16:30 Nov. 11, 2016
Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on the incredible story of unthinkable Quixotic charge against the Kremlin's Leviathan
Any political system, especially authoritarian, rests upon general conformity to established rules. Media, propaganda, and official education explain to the governed masses how ‘just', ‘progressive', and ‘great' their particular society is. The stupefying harmony begot by the obedience of the subjects and the ideologies of the rulers may last for many decades, until some idealist pops up to challenge it.
That is exactly what happened 41 years ago, on the 8th and 9th of November, 1975. During those two days, a political commissar of a Soviet Navy battleship, Captain of the Third Rank Valeriy Sablin, dared to rebel against the corrupt Soviet regime of Brezhnev's era.
Valeriy Sablin (1939-1976). The leader of the 1975 mutiny on the anti-submarine frigate ‘Storozhevoy' of the Soviet Baltic Fleet (Source: Wikipedia).
The early biography of the mutineer
Valeriy Sablin was born in 1939 into a family with a long tradition of naval service. In 1960, he graduated from the Frunze Military Maritime Institute in Leningrad and started an exemplary career in the Northern Fleet of the Soviet Navy. As a cadet, Sablin joined the Communist party of the USSR, in which he sincerely saw the ultimate tool for building the ‘free commonwealth of equal and happy individuals'.
The Soviet reality, however, was very far from that imagined by the theorists of Marxism-Leninism. The families of the Party's officials enjoyed all the benefits of life, whereas the common citizens of the enormous political entity sank deeper and deeper into the apathy of what became known as the ‘years of stagnation'.
Against this background, our protagonist decided to enter the Lenin Political Military Academy – a prestigious establishment, in which the students mastered the highest levels of the official dogma. In 1973, he accomplished his studies at this institution and was assigned to the Baltic Fleet frigate ‘Storozhevoy'. His position bore the title of ‘deputy commander for political training' or, in the short version, ‘zampolit'.
The anti-submarine frigate ‘Storozhevoy' (‘the Scout') the Soviet Baltic Fleet. The picture was taken two days before the mutiny (Source: Wikipedia).
The frigate's length was 123.5 m (405.3 ft), beam – 14.1 m (46.3 ft), draught – 4.6 m (15.1 ft). The crew consisted of 197 servicemen including 22 officers. Commissioned in 1972-73. In 2002, it was sold to India for scrap.
A disillusioned man, Sablin still remained a true believer in Communism – and it is its original values that he began to preach on his new ship. Unlike most ‘zampolits' in the Soviet Navy, the newly appointed commissar gained a lasting popularity with the crew, who formed a notably keen and enthusiastic audience.
In 1974, after a brief stop in the port of Rostock, East Germany, ‘Storozhevoy' sailed to the Mediterranean and then to Cuba. Away from the perpetual control and other limitations of every-day existence in the USSR, Sablin and his closest followers came up with a plan, which under the usual circumstances, closer to home, would have been most likely dismissed as unthinkable.
An anti-submarine frigate of the Soviet Baltic Fleet pictured in the port of Varna (early 1980s). This ship was of the same class as ‘Storozhevoy'. (A photograph from the archive of Oksana Zabuzova).
On the 7th of November, 1975, ‘Storozhevoy' took part in the naval parade held in the Gulf Riga on the anniversary of what was celebrated as the Great October Revolution of 1917. On the 8th of November, Valeriy Sablin arrested the ship's captain and addressed the crew. He said that the Kremlin's regime and the Communist party had forgotten the principles of Leninism and that the country was ruled by a few interrelated cliques of bent immoral bureaucrats.
The commissar's plan was to sail to Leningrad and make a proclamation to the Soviet people, having anchored the ship by the famous ‘Aurora' – the protected cruiser that had signaled the beginning of the Bolshevik uprising. The officers unwilling to support the idea were locked in their cabins and the frigate headed for Kronstadt, Leningrad's main seaport.
Another anti-submarine frigate of the Soviet Baltic Fleet, ‘Admiral Nakhimov', staying in Sevastopol' (early 1980s). (A photograph from the archive of Oksana Zabuzova).
The demands of the crew
In Leningrad, the representatives of the crew expected to speak to the nation on both television and radio. Their draft manifesto appealed to the idea of continuous Communist revolution, which was to rid the state system of the then corrupt leaders and party administrators. The revolutionary process, according to this document, amounted to ‘the colossal outburst of ionosphere's fluctuation' – something that ‘was bound to happen' and cause the ‘material change of the whole socio-economic structure'.
In addition to that, Sablin prepared a few practical demands. ‘Storozhevoy', as his strategy suggested, was to stay free of governmental control for one year, whereas an assigned member of the crew would be allowed to make TV addresses on the daily basis between 9-30 and 10 PM. The frigate was to be given the opportunity to broadcast the radio addresses of her own, and the crew of the ship had to be granted immunity and provisions.
