The Soviet Navy has come of age. What was essentially a coastal defense force of obsolescent and short-legged ships less than 15 years ago has been transformed into a well-balanced fleet of modern submarines, surface ships, and aircraft ranging over all the major ocean areas of the world.
The world is very much aware of the transformation. Numerous Western leaders and journalists have voiced concern about the growing Soviet maritime threat. Their Concern tends to focus on the hardware, however, and little attention is paid to the Soviet naval officer.
He, too, has undergone a major transformation. He continues to change, at times more radically than the ships and aircraft he mans. In the long run, the changes that take place in him may well have the greatest meaning of all for his counterparts in the U. S. Navy.
The Naval Officer Corps. In the Soviet Navy today, the accent is on youth. Rapidly disappearing from the scene is the old breed—officers who served half their naval careers under the stifling control of Stalin. They are being replaced by the products of an entirely different environment who have developed professionally during the period of Soviet maritime expansion. This postwar generation of naval officers holds the key to the future of the Soviet Navy. They now man and command the ships and aircraft, and they will be leading the eskadras and fleets in a few short years.
The elite group occupies a privileged position within the “classless" Soviet society. In addition to the social prestige which is his as a naval officer, a member of this group gets better pay and housing than his civilian counterpart. And he can shop at the Voentorg (the Soviet version of the PX), with its greater selection and lower prices than those found in stores for the general population. These are very real advantages in a society still suffering from critical shortages in housing, food, and consumer goods.
The ordinary Soviet citizen thus has reason to envy the naval officer, but neither he nor his son has much hope of becoming one. Naval officer status is not that accessible to the proletariat. This is in large measure owing to the existence of the Nakhimov School System, the source of most officer candidates for the Navy since its founding in World War II. These schools, which offer specialized naval preparatory training at the primary and secondary school levels—students enter as early as age 7, and can complete their entire primary and secondary school education (10 years) there—were ostensibly intended to provide educational opportunities for orphans of war heroes. Although each class entering these preparatory schools includes a few sons of workers, active duty petty officers, and descendants of veterans, Most cadets are the sons of Party or government leaders or of active duty or retired naval officers.
Products of the Nakhimov Schools make up a very large percentage of the cadets who enter the Higher Naval Schools (equivalent to our Naval Academy) and receive commissions in the Navy upon graduation. The result is an inbred naval officer corps which an outsider enters only with the greatest difficulty. There are exceptions of course—direct procurement civilians and certain enlisted technicians who receive officer training at special Naval Officer Schools. The promotion opportunities for such officers are generally quite limited, however, and only rarely would they succeed to command or positions of great authority.
The inbreeding engendered by the Nakhimov Schools, coupled with the weeding-out process of postwar demobilizations, has created an officer caste not unlike the one that existed in Tsarist times. Like the officer caste of that day (and other elite groups within the present "classless" Soviet society), the naval officer corps is made up largely of Slavic peoples—Great Russians, Byelorussians, and Ukrainians. Members of this ethnic group occupy virtually all positions of responsibility and authority in the Soviet Navy.
The class consciousness and prejudices of the various Soviet ethnic groups are not the only social factors which tend to fragment the naval officer corps; there is considerable nepotism as well. The officer who comes from the most privileged class in the Soviet society—the son or son-in-law of a Party, government or military leader—is often shown preferential treatment when it comes to promotion and in assignment to the more desirable and promising billets. He also finds admission to the Communist Party much easier. This is an important factor since, without Party membership, the Soviet naval officer has no hope of advancement to flag rank.
Party affiliation, in fact, can be a powerful antidote for any number of ills in an officer's career pattern. It can conceivably overcome the educational shortcomings and social barriers faced by an officer who happens to come from one of the minority groups, or who has risen from the working class or enlisted ranks. Recognizing this fact of Soviet life, all ambitious officers strive for admission to the Party, an honor which is reserved for only some 5% of the Soviet population. The most forward-looking officers start their campaign to achieve Party status while they are still naval cadets or serving in the ranks. They do this by joining the Komsomol (Young Communist League), a necessary stepping-stone to Party membership for all but a select few Soviet luminaries. As a group, naval officers are quite successful in their efforts to gain admittance to the Party. Approximately 20% of them are full or candidate members; better than 90% belong to either the Party or the Komsomol.
