In the pre-dawn darkness of Nov. 8, 1975, the Soviet missile frigate Storozhevoy quietly slipped its lines and headed out to sea from the Soviet port of Riga. For hours, according to an unclassified summary, no one in the Russian navy knew the ship was gone.
So began one of the most extraordinary, although ultimately unsuccessful, mutinies in the history of modern sailing--new details of which have just been published. Before the incident was over, this account states, the Storozhevoy would move well out into the Baltic Sea on a mad dash toward Sweden and freedom in the West, only to be turned back by attacking Soviet planes and other ships.
At least a dozen sailors were killed during the incident, the summary adds, and the leader of the mutiny was later tried and shot. After a final cruise in the Baltic, the Storozhevoy was transferred to the Soviet Pacific Fleet.
The attempted flight of the Storozhevoy has been reported in the past by U.S. and European newspapers, but never acknowledged by the Soviet Union. Now, however, thanks to the investigative work of a U.S. Navy officer, a much more complete account of the incident has emerged.
It paints a picture of harsh living conditions on board the ship; of a young, trusted political officer and an unusual series of events that allowed the officer to take charge of a front-line warship--with most of its crew ashore--in a port close to international waters and the West.
Subject of Master's Thesis
The detective work was performed by Lt. Cmdr. Gregory D. Young, who earned a master's degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1982 by devoting his thesis to the Storozhevoy incident. His findings attracted little interest, however, until they were summarized this month in the magazine Sea Power.
The Navy refuses to comment formally on Young's research, although sources say it has been accepted as the most definitive account available. The Navy also was willing to put a reporter in contact with Young after determining his work had not been classified. Now an instructor with the Navy ROTC program at the University of Colorado, Young said recently he had received access to some classified materials on the mutiny.
"But frankly, they weren't much help," Young said, adding he pieced together most of the information from other sources, including Russian immigrants who were in Riga and intercepted radio messages.
"There is no doubt the incident occurred," Young said. "There are still questions about the details and about what prompted it. But it definitely happened and there is no other incident like this that I can find in the Soviet navy."
According to Young, the mutiny on board the Storozhevoy was led by the ship's zampolit, or political deputy, an officer placed aboard every Soviet ship to maintain the ideological purity of the crew. The zampolit on the Storozehvoy, a modern 3,800-ton warship that was only three years old in 1975, was Capt. Valery Mikhaylovich Sablin.
Unusual Political Officer
Young describes Sablin as an unusual political officer, willing to listen to crew complaints during his lectures on Marxist thought without spouting the standard party line. Young says Sablin had been criticized by name in 1974 in the Soviet defense newspaper Red Star for not running his political education meetings properly.
Sablin delivered his last such lecture on the afternoon of Nov. 7, 1975, when many of the ship's officers and crew were on leave in Riga commemorating the Great October Revolution.
That night, according to Young's research, Sablin, another officer named Markov, and a dozen or so petty officers locked the ship's captain in his cabin, tied up some other officers and ordered "a skeleon crew of unwary 18- and 19-year-old conscripted sailors" to take the Storozhevoy to sea.
As the ship moved out of port, one sailor jumped over the side, apparently unknown to Sablin, and managed to reach shore, Young said, citing secondhand accounts from a bus driver. It took the exhausted sailor more than two hours to reach naval headquarters in Riga and convince a duty officer that something was wrong on the Storozhevoy.
Even then, it was only after one of the officers on board the ship managed to untie himself and reach a radio to broadcast an emergency message that Soviet authorities realized what was happening. By then, the ship was through the Gulf of Riga, steaming across the Baltic for the Swedish island of Gotland.
Ordered to Stop Mutineers
The entire 200-mile voyage from Riga to Gotland would have taken less than seven hours, Young added. But the commander of the Soviet Navy ordered the Storozhevoy stopped at all costs.
The remainder of the story was pieced together primarily through accounts provided Swedish journalists by Swedish military officials, Young said. Astonished radio operators in Sweden found themselves listening to open transmissions between the mutineers and Soviet bombers sent to stop the ship.
The Storozhevoy refused the pleas of the pilots to heave to, Young said, and the planes eventually opened fire.
"Evidence of the utter chaos and disarray is clear," Young wrote in his thesis, saying the Soviet bombers caused more extensive damage to a pursuing ship than to the Storozhevoy.
The Storozhevoy took evasive maneuvers, but never returned fire on its pursuers, Young said. "The Swedish intercepts indicate that the ship was finally recaptured around 8 a.m." on Nov. 8, 1975, only about 30 miles from Gotland, he said. The incident lasted about six hours; the mutineers apparently surrendered without resistance.
Sablin and a number of enlisted members of the crew were eventually executed, Young concluded, Sablin after a three-day trial before the Military Division of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union.