nikolai Artamonov, defected to the U.S. and turned double agent, only to be killed by KGB agents in Austria in 1975; in 1963 a Northern Fleet radio operator, Vladimir Gavrilov, attempted to organize a mutiny; and in 1969 three naval officers of the Baltic Fleet, one a weapons-system operator on a nuclear submarine, were imprisoned for starting a subversive organization. Other reports suggest a mutiny erupted on a Baltic nuclear submarine in 1969; another mutiny was attempted on a submarine off Norway in 1972. Mutinies were also rumored to have occurred in the early 1970s aboard a cruiser, an intelligence ship in the Atlantic and a Pacific fleet ship whose crew arrested its officers and attempted to sail to Japan. The Soviets violently suppressed most such revolts.
While information on Sablin’s mutiny and the others derives from declassified KGB files and open sources, Swedish intelligence has not declassified any of its information on Storozhevoy, and U.S. intelligence still denies any knowledge of the incident. Still, there is little debate it was a significant and all-too-real event. Nor can there be any argument that the Soviet fleets experienced serious discipline and morale problems. But questions linger about what the U.S. and its NATO allies really knew about the Cold War weakness of the Soviet Union. Sablin and his coconspirators put the handwriting on the wall—but did the U.S. read and understand it?
Nate Braden is coauthor of The Last Sentry: The True Story That Inspired The Hunt for Red October. For further reading, he recommends: Mutiny on the Storozhevoy, by Gregory Young.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.