Authors: Boris Gindin,David Hagberg
He and his friends went over the fence from the academy whenever they got the chance, risking a lot of trouble by going
or AWOL, because the girls in town would do literally anything to get officer candidates to marry them. If you wanted to get laid you went
because the dances on school grounds were closely supervised. No alcohol, no hanky-panky, everything aboveboard. No fun whatsoever.
Boris is in his fifth year at the academy and will be graduating as a lieutenant in a few months. A dance is going on over at the club, but
he’s not interested. It’s just the same old shuffling around. He wants sex right now, not marriage, which will come when his career is well established. He’d been caught going
and is confined to academy grounds for a whole month, so he’s in the dayroom watching television when one of his classmates comes running in all out of breath. Something interesting is going on over at the club. The power is down, and everybody is in the dark with the girls.
“I was bored to death, so I decided it might be fun. Better than sitting alone watching TV,” Gindin says. When he gets over to the club the place is almost pitch-black. Only a few cadets on patrol are walking around with candles, trying to keep the order until the lights come back on. The whole place smells like sweat and cheap perfume. It’s hot and the air is stifling, but no one is complaining. The dancers can plaster their bodies against each other and nobody is going to stop them.
Boris is standing near the door, wondering what’s going to happen next, when someone or something brushes up against his arm. At first he thinks he must be mistaken, but then someone
there in the dark beside him, touching his uniform sleeve. He grabs an arm and pulls the person close enough so that even in the dark he can tell she’s a girl.
“What are you doing?” he wants to know.
She’s feeling for the hash marks on his sleeve to find out what year he’s in, and she’s not embarrassed to admit that she doesn’t want to dance with a second- or third-year cadet because they’re stuck at the academy most of time. But if she gets a senior she knows that he can get time off to come into town and spend the night with her.
If Boris wants some steady sex, clearly this is the girl for him. But her honesty turns him off. Maybe it’s because the hunt itself is sometimes more exciting than the conquest. Or maybe it’s because now that he’s so close to graduating and going out into the fleet, he’s that much closer to meeting the right girl and settling down.
“I told her that I’m not interested,” Boris says. “‘Don’t waste your time on me.’“
Looking across the river at the city of Riga and all the ships lined up
at their moorings, Boris is finally just about ready to settle down. Once they get back to base at Baltiysk, Captain Potulniy has promised to write him a letter of recommendation for a shoreside job working as military liaison and inspector at a shipyard. There’ll be no more six months of sea duty separating him from his family. Just a few more weeks and he’ll visit his mother and sister and then start looking for a wife.
But something is pulling his thoughts back to the academy and that girl in the dark, so desperate to find a fifth-year student to marry.
“I suppose that living in the academy did some mental damage to most of us,” Boris says. “We lived in a very strict environment. Everything was regulated; every minute of our days and nights was monitored. We felt deprived of the love and affection that our parents and relatives gave us when we lived at home. Remember that we were only seventeen or eighteen when we enlisted, and five years is a very long time for a kid that age. This was why lot of students got married as soon as they graduated, and why eighty to ninety percent of all those marriages didn’t work out.”
Boris never wanted to suffer that same fate. He wants to follow in his father’s footsteps as an engineer with a loving wife and children. Only Boris wants to do it as a naval officer and not a poor civilian. But for reasons he cannot know at this moment, he’s already developing a bad feeling, an itch between his shoulder blades as if a sniper is pointing a high-power rifle at him from some great distance and nothing he can do will change it. Some of the other officers feel the same way as he does, and that fact is even more unsettling to him this morning than his own misgivings.
Valery Sablin; not only was he in an odd mood this morning at breakfast, but he had been even stranger yesterday morning when he came down to the mechanical room, where Gindin was checking the gas turbines and every other piece of machinery that he’s responsible for.
“Good morning, Boris,” Sablin said. He was more than full of his usual good cheer. “How is everything going in Gas Turbines?”
