My service in the Soviet navy came about neither by choice nor chance, for during the Cold War, conscription was a rite of passage, of sorts, for every able-bodied male in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. At age 19 all were required to register for—and eventually undergo—some form of military training. It started while one yet was in school; active-duty service came later. There were variations in the service programs, but in general one could expect to serve two to three years in the military.
Thus there were no enlistees among the navy’s seamen; everyone was a conscript. After completing his service as a conscript—what Americans would call a draftee—a young man could, if deemed qualified, sign a contract to remain in the navy as a (noncommissioned) petty officer or as a midshipman, the equivalent of an ensign in the U.S. Navy. Thereafter he would move up the promotion ladder based on growth in professional competence. The standard career for such individuals was 25 years.
In that era the Soviet navy had two types of officers. One group was the contract careerists, those who chose to make the naval service their life’s work. The other was made up of reservists. The majority in the latter group were young men with some level of higher education. After military training and usually some advanced coursework they’d be demobilized—with the caveat that as reservists they would be recalled to active duty as their talents were required.
I fell into the second category. In my adolescence and young adulthood—the 1960s—the Cold War came in waves. I was caught up in one of those waves in 1966, when, after university graduation, I started my navy service as a conscript in the Black Sea Fleet. It was but a 12-month tour, which included some specialized training. Then I was designated a reserve officer and demobilized. A civilian again, I went to work in a research institute, but I was recalled to active duty in August 1969. I was 28. I served as a lieutenant (junior grade), and then lieutenant, until August 1972.
Divergent Paths for Officers
The life of a career Soviet naval officer often was tough—all the more so when he was stationed at a remote base. The normal shortcomings of shipboard life were made worse through so-called “organizing” or “disciplinary” periods—special drills ordered by senior officers. It was the considered opinion of most that the only purpose such exercises served was exhausting everyone, including the upper echelon. Shore leave was limited, part of a general policy of keeping young officers on board as much as possible. It commenced at 2200 hours and expired at 0800 the next day, in time for the flag-raising ceremony. Factoring in travel time and the hope for a decent night’s sleep, very little time was left to spend with family or friends. Additionally, at many bases living conditions ashore were very difficult because of a chronic shortage of apartments.
Of course, there also were the normal problems of shipboard life. Some crewmen were not of high caliber—undisciplined, recalcitrant, or otherwise unfit for military service. The real-life conditions in a ship were quite a contrast with the romantic dreams that many young men had had about the illustrious, glorious life of a naval officer. Young careerist officers, realizing that there was no way out, and that this would be their life for the next 25 years, became apprehensive about the future, and often depressed. The only way to be discharged—aside from medical reasons—was to do something truly infamous, a course of action that most found morally unacceptable. All such troubles could be multiplied of course, if a ship’s first lieutenant (executive officer) was draconian in his leadership. In short, the atmosphere and conditions were not good—in some cases leading to alcoholism among officers.
For reservists the situation was different. After three years of service, generally, we could return to civilian life and pursue civilian careers. We felt that essentially we were civilians, not military men. “Three-years-and-out” was not a guarantee, however. It was not unheard of for a reservist to be kept on active duty for 25 years, just like a careerist. Indeed, while I was on active duty rumors surfaced that my year-group of reservists would be ordered to serve for 25 years. So I remember particularly well the moment in 1972, when Admiral Nikolay Nikolayevich Amelko—on board and participating in an informal wardroom conversation—remarked, “Well, this year we will say goodbye to Lieutenant Mandel, as his service term ends soon.” I had learned straight from the admiral himself that the rumors were not true; my reservist group would be allowed to leave the service on schedule!
Rebuilding the Soviet Navy
Regardless of our status, regular or reservist, the Cold War decades of the 1960s and 1970s kept us busy. Previous reductions in the force levels throughout the Soviet military had been made in an atmosphere of political turmoil—not well thought out and frequently in an unreasonable manner. A large number of distinguished and experienced personnel had been thrown out of military life. Many aircraft and ships were decommissioned and destroyed. Military training institutions were closed, their young graduates discharged from active duty. Many military cadets became students in civil institutions.