Membership in the Komsomol or Party automatically means involvement in a variety of political activities, during both duty and off-duty hours. Some officers, however, stake everything on their association with these political organizations, even neglecting their military duties in order to concentrate on political affairs. This attitude pays dividends at times. This is not to suggest that an officer's political status is the sole determinant in his assignments or advancement; his personal and professional qualities also carry weight. The problem is in being able to tell one from the other since, in the Soviet Navy—as throughout the Soviet system—everything tends to be clouded by political or ideological considerations.
When he is evaluated by his senior, the naval officer's "professional state" includes consideration of his "participation in Party-political activities," and his "personal demeanor" is a reflection of his "political-moral state" both on duty and off In short, there is little about an officer's attitude, performance or potential to which a political or ideological connotation is not attached.
The officer who succeeds in the Navy will have conformed and reached an accommodation with the political organizations. He does so in recognition of the all-powerful influence that the Party has over him, both personally and professionally, and the extent to which, as we shall see, the Party exercises policy control throughout the Navy.
Communist Party Control in the Navy. In his private life, the Soviet naval officer and his family are subjected to the same political-ideological pressures under which all Soviet citizens live: required attendance at Komsomol or Party meetings and neighborhood agitpunks (indoctrination center) sessions; constant exposure to propaganda from government-controlled media; surveillance by the KGB (Secret Police) and druzhniki (neighborhood vigilantes), to name a few. He is also subject, in both his-service and private life, to the special attention of the Political Directorate of the Navy, an arm of the Communist Party which extends its influence into every facet of Navy life.
Such Party control has been in existence since the beginning of the Soviet regime, but it has taken various forms. Prior to World War II, the Soviet Armed Forces operated under the dual command system, with a commissar assigned at each level of command to ensure political integrity. The political commissar ranked with the military commander and often overrode the latter's decisions in purely military matters. The dual command system proved unworkable in a combat situation and it was abolished in the early days of the war. The commissar was replaced by the zampolit (deputy commander for political matters) who continues to function today much like a combined personnel officer, chaplain, and welfare and recreation officer. His range of interest is even broader, though, extending from the administration of discipline to the organization and supervision of off-duty "rest and culture" activities. The zampolit is militarily and administratively subordinate to the commanding officer, but he has available to him a parallel and entirely separate chain of command within the Political Directorate. The opportunity that this gives him to report on his military contemporaries and seniors is obvious, and it is a constant source of irritation to the regular (i.e., non-political) officers. He is not their only problem, however. They also have to contend with the KGB, which frequently plants agents or recruit informants among personnel in the ranks.
At least the regular officer knows who the zampolit is, and although the latter has an interest in security this is not his primary function, and therefore he represents less of a threat. He is still not completely accepted as an equal by the regular officers, but much has been done in recent years to improve his image in the wardroom. Instead of being drawn directly from civilian life, he is now frequently recruited from among personnel of the Armed Forces who have shown promise as Party activists. He is sent to a special school where he receives extensive preparation for his primary mission of political enlightenment, but where he is schooled thoroughly in military matters as well. This foundation in military training, continued when he joins an operational unit, makes it possible for him to fulfill a military function when required. In a major combatant ship, for example, the zampolit is third in command following the starpom (senior assistant to the CO) and is required to qualify as an underway watch officer. There usually no zampolit as such in a minor combatant ships; rather, it is the pomoshchnik (assistant) who functions as both executive officer usually assisted assisted by an enlisted politruk (political leader). The result of this arrangement is that the political officer once considered a parasite by the other officers, now performs a useful administrative function within the organization. There have even been cases in which former zampolits have received their own command.
While the image of the zampolit may have improved, his primary mission and mode of operations have not changed. He still has his separate channel of communications, and he still manages to exert considerable influence, in the day-to-day operations of the unit. However, he is less apt now to challenge the authority of the commanding officer directly. This has come as a result of increased emphasis on a concept called "one-man management” or "single command."
