With the help of Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko, Hromadske is launching a new series of articles on the history of international relations.
Ukraine has been actively seeking to distance itself from the Soviet past it shares with Russia. Decommunization laws enacted in 2015 have led to the dismantling of Soviet monuments and symbols, changing streetnames and new dates for national holidays.
Writing for Hromadske in honour of Ukraine's Navy Day celebrations, Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko tells the story of the 1975 muntiny on the Baltic frigate "Storozhevoy," an episode from Soviet history worth commemorating.
In July, Ukraine celebrates the day of her Navy, which, since 2015, has been marked on the first Sunday of the month. Before that, it was the last Sunday – the day when Russia holds equivalent celebrations.
It is hardly surprising that Ukrainians prefer to honor their military fleet on a date of their own. In this and other matters Ukraine distances herself from both the Russian present and the Soviet past. And yet, Soviet naval history has some episodes that deserve to be acknowledged.
Here is one of them.
In November 1975 a political commissar of a Soviet Navy battleship, Captain of the Third Rank Valeriy Sablin, led an insurrection against the 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: Wikimedia Commons.
The Mutineer’s Early Biography
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, which, as he sincerely believed, would someday create a “free commonwealth of equal and happy individuals."
The Soviet reality, however, was very far from his idealistic dreams. 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 entered the Lenin Political Military Academy – a prestigious establishment, where the students mastered the highest levels of the official dogma. In 1973, he finished 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 Soviet military jargon, “zampolit."
The anti-submarine frigate "Storozhevoy" ("the Scout") of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. This picture was taken two days before the mutiny. 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. Source: Wikipedia.
An already disillusioned man, Sablin still remained a true believer in Communism. On his new ship, he began to preach “Communism’s original values," and that had a peculiar consequence. Unlike most “zampolits” in the Soviet Navy, the newly appointed commissar gained a notable popularity with the crew. Its members, inspired by their mentor, made a very 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 the USSR, Sablin and his closest followers came up with a plan, which, under the usual circumstances, would have been most probably 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 November 7, 1975, “Storozhevoy” took part in the naval parade held in the Gulf of Riga. It was the anniversary of what was celebrated as the Great October Revolution of 1917.
On November 8, 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. The frigate was to be anchored by the famous “Aurora” – the protected cruiser that, in 1917, had signaled the beginning of the Bolshevik uprising. The officers unwilling to support the idea were locked in their cabins and the ship 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 crew expected to speak to the nation on both television and radio. Its draft manifesto trumpeted “continuous Communist revolution," which was to rid the state of “dishonest leaders and party administrators." The “revolutionary process,” according to this somewhat eclectic text, amounted to “the colossal outburst of ionosphere’s fluctuation” – something that was bound to cause the “material change of the whole socio-economic structure."
In addition to such a mixture of Marxist and science fiction formulations, 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 daily TV addresses between 9:30 and 10 p.m. The frigate was to be granted immunity and provisions along with the permission to broadcast her own radio appeals to the public.
Before the unprecedented voyage even began, one petty officer had escaped and made it to Riga. 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 November 9, they got on the trail, but mistook a warship that was itself in pursuit of 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, the officers whom the mutineers had 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. "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 fire. Even if he had had such intention, it would have been impossible – the ship, which had been destined for the Latvian port of Liepaja to undergo repairs, carried no ammunition. A photograph from the archive of Oksana Zabuzova.
Having detained the crew of “Storozhevoy,” the KGB commenced an investigation. The military authorities were instructed to keep the whole affair secret, but that, as they promptly discovered, was not easy. There were many witnesses, and some civilian vessels almost drowned during the chaotic raids of the bombers. The Baltic fishermen were already gossiping about the event, and the news rapidly spread further ashore.
To explain the mess, Moscow concocted a tale claiming that Sablin had planned 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 August 3, 1976, the chief mutineer was executed, whereas the crew faced 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. 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. Source: www.polk.ru.
In the meantime, the KGB collected every logbook from the ships of the Baltic Fleet and cleared them of even the smallest mentioning of the mutiny. The idealistic paladin of “genuine Communism” was quickly forgotten, just as other leaders of numerous uprisings against the 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
The KGB’s methods, however, were not entirely effective.
In 1982, Gregory D. Young, an American historian and a US Navy officer, wrote an academic thesis about the uprising on “Storozhevoy.” In 1984, this research inspired Tom Clancy, a famous American novelist, to compose one of his bestsellers – The Hunt for the Red October. It centers on a Soviet submarine’s crew attempting to defect to the West. In Clancy’s interpretation, the endeavor was led by the vessel’s captain Marko Ramius – a Soviet officer of Lithuanian descent. In 1990, the novel was made into a popular film with Sean Connery portraying the main character.
The real story, on the other hand, is much more relevant than the fiction. Sablin’s quixotic charge against the Kremlin shows that even one individual can challenge an omnipresent repressive regime. And that, many would say, 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.
/Dmytro Ishchenko, PhD, is a historian and policy analyst at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He was a diplomat at the MFA of Ukraine and the Mission of Ukraine to the EU in 2002-2010.