Red Banner mutiny

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Soviet anti-submarine missile frigate, NATO-designation Krivak-1, ca. 1980

The Red Banner mutiny refers to an event which took place on the night of November 7, 1975, in which a Soviet warship was seized by several members of the ship's command and sailed to Swedish waters in what was perceived at the time as a stunning attempt to defect to the West.

The mutiny

The ship involved was an anti-submarine frigate of the Burevestnik-class, known to NATO as a Krivak-1; the vessel's name was Storozhevoy, after a Russian word meaning "vigilant". The ship's zampolit (political officer) was Captain 3rd-rank Valery Mikhailovich Sablin, who according to family members was a committed communist who believed in the ideals set by Lenin in the revolution of 1917. Contrary to the popular report of an intentional defection, it was later revealed that Sablin's plan was to seize the ship, sail it to the Gulf of Finland and then on to Leningrad, where he would use the ship's radio to broadcast to the people the corruption and hypocrisy of the Soviet system under Leonid I. Brezhnev, and to cause the people to rise up and restore Leninist values.

On the night of November 7, 1975 Storozhevoy was in port at Riga, Latvia S.S.R. and most of the crew was ashore. Sablin and a few conspirators took control of the ship, locking remaining crewmen in one of the spaces onboard; Storozhevoy then cast off and cleared the channel for the Baltic. One of the crewman managed to escape and swim to shore to sound the alarm; by then the ship was an hour out.

The course needed for the ship to sail to Leningrad from Riga involved a western heading toward the Swedish island of Gotland, then a northwesterly course toward Stockholm before adjusting course to the east. Aware of Sablin's true intentions, the Soviets did not want the world to know of a possible uprising; they intentionally leaked to the world of a defection, and the course of the ship toward Sweden merely reinforced the ruse.

End of the incident

Valery Sablin

Storozhevoy was pursued by 10 bombers which put it out of action some six hours into the episode; Soviet marines backed by nine warships stormed the ship and retook control. Sablin and his second, Alexander Shein, were the only conspirators placed on trial (the others were freed); Shein received an eight-year sentence, while Sablin, who would have been given 15 years, was sentenced to death on the personal orders of Brezhnev himself. Sablin was executed by firing squad on August 3, 1976.

Storozhevoy was repaired and returned to service; after a change of crew she was sent to ports all over Europe for the next several years, in effect a statement that the mutiny did not succeed. She ended her service in the Pacific Fleet before being sold to India for scrap in 2004.

Papers on the incident were filed in the United States Naval Institute in the early 1980s, which would in turn be discovered by a new author, Tom Clancy, who, like many at the time, concluded that Sablin had made a futile run for freedom. The unprecedented and audacious taking of a major warship to facilitate his defection led Clancy to base his first novel, The Hunt For Red October, on the incident.