Both military and political leadership within a unit are thus exercised by one person—the military commander. As outlined in Soviet Armed Forces Regulations, the unit commander is the "one-man manager" and is personally responsible to the Soviet Government and to the Communist Party for the military and political training, combat readiness, and "political-moral" condition of his unit. This does not mean that there has been any relaxation of Party control in the Armed Forces. It does indicate, however, that party control is being exercised, more and more, through the commander, who now has both the responsibility and the authority in military and political matters.
Soviet Navy leaders claim that "one-man management" is working well, and judging from the way Soviet Fleet units are operating these days, one can assume that it is proving effective, at least from an operational standpoint. It is interesting, though, that the authorities make a point of stressing the need to "train and cultivate those officers who will fulfill all their obligations conscientiously," if this concept is to succeed. This a rather oblique way of suggesting that the fate of the "one-man management" concept—which relies on the Party for its continued existence—hinges on the ability of the officer corps to guarantee that the present level of Party control in the Navy will not be jeopardized, and that Navy personnel will remain, as Soviet Armed Forces Regulations demand, "loyal to the regime and devoted to the principles of Communism."
Political Reliability. It is most unlikely that the Party would have even considered bolstering the authority of the military commander without the assured loyalty of the officer corps. Not that there are no cases of disloyalty or defection among officers of the Armed Forces. Party authorities, however, view the problem as being far less serious than it was just a few years ago. Their increased confidence is probably based in part on the knowledge that most of the political risks of the wartime and immediate postwar period have been weeded out by demobilization. They also know that the improved social and economic status enjoyed by the officer corps since Stalin's death gives them less reason to become disaffected these days.
Party authorities are far from at ease on the question of political reliability, however. They continue to fear the possibility of what they term "ideological subversion." This can range all the way from general disaffection or complacency about Party or service responsibilities—either of which might lead to decreased efficiency or laxity in matters of security—to subversion in the classic sense—defection or espionage on behalf of a foreign power. The expanded scope of Fleet operations has greatly increased the exposure and thus the vulnerability of Navy personnel to possible subversive influences. When visiting foreign ports, even though naval personnel go ashore in groups, well-escorted and carefully controlled, they are bound to see and hear things that contradict the propaganda to which they have been exposed. They may begin to harbor doubts if their exposure to the outside world reveals inconsistencies or flaws in Soviet domestic or foreign policy. To counteract this, Navy political organizations have mounted a two-pronged campaign of intensified ideological indoctrination emphasizing the oath of enlistment and service regulations. If the political lectures and required reading assignments fail to erase any doubts about the correctness of the Party's tenets or the government's actions, then there are the cold unyielding requirements of the oath and regulations to bind the Navy men to the regime.
The oath, to which both officers and men attest, is a very demanding document which is administered with great ceremony after extensive instruction in its principles and meaning. The oath makes no mention of the Communist Party, but declares allegiance only to "my People, my Soviet Motherland and the Soviet Government." Service regulations, on the other hand, almost invariably couple the Soviet Government and Communist Party together as the ultimate authority on all matters. This emphasis on national patriotism in the oath provides the best indication of where the greatest loyalty of the Soviet citizen lies. As was demonstrated after Stalin managed to sell World War II to the people as "The Great Patriotic War," it is love of country, rather than dedication to Communism, which binds the Soviet citizen to the regime. The situation has not changed. The Soviet citizen remains fiercely loyal to the Motherland. The authorities recognize this fact and make every effort to capitalize on it. One such effort is an intensive propaganda campaign, glorifying Russian maritime traditions (real and fabricated) and publicizing an inflated version of the Navy's role in World War II. As distorted as it is, the campaign is serving its planned purpose of instilling service pride and cultivating the patriotic feelings of Soviet navymen.
Patriotism is not enough, however, in today's officer corps with its reliance on "one-man management." The stated goal of this concept, in fact, is to develop an officer corps which, in Soviet parlance, is "politically and operationally mature." The terminology is interesting. An "operationally mature" officer, it would seem, is more than professionally knowledgeable and technically competent; he also has a capacity for personal leadership, initiative, and decisiveness—qualities that were not always expected (or desired) in a Soviet officer. A "politically mature" officer, at the same time, would not only be patriotic, but would also be devoted to the Party and the principles of Communism. He would be a "moral" person who adhered to an officially-stipulated set of values in both his service and private life. Equally important, he would take a personal interest in the "political-moral" conditions of his subordinates, actively participating in their ideological indoctrination, and providing them with a good example of "Communist morality" at all times.