Following Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “ballistic missile bluff” during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Soviet leadership became determined to establish more realistic requirements for the armed forces in preparation for a new phase of the Cold War. The time had come to turn over a new leaf. The need for corrective measures was understood. A national effort to upgrade the armed forces was launched.
That was not the first large-scale buildup in the history of the Soviet navy. In the late 1930s many new ships were built and commissioned in a short period preceding World War II. The navy recruited skippers from the merchant fleet. My father, in fact, was drafted from the merchant service for military duty in 1941 and commanded a minesweeper during the siege of Sevastopol in 1941-42.
The heroes of that era included Alexander Ivanovich Marinesko, the submariner who torpedoed the Wilhelm Gustloff, and Nikolai Alexandrovich Lunin, who attacked the Tirpitz. They are still well remembered, along with the likes of Aleksey Mikhailovich Matayasevich, a captain renowned for his polar exploits, later the commander of the submarine Lembit.
But the effort to upgrade the armed services in the 1960s was complicated by a lack of manpower, a demographic legacy of World War II. Additionally, there was an acute shortage of noncommissioned and middle-rank commissioned officers, a direct result of Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s mid-1950s cancellation of benefits for sergeants and petty officers who had signed on for contract service.
The personnel shortages forced a lowering of standards. Thus it was not uncommon for personnel in the lower ranks to have criminal histories or be ill-educated. Incidents of maltreatment and extreme hazing in the ranks rose. The image of the armed forces suffered. More tangible evidence of the problem manifested itself in incidents such as the loss of the destroyer Otvajny. She burned and sank in 1974 in an accident attributed to crew incompetence.
Life in a Black Sea Fleet Destroyer
The government had begun taking remedial steps prior to the Otvajny disaster, however. One was the organization of schools for petty officers—the “chief technicians.” The schools produced high-quality personnel in almost all the military specialties. The second significant step of the government was the calling up of reserve officers. The maximum age for those call-ups was 28, and so by a matter of months I was still eligible in 1969. I was assigned to the Komsomolets Ukrainy. She was the first ship of the new Kashin-class destroyers, serving with the Black Sea Fleet.
The Kashins were equipped with artillery, missiles, torpedoes, sonar, and ASW weapons that were excellent. The gas-turbine engines provided reliable performance and maneuverability. The ship was very seaworthy, ascending waves well and having smooth and moderate pitching, controlled by retractable stabilizers. In a violent storm in the North Atlantic the inclination never exceeded 46 degrees.
Living conditions, however, were another story. She was somewhat cramped and vibrated noticeably. A high level of noise from gas turbines was constant. The mess area was able to serve only about two-thirds of the crew simultaneously. That area doubled as a meeting room and theater. Commissioned officers and warrant officers had separate messes. The officers’ wardroom was ruled by the first lieutenant, while the warrant officers’ wardroom was led by the chief boatswain of the ship.
Medical care, however, was of high quality and under the direction of Lieutenant Eugeny Chikin. He was a very talented surgeon and on numerous occasions conducted serious surgeries while at sea, using the wardroom as an operating room. Chikin later became a chief surgeon of the Black Sea Fleet and in the 1990s he performed a sensational surgery, successfully saving the life of an officer whose head had nearly been severed in an auto accident.
A great deal of attention on board was given to physical fitness and sports. No special day or holiday passed without a traditional naval competition—usually a tug-of-war, with the winning team traditionally being awarded a huge pie. There also were fleet sailing contests. The crewmen of the Komsomolets Ukrainy’s boat—a six-oared yawl—kept it in perfect order. For a considerable period they held the Grand Prize of the Fleet.
