In 1991, the Naval Institute published Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies 1718–1990, a book I wrote in collaboration with Jurrien Noot, a serving officer in the Royal Netherlands Navy. It was the first English-language work to provide a realistic history as well as comprehensive data on Russian-Soviet submarine developments and operations.
A few months later I received a call from a friend at the Russian embassy in Washington. Fleet Admiral Vladimir Chernavin, commander-in-chief of the Soviet Navy and a submariner himself, was going to be in Washington in November and had asked to meet with me. My wife and I were invited to an embassy reception for the admiral on 6 November.
We met Admiral Chernavin in the receiving line at the embassy reception, and later in the evening, I was pulled away from the buffet to a nearby room. There was the admiral with my embassy friend, the Soviet naval attaché, and a couple of interpreters. We spoke for several minutes. The admiral said he was familiar with my book and invited me to come to the Soviet Union as his guest to discuss a book project with him. I tentatively accepted.
A month after we met, Admiral Chernavin was no longer commander-in-chief of the Soviet Navy, but of the Commonwealth of Independent States Navy—the Russian Navy. He renewed his invitation, and in November 1992, I was in Moscow with my son, Michael.
The admiral and I had lengthy discussions regarding his book proposal; he wanted to sponsor the first nonpolitical history of the Soviet Navy. He asked that I edit an English-language edition and help him to find a suitable U.S. publisher. We signed an agreement that defined my roles. (The project never came to fruition.)
While I was in Moscow, Admiral Chernavin arranged for us to spend a weekend in St. Petersburg to meet with Igor Spassky, head of the Rubin submarine design bureau. In the Soviet Union/Russia, weapons, aircraft, and ships were designed by specialized technical bureaus, and in 1992, there were two active submarine design bureaus, Rubin and Malachite, each with a few thousand employees.
Spassky had contacted me by fax before I left the United States, saying he also would like to meet. He was familiar with Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies and noted, “If you have an intention to publish new editions of the book . . . we are prepared to offer our assistance pertaining to submittance of some more accurate data and additions which, without diminishing the merits of your book, could serve to increase confidence in some data given in the book.”
During our discussions, he and I agreed to write a book about Cold War–era submarine development. Thus the book Cold War Submarines was conceived.
I returned to Russia several times in the 1990s, primarily to meet with the designers, engineers, and scientists at Rubin and Malachite. And I made one visit to Nizhny Novgorod (Gor’kiy) to meet with officials of the Lazurite Central Design Bureau. Long a leading submarine design bureau, Lazurite had lost that role at the end of the Cold War.
Spassky arranged for me to give a lecture on U.S. submarines—past, present, and future—at the Hall of Scientists in St. Petersburg. The design bureaus also arranged for me to visit shipyards, tour (outdated) submarines, and meet with officials of the Krylov shipbuilding institute and with the renowned Sergei Kovalev. He was the chief designer of the Yankee, Delta, and Typhoon ballistic-missile submarines. Over the next couple of years, Kovalev and I met several times.
He expressed great surprise that the U.S. Navy was assigning women to submarines. He proposed that the United States purchase Typhoons—which had twin pressure hulls—and “place the women in the starboard hull and the men in the port hull.”
When Rubin provided me with a large number of photos of early Russian submarines, I proposed compiling those photos (and cutaway drawings) in a book. The project became Submarines of the Tsarist Navy, edited by Spassky and Viktor Semyonov. Viktor was the principal deputy to Kovalev in designing the Typhoon.
Thanks to Admiral Chernavin, I was able to visit Russia multiple times in the 1990s and was given unprecedented access to the Soviet-Russian “submarine world.” I returned from those trips laden with books, technical reports (some written specifically for me), and several submarine models—plus gifts for my wife and children. At one of our sessions, Admiral Chernavin presented to me his metal submariner pin and his Submarine Club of St. Petersburg badge. It was a unique window that the admiral opened for me. Admiral Chernavin is still with us, at age 92. He has been a prominent attendee at Victory Day parades as recently as 2019. I am forever in his debt.
1. N. Polmar and K. J. Moore, Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2004).
2. See N. Polmar, “The Typhoon Solution,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 121, no. 8 (August 1995): 88.
3. Igor Spassky and Viktor Semyonov, eds., Submarines of the Tsarist Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval institute Press, 1998).