The Party's vital interest in the officer's morality—and thus his private life—is prompted by the knowledge that personal problems can have an adverse effect on his performance and political reliability. Party officials are interested in anything that could possibly be a source of trouble, but they are particularly concerned about the officer's sex life and drinking habits. Marital difficulties, homosexuality, and excessive drinking are probably no more serious than in other navies, but they tend to attract greater official attention and concern in the Soviet Navy, particularly at isolated bases of the Northern and Pacific Fleets where they are most prevalent. Measures have been taken to improve living conditions and recreational facilities in these remote areas in an effort to remove the most serious causes of such personal problems. More effective, though, has been the severe attitude the authorities have adopted with respect to immoral behavior—public censure, and usually at a well-attended political meeting, and there is the ever-present threat of disciplinary action and possible dismissal from the service.
The extent to which the naval officer achieves "political maturity" is reflected in his "moral profile." This is his political "fitness report." In it he is graded on devotion to the Party, professional knowledge, selfless labor, boldness, disciplined conduct, honesty, humility, and readiness to sacrifice all in the interest of the Motherland. (Note that devotion to the Party comes first, and patriotism brings up the rear where the Party is concerned.) The "moral profile" of the average Soviet naval officer would show him to be politically reliable, but somewhat deficient in matters of ideology. He is probably a full or candidate member of the Party (or at least belongs to the Komsomol), but he did not necessarily join out of conviction. More likely, it was the promise of advancement, much like belonging to "the right club" in other societies. He knows and recites all the proper slogans, but he does so by rote and rarely as a result of true "devotion to the Party and the principles of communism." He attends political meetings only because it is expected of him, and he is even more reluctant to play an active role in the ideological education of his subordinates. In fact, he begrudges the time that he and his men are required to spend on political activities, feeling that it could be applied more profitably to perfecting their professional skills.
Such complacency in matters of politics and ideology on the part of the regular officer is a constant source of concern to the Party. Unchecked, such an apolitical attitude could conceivably erode Party control in the Navy. The most effective safeguard against such erosion is provided by the Political Directorate, which can maintain administrative and policy control for the Party at all levels. In short, "one-man management" notwithstanding, the zampolit is here to stay.
Professional Competence. The new role of the Soviet Navy has created the need for an entirely new approach to the professional education and training of the officer corps. For the unrestricted line officer, the process begins at the High Naval School, which provides him with a foundation in naval science at the university level. There are five such schools which prepare naval cadets for line officer duties in the surface and submarine forces; others prepare naval aviation officers and specialist officers for various engineering and staff duties.
At all of the Higher Naval Schools, the cadets are limited to the very narrow field of their predestined specialty. Moreover, they receive little more than the basics in any professional subject, with limited reference to late developments already in operational use in the Fleet. I visited Frunze Higher Naval School in Leningrad—foremost among the Soviet schools at this level—and was surprised to learn that the professional education of the cadets (destined for unrestricted line duty) concentrates on deck seamanship, shiphandling, and navigation, with just a brief and very generalized orientation in engineering, ordnance, and electronics. Further, the emphasis was on theoretical instruction classroom demonstration, with few opportunities for practical exercise owing to shortages of time and equipment. The opportunities for gaining practical experience during summer cruises were not much better, since most of the training ships were not fitted out with modern equipment. I also found interesting the disproportionate amount of classroom time which was devoted at Frunze to non-professional subjects, such as history of the Communist Party, Communist philosophy, and atheism. As a result, the Soviet cadets received only the briefest introduction to the naval profession during their four years at the Higher Naval School.
Soviet Navy authorities are aware of the deficiencies in the curricula at the Higher Naval Schools and are adding subjects intended to acquaint the cadets with some of the later developments in naval weapons and equipment. They have been prompted to do this by the complaints from the Fleet which indicate that newly-commissioned officers are reporting for duty totally ignorant of conditions on board operating ships of the Navy. Not only are they unfamiliar with the type of ship to which they have been assigned, but also some of them (notably specialists) have never before been on board a ship of any kind. Moreover, despite the several years that most of them have been exposed to the Navy (up to 14 years as cadets in the Nakhimov and Higher Naval Schools), they actually know very little about Navy life.