Had the mutineers had any chance to actually make that public appearance, the Soviet government would have been given two hours to produce the answer.
Before the unprecedented voyage even began, one petty officer, a Komsomol functionary loyal to the regime, had escaped and made it toRiga. He alarmed the authorities who were initially disinclined to believe that a mutiny actually happened.
Having finally realized that the report was accurate, they timidly informed the Kremlin. Leonid Brezhnev on the other side of the telephone line did not hesitate. "Deal with it", he said. "And sink the ship, if necessary'.
Thirteen vessels of the Baltic Fleet and about 60 warplanes were reportedly sent to perform the task. Spooked by the pressure from Moscow, the Navy and the Air-force command failed to organize the chase properly. As a result, the bombers and some fighter-jets were circling around the area in a most disorderly fashion. Finally, in the early hours of the 9th of November, they got on the trail, but mistook a warship that was pursuing ‘Storozhevoy' for the rebellious frigate. Some bombs were dropped and some retaliatory cannon-shots were fired before a number of invective signals revealed the ‘miscalculation'.
Consequently, the planes targeted ‘Storozhevoy' until her keel and deck were damaged. This operation took some time due to the effective maneuvering supervised by Sablin. Meanwhile, a couple of those officers who had been locked in cabins managed to free themselves and their incarcerated captain. Armed with pistols, they stormed into the captain's bridge and wounded the commissar in the leg. The next moment the marines boarded the vessel and the hunt was over.
A shot from an anti-submarine frigate of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. (A photograph from the archive of Oksana Zabuzova).
‘Storozhevoy' had cannons like these, and that was why the pilots of the 668th Bombardment Aviation Regiment tried to keep their distance from the frigate. As it became clear later, the precaution was unnecessary. Sablin did not intend to return the fire. Even if he had had such intention, it would have been impossible – the ship, which had been destined to the Latvian port of Liepaja to undergo repairs, carried no ammunition.
Having detained the crew of ‘Storozhevoy', KGB commenced an investigation. The military authorities were instructed to keep the whole affair secret, but that, as they promptly discovered, was not easy. A great number of people witnessed the events, and some civilian vessels almost drowned during the chaotic raids of the bombers. The Baltic fishermen already gossiped about the strange occurrence, and the news of it were rapidly spreading further ashore.
To explain the mess, Moscow concocted a tale, according to which Sablin wanted to defect to Sweden. In May 1976, the military court found him guilty of high treason or, in Soviet terminology, ‘treason to the Motherland'. On the 3rd of August, 1976, the chief mutineer was executed, whereas the crew faced the disbandment and dishonorable discharge. Its other members, except for Sablin's second-in-command, the ship's graphic-designer Aleksandr Sheyin, escaped criminal charges.
Valeriy Sablin in the Lefortovo Prison, Moscow (Source: www.polk.ru).
During the process, Sablin was maltreated. His wife, who had a chance to see him, mentioned broken teeth and fingers. When in prison, Sablin wrote letters to his family. In one of them he drew a picture of Don Quixote for his son.
The formal narrative of a lone defector, who had manipulated the crew, suited the regime unwilling to admit that there was political and social dissent in the USSR. In the meantime, KGB collected every logbook from the ships of the Baltic Fleet and cleared them of even a smallest mentioning about the mutiny. The idealistic paladin of genuine Communism was quickly forgotten, just as other leaders of numerous uprisings against the corrupt Kremlin's rule. Its propaganda, secret services, and apparatus persuaded the Soviet dweller that there was no protest in his country – neither in real life, nor in one's thoughts.
The echo of the story
Despite the effectiveness of this practice, the memory of Valery Sablin lives on.
In 1982, Gregory D. Young, an American historian and a US Navy officer, researched the mutiny on ‘Storozhevoy' in his thesis. In 1984, this work inspired Tom Clancy, a famous American novelist, to write one of his bestsellers – ‘The Hunt for the Red October'. It centres on a Soviet nuclear submarine's crew trying to defect to the West. According to this plot, the vessel's unattractive ‘zampolit', whose surname, interestingly enough, is Putin, attempts to prevent the defection. That leads to his death from the hand of the captain – Marko Ramius, a Soviet officer of Lithuanian descent. In 1990, the novel was made into a film with Sean Connery portraying the main character.
In today's Russia, the comments on Sablin's story differ according to political views. Putin's supporters, unsurprisingly, criticize the defiant commissar in a most aggressive manner, whereas the remaining freethinkers regard the revolutionary from the mutinous Soviet battleship as a remarkably noble figure.
The story of his unthinkable Quixotic charge against the Kremlin's Leviathan is something that should remain in the collective consciousness. It shows that even one individual can clamour against a mighty omnipresent regime, and this idea is worth remembering.
A view from a Soviet anti-submarine frigate of the same class as ‘Storozhevoy', early 1980s. (A photograph from the archive of Oksana Zabuzova).