Friday, September 11, 2009

Mutiny, by David Hagberg and Boris Gindin

"The Inside Story of The Events That Inspired The Hunt for Red October - From the Soviet Naval Hero Who Was There"

I loved the movie. Never read The Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy, but I never knew until now that Clancy used an obscure U.S. report on a real incident to base the story on. The real event is much different, though no less dramatic.

As in all real emergencies, there are no simple ways to look at it. As a child of the Cold War, I grew up fearing the Russians and their nukes. Any rumor of a defection was hailed as proof that the Communists were brutal dictators, any incident that embarrassed the Russian government was one more victory for freedom. Boris Gindin tells his story and you suddenly are confused as to who to root for.

Gindin was an engine officer on the Storozhevoy, a battleship designed to stop U.S. submarines, but not a submarine itself. In port for a national holiday, prior to a two week refit before going out on another six month rotation in the Baltic, the crew is supposed to be relaxing, but Gindin notices a strange tension that he can't explain. The captain is very involved in the workings of the ship but not so much in the relationships between the officers and crew. The political officer, Sablin, is very much more charismatic, always asking after a crewman's family, showing as friendly interest as one could hope from the man who is in charge of the mandatory political classes. He seems to genuinely care for the welfare of the men.

Sablin also has a genuine affection for his homeland, for Communism and Leninist ideas as they were taught to him growing up. In fact, he sees the discrepancy in how the Russian government of the 1970's is running the country and how Marx and Engels hoped things would be. The majority of the people scratch out a bare existence while the leaders live in luxury. Sablin doesn't take this to mean that communism itself is the problem but rather that the people who are running things are corrupt. So Sablin hatches a daring, though extremely naive plan; take over the ship, sail to Leningrad, and broadcast to the Russian people what is wrong with the Russian government. He feels confident that the people will rise up, depose the corrupt officials and start over with leaders who will adhere to proper communist principles without a privileged upperclass.

Gindin is one of the officers who refuses to cooperate with the plan. Sablin is a decent enough fellow not to shoot those who oppose him on the spot. The captain is locked up below decks by himself, the officers in a separate compartment, and the few junior officers and the enlisted men that join the mutiny then try to get the ship running from a dead stop.

Anyone who is familiar with Cold War Russian politics remembers the KGB. Apparently Sablin didn't. Gindin knows that Sablin's act of mutiny indicts everyone on the ship. The KGB will expect anyone loyal to give their lives to stop the traitor. There is no mercy from the KGB. Every officer can kiss their careers goodbye. The only thing left to do is to do everything possible to stop Sablin to avoid getting "9 ounces" - a 9mm bullet to the back of the head.

I had a hard time deciding who was right and who was wrong. Sablin was putting everyone in danger by starting the mutiny. The KGB assumes guilt first. Sablin's plan wasn't well thought out, he hadn't thought out contingency plans for unexpected events and he didn't have the full support of everyone on the boat. Gindin and the other officers were so surprised at Sablin's proposal to mutiny, they didn't think about how to stop before it was too late. Only one officer, Firsov, who votes with Sablin only to sneak off the ship to alert the harbor master, tries anything to stop Sablin before the ship can leave port.

The ensuing foul-ups by the Russian navy at different levels are astounding. I won't get into them here because it would spoil too much of the resulting chase, which is as good as anything Hollywood can think up.

Interspersed with the events of the actual mutiny, Hagberg relates some Russian naval history, some details about the KGB's modus operandi and the kind of lives Russian sailor and naval officers could expect. Sometimes the flashbacking can get a little annoying, because some chapters are only two or three pages long. I got frustrated in a couple of places when the author seemed to be repeating information fleshed out in just the last two chapters. On the other hand, if the book had started solely with the more historical stuff first, it might have been harder to wade through the dry stuff before getting to the mutiny itself. The reader doesn't have to be a military history buff or a veteran to enjoy the book. I wish the author would have explained a little more about the coverup that followed and how the U.S. military got any piece of the story.

I'm glad Gindin is now a U.S. citizen, otherwise he may never have wanted to tell his part in the incident with the KGB breathing down his neck. It seems even today the KGB strikes fear in the hearts of ordinary Russians. Sad as that is, it makes me grateful that we are no longer toe to toe with Russians waiting for someone to push the button.

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