From the comments appearing in the Soviet Navy press, it is apparent that the training of junior officers, once they have joined the Fleet, has also left much to be desired. Probably no other subject receives more high-level attention, both from the Navy and the Party. Two factors appear to enter into the problem: collateral duties and lack of training opportunities. As is the case in most navies, the Soviet junior officer is immediately tagged for numerous collateral duties when he reports aboard. In the Soviet Navy, the situation is made worse by required attendance at frequent political meetings. Professional development thus often finds itself well down the list of priorities on the junior officer's daily schedule, with too little time to devote to learning his primary duties properly. The attitude of many senior officers has done little to improve this situation. Comments in the Soviet Navy press bemoan the fact that many senior officers are reluctant to delegate responsibility and have provided too little opportunity for their subordinates to develop competence and confidence.
Soviet naval authorities recognize this as a serious shortcoming and much has been done of late to overcome it. A key factor has been the changed character of Soviet Navy operations. The scope and tempo of these operations are such that the junior officer has the opportunity and the need to qualify more rapidly for positions of increased responsibility. He is also benefiting from accelerated programs of technical training and postgraduate education designed to supplement his basic professional knowledge. Such opportunities for advanced training appear early in his career, and these programs have progressed to the point where one out of two Soviet naval officers has now received formalized postgraduate education in some form. Emphasis is being given to off-duty lecture programs as well, the goal being to acquaint the officer with late developments in naval weaponry, operations, and tactics, in both his own Navy and the navies of the West. From all indications he is learning his lessons well. He is operating advanced ships and aircraft with competence, and he is engaging in operations of ever-increasing complexity. It is obvious that the training deficiencies of the Soviet Navy are being overcome, and that the Soviet naval officer is gaining a degree of professional competence virtually unknown in his Navy a few short years ago.
Leadership. Leadership is the Soviet naval officer's most serious shortcoming. But the blame is not his alone. On the one hand, Navy authorities are urging him to show greater initiative and imagination in the execution of his duties; on the other hand, he knows that too much of either is apt to be viewed with disfavor by the Party, to which he must also answer. As a result, he tends to do no more than is absolutely necessary, in order to keep from doing anything wrong. In his efforts to stay out of trouble, he becomes most reluctant to accept responsibility for his own actions or those of his subordinates. He may yet overcome this reluctance, but not until he has reason to believe that initiative and complete honesty are really what the authorities expect of him. Right now he knows that the naval officer who shows too much imagination or drive, or who is willing to admit to shortcomings in himself or his subordinates, may have more to fear than one who is less aggressive or candid.
One should not infer from this, however, that the Soviet Navy is apt to fall apart in a combat situation, or even in routine peacetime operations; there are too many other positive influences that will hold it together. Rather, it is a question of what effect such a self-protective attitude might have on the individual's interest in his shipmates and his loyalty to them, and in the day-to-day matters which keep the Navy running and determine how effective an organization it will become. One thing is certain—this attitude colors the relations between the Soviet naval officer and his subordinates.
As a rule, he takes little if any personal interest in his men, except in purely professional matters, and given half a chance, he will sidestep all responsibility for their living conditions, appearance, attitude or behavior. At times he will go so far as to fail to note or report their disciplinary violations, or he may even resort to falsifying records. Such apparent leniency is purely a matter of self-preservation, since misdeeds on the part of the junior are apt to reflect adversely on the reputation of the senior.
Such leniency is rarely motivated by sympathy. To the contrary, when forced to deal with his subordinates, the Soviet naval officer can be quite brutal and unfeeling, often resorting to vulgarity and public reprimand and being inclined to award severe on-the-spot punishment for minor shortcomings. By and large, there is little love lost between the officer and his subordinates—and there is little mutual respect.