Not all the Black Sea Fleet ships were “brand new” like ours. Some were veterans of World War II, with impressive records. Most had been modernized in the 1950s and 1960s. One such ship was the gun cruiser Slava (formerly the Molotov) commissioned in 1941. She was one of six “semi-heavy” gun cruisers of the Soviet navy, armed with a battery of nine 7.1-inch (180-mm) guns. Those ships should have been designated heavy cruisers because the gun bores exceeded six inches. However, in the Soviet navy they were considered light cruisers.
The Slava had her own special story. She was torpedoed in 1942 by German He-111 torpedo-bombers or possibly Italian torpedo boats—it was never determined definitively. In the engagement, she lost her stern, which was hastily replaced with a stern from an incomplete Chapayev-class cruiser, the Frunze. The Frunze, of course, had different hull lines. Attaching the new stern to the damaged ship created some visible “steps,” both on the deck and in the hull-plating of the Slava. It was quite obvious where the transplanted foreign stern section met the hull of the damaged cruiser, and a matter of some curiosity for those encountering those strange steps for the first time.
Manning a Man-of-War
The call-up of reserve officers for fleet service filled the vacancies of navigators, communication officers, specialists in electronics, and weapon systems—mostly artillery. Typically a young officer coming on board had a month to learn the ship. During that time he would thoroughly study all compartments, systems, and equipment. He had to learn the tactical and technical data relating to the operation of the ship. He had to examine all systems, rules, and manuals associated with damage control. He had to become familiar with the ship’s service schedules as well as the duties of a watch-stander. Only then, after passing all the prescribed tests—a tough procedure—was he assigned to watch-standing duties. The ship’s officers generally were keenly interested in successful and timely examinations for a young officer. They supported and helped him; his success meant an addition of another man to the duty roster.
Personnel were assigned positions according to their abilities, health, and education. The best men—whether officers or noncommissioned—were routinely sent to the communication, navigation, or radio divisions. Weapons systems relied on the services of career technicians—contract warrant officers and chief petty officers. (Our missile-systems expert was Midshipman Tikhon Bagryantsev, whose son was, at the time, a student at Sevastopol Higher Naval School. The son eventually rose to the rank of captain. Sadly, he was the senior officer in the submarine Kursk when she sank in the Barents Sea in 2000. In the Soviet navy as elsewhere, sons often followed in the steps of their fathers.) Great attention was paid to the tactical training of the officers. It was directly supervised by the commanding officer and included exercises in navigation as well as the study of operations and characteristics of U.S. and NATO ships.
In 1969-71 our ship was commanded by Valery Grishanov, the eldest son of a very high-ranking admiral, the head of the Main Political Administration of the Soviet navy. Despite his father’s status, Captain Grishanov never received special benefits or privileges. He endured all the “hardships and deprivations of military service” as the Soviet military oath required. He knew the needs and interests of all of the sailors and officers in his ship and was very dedicated and helpful as members of the crew prepared for exams. But he ran a tight ship in every respect. He subsequently rose to admiral and served as deputy commander of the Soviet navy. He died too young in 1996.
Relations between the officers on the ship were healthy, and in general a spirit of friendship, humor, and goodwill prevailed. At meetings and “debriefings,” which usually took place before dinner, those guilty of some dereliction or mishap received their fair share of proper admonishment from the commanding officer or first lieutenant. Then, relieved and cheerfully enthusiastic, all joined the common dinner. In the wardroom there was a piano and we often watched movies. Dominoes, chess, and backgammon also were popular in our spare time, but card games met with disapproval and could be played only in secret.
The crew was essentially international, in a way, coming from all the corners of the Soviet Union. I had under my supervision Sailors from Lithuania to Vladivostok and from Severodvinsk to Yerevan. Only men possessing a secondary education could serve in my division (Connection and Observation). Being conscripts, they had spent almost a year in a special training unit before stepping aboard the ship. Their crewmates jokingly called them “the sailors’ aristocracy.” Overall the ship embarked 27 officers and approximately 250 crew, making a total of 275-280 souls on board.
