Renegade destroyer wasn’t escaping <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Soviet Union, it was attacking it
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The Last Sentry
The True Story that Inspired the Hunt for Red October
Gregory D. Young and Nate Braden
Naval Institute Press
Reviewed by Edward H. Lundquist
Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Truth is stranger than fiction. The story of Valery Sablin is true, and the inspiration for Tom Clancy’s “Hunt for Red October,” but unlike Clancy’s Captain Marko Ramius, Sablin was not escaping the Soviet Union in search of freedom.
For Valery Sablin, his idealistic dedication to true communism in its pure form led him to take over the Soviet Navy destroyer Storozhevoy (which translates to Sentry) in a futile attempt to return the Soviet state to its uncorrupted egalitarian Marxist roots by leading a revolt against Leonid Brezhnev and his party elite. That he failed should not surprise you. That he was executed for his treason shouldn’t surprise you, either. That his story was kept under wraps for years by Soviet officials is no surprise. What is surprising, perhaps shocking, is the fact that Valery Sablin was so dedicated to communism, and was able to convince most of his shipmates to lock up the captain and take control of a Soviet warship in port and get underway.
Author Gregory Young came across clues to the Storozhevoy affair while studying at Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. His report was itself discovered by aspiring writer Tom Clancy who went on to launch his career with The Hunt for Red October. Young, along with Nate Braden, bring the story of Valery Sablin to life, and shines light on how and why a Soviet naval officer nearly sailed his warship to a new revolution.
“The Sentry story, as you know, has been twenty years in the making. What was frustrating to me was that twenty years ago I uncovered the external details of the mutiny, but did not know not what truly motivated Valery Sablin to undertake such a desperate act. I tried to get the story published in 1985 and 1992, but it took the fall of the Soviet Union and a few years until a “kindler-gentler” KGB was less of a threat to family members and crew members so that they might relate their stories to Nate and to me,” says author Greg Young.
Sablin was a family man, with a wife and a child. He was loyal to the ideals of the party. He served as a Zampolit, a political officer who provided party doctrine and ensured the purity of thought of the officers and men aboard Soviet warships. How ironic that the role of the Zampolit was to make ensure the naval officers and ratings didn’t stage a coup d’etat.
Sablin became bitterly disillusioned with a system that ostensibly served all the people equally, but which felt obliged to maintain a totalitarian regime. The real Communist Party did not treat all people equally, but rather gave perks to a loyal elite. Most of this book discusses Sablin’s life and times, his family, education and naval career. He admired the sailors aboard the battleship Potemkin who spontaneously revolted against their Tsarist masters, and eventually fire upon Tsarist forces. Sablin, unlike many Soviet officers, cared for his men and showed concern for them, and they came to trust him in a system where conscripts are treated with disdain. In context, one understands the fateful decision he made. But it does come to a thrilling climax in November of 1975, when Captain 2nd Rank Valery Sablin, Zampolit of the Storozhevoy, took the fateful steps of asking his shipmates to join him in igniting a new revolution.
Author Braden explained to me that the mutiny on the Potemkin had two big consequences for Sablin; one intended, the other unintended. “Sablin's great hero was Lieutenant Peter Schmidt, a participant in the 1905 revolution (though not a Potemkin officer). Sablin admired that mutiny and the 1905 revolution because it was an avowedly socialist one and it almost led to the overthrow of the tsar,” says Braden. “He hoped to follow in Schmidt's footsteps and have the same kind of impact with Storozhevoy in 1975 that Potemkin had in 1905.”
According to Braden, the unintended consequence was alluded to by Seaman Alexander Shein, Sablin's right-hand man during the mutiny. “The Potemkin revolt was basically sparked by an argument over bad borsch soup – spoiled meat was used in its preparation for the crew that morning and the men's refusal to eat it led to a series of events that culminated in the mutiny. Fast forward to 1975 and Shein recalled on Storozhevoy's return from Cuba that the supply officer had given them bread which was infested with worms. Like their counterparts on Potemkin, the crewmen of Storozhevoy refused to eat it. Six months later, when Sablin was appealing to the enlisted men for their support in his mutiny, Shein recalled, ‘we remembered that bread.’”
One officer, a senior lieutenant named Firsov, managed to get off the ship, and reported to the commander of the submarine S-163, moored next to the Storozhevoy. Sablin’s plan had been compromised. He weighed anchor as the first reports of the Storozhevoy’s takeover worked their way up the chain of command. It was midnight, and Sablin’s ship was traveling at 30 knots up the Daugava River and for the Baltic Sea and open water. It would be four hours before the naval command and KGB would hear the reports and take action. A vice admiral from the Baltic Fleet called the Storozhevoy to speak with the captain, to be told that the captain had been relived of his duties (he was in fact, locked in a compartment below, with a guard posted outside), and that Storozhevoy was now a “free and independent territory of the Soviet Union.”