The odd relationship that exists between the Soviet naval officer and his subordinates is not only a matter of attitude; it is also a direct reflection of the unique role which the Party plays in the administration of personnel. Navy and Party authorities complain repeatedly that the regular naval officer pays too little attention to disciplining his men and ensuring that they maintain the proper attitude toward their work and political endeavors. Yet, this is a monster of their own making. It has resulted from their having placed the Political Directorate between the officer and his subordinates. At work, the political organizations of the Directorate "persuade the men to carry out assigned tasks with socialist vigor," and they administer the punishment when the men "fail to measure up to Party standards." Ashore, the Political Directorate seeks to regulate all their free time, whether in the officer and enlisted clubs that it operates, or in the individuals' barracks or homes. Little wonder, then, that the regular officer feels no responsibility for his subordinates. This is particularly apparent when naval personnel are ashore on liberty. During my travels to various "Navy" towns in the Soviet Union, I never saw an officer call a junior to task for unmilitary appearance or behavior. Instead, they looked the other way or at best scowled or muttered some disapproving comment in passing, much as they would do in the case of nekulturniy (uncouth) behavior on the part of some civilian they encountered on the street. They are not relieved of responsibility for the actions of subordinates while on liberty; Armed Forces Regulations clearly state otherwise, and there are frequent reminders of this fact in the military press. Yet the average naval officer is not likely to take this seriously. He knows that in actual fact the political officers handle all such problems on board ship, and as far as he is concerned, they can take care of them ashore as well.
Performance and Potential. The Soviet naval officer shares many of the capabilities and shortcomings of his U. S. Navy counterpart. He is stronger in some areas, weaker in others. In his favor is the fact that he enters the Navy as a lifetime professional, and his training and development can progress on that basis. He is normally ambitious and anxious to derive the very considerable social and economic advantages that come with senior rank in the Soviet Navy. The authorities thus have little reason to be concerned about a "junior officer retention problem." The Soviet naval officer is also in the fortunate position of having at his disposal an almost entirely new fleet of ships and aircraft in which to train, as well as an aggressive program of postgraduate education to bring him up to date on late naval developments. As a result of these opportunities, only recently made available to him, he has very rapidly achieved competence in dealing with the advanced weaponry and complex operations that are becoming characteristic of his Navy. Least tangible, but perhaps of greatest significance, is the hard-to-define change in demeanor that has come over him. He has quite suddenly blossomed forth with what can only be described as a "blue water look." There is an aura of confident professionalism about him that was totally unknown in the Soviet Navy a few short years ago.
Yet, as we have seen, there are factors that may prevent the "blue water" Soviet naval officer from ever realizing his full potential. Most serious of these is the stifling effect of Party control at all levels in the Navy which deprives the Soviet naval officer of the authority and flexibility he must have to overcome his leadership shortcomings and thus capitalize on the professionalism that he has developed.
One might ask, is the situation really that much different from that of our own Navy? After all, what decisions can the naval commander make these days without reference to Washington for political guidance? Few, if any, that really matter, of course. There is a difference, though, and a most significant one. The U.S. Navy commander can take issue with his political leaders, and, if questions are not resolved to his satisfaction, he always has the option of leaving the service and taking his case to the Congress, or, through the news media, to the people. In the Soviet Union, with its system of interlocking directorates, the Communist Party controls the government, the media and, for that matter, everything else. Where, then, does the Soviet naval officer turn when he wants to take issue with the Party? Worse yet, where does he turn when the Party decides that his initiative and leadership constitute an unacceptable threat to Party control? It is enough to make the Soviet naval officer think twice before challenging the Party at any level. It is much simpler to accept the political control, as onerous and inefficient as it may be. After all, it was thus under the Tsars, and so it is likely to continue to be while the Party leaders occupy their place in the Kremlin.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with the Class of 1949, Captain Shapiro has served in both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets, as well as in various staff assignments in Washington, London, and Japan. He is a Russian linguist and a graduate of the U. S. Army Institute of Advanced Soviet and Eastern European Studies. He has travelled extensively behind the Iron Curtain, and was stationed in the U.S.S.R. as Assistant U. S. Naval Attaché from 1963 to 1965. He attended the Naval War College in 1965-66 and holds a Master's degree in International Affairs from George Washington University. He is currently Commanding Officer of the Naval Intelligence Processing System Support Activity in Washington.