“Good, Comrade Captain,” Gindin replied. He was a little busy just then, but Sablin was the
Sablin took Gindin aside, out of earshot of the other men. “Are you happy down here, Boris?” he asked.
The question just then struck Gindin as odd. But he nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Tell me, are you satisfied with the seventeen sailors in your section? Do they know their jobs?”
Again Gindin nodded, but this time he was a little wary. What the hell was the
looking for? “They’re good boys. They know their jobs.”
“Good. That’s very good.” Sablin started to leave, but then he turned back all of a sudden, as if he’d forgotten something important. “I have some extra time now in case you would like a little help with your political lectures. You know, I could fill in. Give you a little extra time off.”
“Sure,” Gindin readily agreed.
Sablin ranks just below the captain, so he’s important aboard the
He almost always has a smile plastered on his face that sometimes seems just a little forced, like now. He is married and has one son, but more important, Sablin comes from an important, well-to-do family and attended the Frunze Military Academy, the most prestigious military school in all of Russia. You’ll never make it to the top in the navy unless you’ve graduated from Frunze. This is where all the officers of the line went to school, but instead of opting for a command position, Sablin chose to become a political officer. Ideologues, these guys are sometimes called. They’re almost always the ones with the cobs up their asses, who’ve swallowed the Party line and whose one mission in life is to shove it down everyone else’s throats.
“But he’s a very social guy,” Gindin says. “Always talking to the sailors and officers about their families.” Once, when Gindin comes back from a vacation to Leningrad, Sablin wants to know how people are getting along in the city, what their mood is, what they’re talking
about, and whether they are generally happy with the way things are or seem to be dissatisfied. Those are strange questions to be asking a young officer, but even stranger this morning is Sablin wanting to know the procedures for the emergency start-up of the gas turbines. Normally it takes a full hour to go through the necessary steps to safely bring the engines on line from a cold start. But if the captain is in a big hurry the engines can be started and brought up to full speed in as little as fifteen minutes. It’s a dangerous procedure and has to be done just right to avoid any sort of problem. Sablin also wanted to know if Gindin’s sailors knew these procedures. In a real emergency, if Gindin was injured or unable to reach his duty station, could his men do the job? Of course they could; Gindin has trained them well.
That strange conversation sticks in Gindin’s mind this morning. From the day Sablin was assigned to the
he took a great interest not only in the men and their personal lives but also in the operations of the ship: the electronics and navigation systems, the weapons and their computers, even the pumps and mechanical equipment. So it should come as no surprise that he is interested in the gas turbines.
But later that same morning, after the parade in town, Sablin is even more animated than usual, Gindin recalls. “Asking me how I liked the parade and how everything went. He also asked me if everything was okay on the ship, the engines, the mechanical systems. I got the feeling he was putting so much emphasis on this day that something personal and significant must have happened in his life. Or was about to happen. But he was kind enough to ask about my mother’s health and her condition after my father’s death.” It touches Gindin deeply that someone cares.
Still, as Gindin is standing at the rail, everything that’s happened in the couple of days since they came up from Baltiysk adds up to an odd foreboding.
The Russian navy has been continuously at war for nearly its entire history and, since the end of WWII, preparing for the mother of all wars with the United States. A lot of ships have gone to the bottom since the late 1500s and early 1600s, and with them tens of thousands of sailors.
The Russians have fought the Swedes, the Danes, the Finns, the Italians, the English, the French, the Chinese, and the Japanese, but mostly the Turks, with whom they battled from 1575 until the end of 1917, when Vladimir Lenin’s new government ended the war, dissolved the Russian navy, and created the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Fleet.
In the early days the Slavic Cossacks sailed in tiny ships called
which meant “seagulls,” because they could fly across the water so fast. Scarcely fifty feet at the waterline, the open boats could hold as many as seventy warriors, who would crouch down beneath the gunwales, which were bordered with twisted cane for extra buoyancy and protection. These were ships completely open to the weather, and the Cossacks terrorized the Ottoman Turks and Crimean Tatars no
matter the season. Slavs and Russian sailors, then and now, were a tough lot not to be taken lightly.