By now the top brass were aware of the situation. Commander of the Soviet Navy Admiral Sergei Gorshkov told the defense minister, Marshal Grechko, who told Brezhnev. After being awakened with this disturbing news, Brezhnev said “Bomb the ship and sink it.”
The Swedes had intercepted enough information to know something was going on, but it didn’t make sense. The Soviets thought Sablin would make a run for international waters and head for Sweden, and they intended to stop the ship from doing so. An armada descended upon Storozhevoy. Il-38 May patrol aircraft, Tu-16 Badger and Yak-28 Brewer bombers searched for the destroyer as it broadcast its political statements, for some reason on encrypted channels. The Yak-28s, with bombs and 30mm cannon made firing runs on the ship but were not effective. New Su-24 Fencer fighter bombers were next to join in the fight. Another Krivak-class destroyer got underway to chase down Storozhevoy, only to be attacked herself by the aircraft, mistaken for Sablin’s renegade warship. But eventually the attackers found their mark. Storozhevoy received direct hits from 500-pound bombs and 300-mm cannon. The rudder jammed and Storozhevoy steamed in a circle. The show was over.
One can speculate what might have happened if Lieutenant Firsov had not raised the alarm.
Had Firsov not jumped ship, Braden says, Storozhevoy might have made it to Leningrad and dropped anchor, but it would have needed another full day to reach the city; in ten hours it had only covered about a third of the distance from Riga to Leningrad. “Even if Sablin had made it unscathed, as soon as his intent became clear, Storozhevoy would have been boarded or blown out of the water (my opinion).”
Just what the Swedes thought as Sablin’s ship and her pursuers came closer and closer to Swedish territory can only be imagined. “The Swedes won't tell us what they thought because everything that happened that night is still classified and will be for another 40 years!” says Braden.
“Since the Swedes are the originating agency on all SIGINT (signals intelligence) from the mutiny, the US government has to follow their lead when it comes to declassifying this stuff. That's why our FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request was denied by them and NSA (National Security Agency). But all you have to do is put yourself in the shoes of that Swedish radar operator on Gotland Island who all the sudden gets dozens of hits lighting up his radar screen – every ship and plane in the Baltic taking off and heading straight for him! Until their translators were able to sort out the COMINT (communications intelligence) and tell their chain of command that it was just a search for a mutinous vessel, the Swedes must have been very, very nervous.”
What remained was the investigation and the trial of the mutineers, all documented but highly classified until recently. Sablin’s wife, Nina, had to endure the burden of shame and humiliation placed upon her by the system, and the loss of her husband. But she admired and respected his noble idealism.
“After meeting Nina, Valery's widow, the real challenge to me was both to tell the human interest story of Valery as well as the importance of this story in assessing the strength of the Cold War Soviet military in view of this incident,” says Greg Young. “These are two very disparate themes, both compelling but from different perspectives.”
Today Sablin is widely regarded in Russia as a hero, says Braden. “As more and more of the dirt the Soviets had swept under the carpet over the years came out, however, his became just one more story of a brave man who lost to the system. What we'd like to see from the publication of this book is not only to tell his extraordinary story, but also to give some closure to his widow, Nina, on two issues: what the KGB did with Sablin's body after they executed him and what they did with his personal effects from prison.”
Young says that when asked why she did not remarry, Nina replied, “There can only be one Valery.”
“They were truly in love,” Young says, “yet Valery chose not to tell his wife what he intended to do. Possibly it was to shield her, but we now know she had a much shrewder sense of the political realities than her husband did and perhaps he was afraid she might deter him from acting.”
“It was this human side that was also the most surprising to me,” Young adds. “Twenty years ago I (and therefore Tom Clancy) thought that Sablin was going to defect with the Storozhevoy. We now know that his motivations were much more complex.”
“Sablin was a true believer,” says Braden. “He never lost faith in his belief that Communism was the best system in the world to meet the people's social and economic needs. It never occurred to him that tyranny was the inevitable consequence of a one-party state. Sablin thought Communism was a good system that was simply in the hands of bad people.”
Edward H. Lundquist is a retired U.S. Navy captain and naval analyst who lives in Springfield, Virginia. He is director of corporate communication for the Center for Security Strategies and Operations, Anteon Corporation, Washington, D.C., and supports the U.S. Navy’s Surface Warfare Directorate.