Battle Duty: Tracking the Enemy
In the 1960s the Soviet navy initiated a series of extended, long-range deployments—generally called “Battle Duty.” The purpose was to show the flag and “ensure the state interests of the USSR” around the globe. The Fifth Operational Squadron was formed in the Mediterranean comprising ships from the Black Sea, Baltic, and Northern Soviet fleets, exchanging places as required to maintain constant battle duty in the Mediterranean.
For ships’ crews, those deployment periods were the best periods of service, despite being quite lengthy. In 1972, for example, our ship once went without a port call for four months, creating some uncomfortable conditions. However, it was always a pleasure to leave the main base in Sevastopol with its senior officers and traditionally stern commandant. We did not miss the tedious duties and formalities associated with shore stations. Service at sea with the watch–break–watch routine went much faster. Everybody was kept occupied with something real and necessary.
U.S. ships fared better than we did. They could use the ports in Greece, Italy, and other NATO countries while we were quite limited in that aspect. Our ships were always on the move or anchored in the open sea, close to land. Consequently, there were limited opportunities for necessary repairs and routine maintenance. The crews became tired. Shortages of fresh water occurred because of the lack of power for desalinization plants. Crews could bathe only when their ships rendezvoused with a large tanker for refueling and receiving fresh water.
Weapon systems, on the other hand, always were kept ready and properly maintained. Every ship, while on deployment and cruising alone, also maintained around-the-clock contact with headquarters in Moscow. For although showing the Soviet flag ostensibly was our mission, in actuality we were, of course, attempting to detect and track America’s nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines. They were considered the top strategic menace.
The aircraft carrier groups of the U.S. Navy and its NATO allies were likewise regarded as serious threats, and tracking them was a high priority as well. We knew that their aircraft could carry and deliver nuclear weapons. An important part of tracking a carrier, then, was to count all aircraft launched and returned to her flight deck. If there was a discrepancy in the number of those launched vs. those that returned, we had a problem. Once, when we were tracking the USS Forrestal (CVA-59) I believe, we “lost” two A-4s that had launched, but by our count did not return. That caused much concern. We later learned that the A-4s had landed at a NATO airbase in Italy. Even so, some in our crew received reprimands.
Foes, but Not Unfriendly
Naturally, as mariners any ship held strong interest for us, particularly American vessels. When Soviet and U.S. ships met at sea and cruised side by side, the commanders of the U.S. ships often attempted to establish some form of communication with our commanding officers. Usually, however, the latter would cautiously retreat into the conning tower and remain silent. Meanwhile, the crews in the two ships enjoyed exchanging greetings and photographing each other. In those spontaneous efforts at friendly contact, the U.S. Sailors behaved in a much more free and relaxed manner than ours—who would be tense, looking over their shoulders to be sure they were not earning the disapproval of the political officers.
That wariness was perhaps warranted. After all, those fellows on the other ship were the enemy. Despite that, I am comfortable in saying that our officers and crew never expressed hate or hostility. Yes, we followed orders in a professional manner, but did so without animosity—in part, I think, because of the era. That was a time when many people remembered their experiences in World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union were allies against Germany and Japan. The cordial inter-navy relations at the time are best illustrated anecdotally.
Two amusing incidents occurred while we were tracking the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42). One came on the first day of May—the official Labor Day holiday in the Soviet Union. We were at anchor near the Roosevelt in Italy when unexpectedly she weighed anchor and headed out of the harbor. Naturally, we had no choice but to follow. As we did, we received a signal from the Roosevelt: “Congratulations for the holiday. We apologize for having to interrupt your vacation!”
On another occasion the big carrier sent us this signal: “Today at 2200, your duty will be changed and you will be ordered to proceed home. We have been pleased to cruise together with you. Happy sailing!” A change in duty came as news to us, but it was rather cheerfully welcomed. We then contacted our headquarters seeking confirmation. In response we got only silence. But then, precisely at 2200, we received new orders from headquarters: We were to hand off our surveillance of the Roosevelt to another ship and return home!