An old Russian proverb sums up the three hundred plus years of war until the Bolsheviks took over:
In Moscow they ring the bells often, but not for dinner.
But it wasn’t until the mid-1600s that the situation for the Russians really began to heat up. In fact, historians call those years the Time of Trouble, just before the Romanovs took over and imposed the death penalty against the sailors aboard any foreign ships caught off their northwestern Arctic coast in the White Sea, especially Dutch and British merchantmen hunting fur seals up there.
When Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich commissioned the first real warship to be built inside Russia, christened the
the floodgates were opened and Russian sailors began losing their lives in droves. On the ship’s very first voyage on the Caspian Sea, the three-masted
with 247 hands on board, was overcome by a fierce storm and the ship went down with all hands. They rang the bells in Moscow.
Of course that didn’t stop the Russians from building ships and sending men and boys to sea to make war on their neighbors.
In 1656 the Russian military attacked and took over a couple of Swedish forts and immediately started building ships on the spot to make war in the Baltic. But the Swedes were just too tough, and in 1661 Russia was forced to sign a peace treaty and give back the forts they had taken, plus all the ships they had built. This was at the cost of a few hundred more good Russian men and boys. Once again the bells in Moscow were rung.
Even that couldn’t hold the Russians back. They had the bit in their teeth, and the tsar concentrated next on the Volga River and Caspian Sea, where in two years four ships were built, including the twenty-two-gun galley
which means “Eagle,” only this time it was the Cossacks who turned rebellious, grabbed the ship, ransacked it, and sank it in the Volga.
It was about this time, near the end of the 1600s, when Peter Alekseevich
became Tsar Peter I at age ten. Even at that tender age the new tsar was fascinated with ships, shipbuilding, navigation, and naval warfare, so a miniature shipyard, for which tiny replicas of famous Western warships were constructed, was set aside for him and his pals to stage their mock battles.
Peter I was hooked. As soon as he was old enough, he ordered a real shipyard be built in the White Sea, which almost immediately began cranking out warships. Next he turned his attention to the Baltic and the Black Sea in the south, built a couple of shipyards, and by the spring of 1696 two warships, twenty-three galleys, four fireships, and more than thirteen hundred small vessels were crewed and got ready to do battle against the Russians’ old friends, the Turks.
It’s not that the Russians or the Cossacks had anything against the Turks, except for Turkey’s strategic location in control of the very narrow Bosporus and even narrower Dardenelles. Beat the Turks, and Russia was free to break out into the Mediterranean Sea and, from there, the open Atlantic. The entire world would be theirs, something that was difficult to achieve from Arkhangel’sk, up in the Arctic, which at the time was their only port.
The first step was to take control of the Azov Sea, from which Russian ships would have access to the Black Sea. This was done by June of that year, with the help of forty Cossack boats. The bells were rung in Constantinople as well as in Moscow.
But in October the tsar ordered that a permanent well-stocked and well-funded Russian navy be created in the Sea of Azov. Peter I went down there and lived in a tent to be in command of the Russian navy, while Chief of the Admiralty Alexanter Protasyev oversaw the construction of the base and the ships, which was done by several thousand serfs under the direction of hundreds of shipwrights and officers imported from Western Europe.
In 1697 Peter I sent sixty of Russia’s young noblemen to Europe to study shipbuilding and navigation and went himself to Holland to study advanced nautical sciences while working as a common ship’s carpenter.
When he returned to Russia he was a certified shipwright, and he’d brought back hundreds of books, charts, tools, and even ship models from which the new Russian navy would be designed and built.
In 1698 he opened the Nautical School and Maritime Academy for future seamen and the Nautical School of Mathematics and Navigational Sciences in Moscow.