On this date in 1976, the real-life Soviet political officer whose naval mutiny inspired Tom Clancy’s Cold War thriller The Hunt for Red October was shot in Moscow for treason.
No, unlike his fictional counterpart Marko Ramius (Sean Connery, in the 1990 cinema adaptation excerpted above), Valery Sablin didn’t make it to the West.
But the real Valery Sablin wasn’t trying to make it.
When he led his mutiny in Riga, his plan was to take the Storozhevoy to St. Petersburg and, Aurora-like, sound the tocsin for a Soviet Tea Party to restore the ideals of the Revolution.
Basically, Sablin had the exact opposite intent of his literary offspring.
This being the 1970s, when figuring out what the devil was happening in the black box of the USSR constituted its own academic discipline, the incident was misinterpreted in the western media — but understandably so.
The sea route from Riga to St. Petersburg begins in a westerly direction, towards Sweden, and the spectacle of Soviet fighters turning back a vessel steaming for Gotland (combined, of course, with the natural susceptibility of the western audience to the notion) suggested that the mutineers had aimed not at revolution, but at defection.
Under the headline “Newspaper Reports Soviet Ship Mutiny” sourced to Agence France-Presse and datelined Stockholm, Jan. 22, the Jan. 23, 1976 Washington Post reported:
Crewmen on board a Soviet coast guard vessel in the Baltic mutinied and tried to sail the ship into Swedish territorial waters in November, the evening newspaper Expressen said today.
Citing foreign visitors recently returned from Riga, the paper said the mutiny took place Nov. 7 after celebrations in Riga marking the Soviet revolution.
The paper said a Soviet submarine and a number of helicopters forced the ship to return to Riga.
This was the version of the story that aspiring spy novelist Tom Clancy encountered. In his reworking, it became the bold (and successful) defection of a state-of-the-art Soviet submarine and its deft commander … effected, of course, with a little help from the derring-do of the spooks at Langley.
Moscow was pleased to let this be the version that people heard, to the extent they heard anything at all of the incident. Though not exactly flattering, it was much less threatening than the potential storyline of “Soviet officers are so fed up with party corruption that they’re trying to revolt”.
Not until 1990 did the real story get out.
It’s pretty safe to say that the Valery Sablin who died this day would not have had a lot of sympathy for Marko Ramius,* and still less for the Reaganite writer who turned Sablin’s deed inside-out and made it the cornerstone of his own personal mint.
Trust the fact that history will judge events honestly and you will never have to be embarrassed for what your father did. On no account ever be one of those people who criticise but do not follow through their actions. Such people are hypocrites — weak, worthless people who do not have the power to reconcile their beliefs with their actions. I wish you courage, my dear. Be strong in the belief that life is wonderful. Be positive and believe that the Revolution will always win.
-Sablin’s last letter to his son
Russian speakers may enjoy this documentary about the Sablin mutiny.
* Another inversion: in order to make his break for the Free World, the fictional (and, significantly, ethnically Lithuanian) Ramius murders the ethnically Russian political officer, Ivan Putin, assigned to his ship; the real Sablin was himself that zealous political officer, and imprisoned the ship’s captain in the course of the mutiny.