I also recall fondly how we met the flagship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet—the cruiser USS Springfield (CLG-7) carrying the flag of Vice Admiral Gerald Miller. As our ships cruised side by side, we rendered a flag greeting, our crew lining the railing on the upper deck. Our bugler played a signal and our commanding officer and the other officers gave a hand salute. The Springfield responded with a semaphore message from Admiral Miller: “Thank you for the greeting! It is always nice to see a sailor who is serving well!”
Two political developments also were at work at the time and no doubt facilitated that atmosphere of friendly rivalry. For one, it was the era of détente in Soviet-U.S. relations. President Richard Nixon had visited Moscow and tensions had eased considerably. On the other hand, in roughly the same span of time Moscow’s relationship with China had become increasingly strained. Starting as early as 1968, in fact, political officers had been ordered to focus their political propaganda on the Chinese. And in turn we had then begun seeing a decline in anti-American propaganda.
Pervasive Propaganda and Politics
Incredible as it may seem to some Westerners, the time and effort the Soviet navy devoted to ensuring maritime security was nearly matched by its emphasis on political indoctrination of ships’ crews. Marxist-Leninist “priest-craft”—particularly the mindless task of note-taking on Lenin’s works—often prevailed over professional military training. The former was conducted by political officers from different agencies who sometimes viewed each other jealously and consequently did not work well together.
Three such officers were in our ship. They represented three distinct levels of the Navy’s political structure: the Main Political Administration, the Political Department of the Fleet, and the Political Department of the Division of Ships. Each of the officers carried an important-sounding title, but essentially their shared task was conducting political and ideological indoctrination of the crew. A fourth political officer on board—from a special department called Osobiy Otdel—was taken more seriously. He was a senior operative from the navy’s branch of the KGB—the Soviet Union’s state security apparatus.
For some reason those of us in the navy—especially ship crews—were subjected to less ideological indoctrination than most Soviet military personnel. Even so, the political officers were unpopular, for they produced unnecessary paperwork and harassed the crew with boring, time-wasting activities: political discussions, the study of Lenin, and perhaps most annoying, specially prepared propaganda from the media—rudimentary Marxist ideology that generally was poorly written and intellectually insulting to any reasonably educated man. In the eyes of officers and crew those political fellows had little authority, and merited an equal amount of respect. The KGB officer, on the other hand, concerned himself mainly with treason. That elicited some ironic and suspicious attitudes among the crew, but interestingly, in his general qualities as an officer he differed favorably from his political-indoctrination comrades.
The main task of the political officers was to reveal and debunk the evil nature of imperialism and its “atrocious fangs.” Almost all world events were reviewed and presented in that light, especially the contemporary war in Vietnam. However, the “yakking parrots” were not only recognized exactly for what they were by a generally well-educated and aware crew, the political officers at times clumsily undermined their own efforts. One such instance occurred as our ship transited the Black Sea Strait. No one was allowed on the weather decks. The Deputy Commander for Political Affairs then stationed himself on the quarterdeck, armed with a pistol and a grenade—in case some crewman tried to escape to the West by jumping overboard!
* * * * * * * * *
*Looking back I realize more than ever the one key difference between my service—that of a reserve—and that of the career officers. For me and other reservists there were hardships, yes, but there were special events that forged fond memories of military service in a great ship. For the career officers, however, such events became almost part of a routine. They faced a long term of service, with all of its attendant difficulties, problems, decisions, concerns, and repetitive events. They served under arduous conditions for extended periods. As my former first lieutenant frequently comments today, it is difficult to persuade most retired career officers to talk about their years of service, for now they are simply tired. They prefer to forget the past, which is understandable. They served the Soviet Union honorably, and in most cases it just wore them out.
Many years have passed since the day my comrades and I left the deck of the Komsomolets Ukrainy. Time has dimmed many of the unpleasant memories of my naval service—things that created irritation, frustration, and disapproval. But the good memories and fond recollections—camaraderie, being involved in something important, and making a contribution to society—are brighter and more vivid than ever. Such is the remarkable power of the human mind and spirit.