Sunken submarines emerge from oblivion

Publish date: August 23, 2000

Written by: Viktor Tereshkin

St. Petersburg journalist Viktor Tereshkin tells us a story about submarine K-429 (Charlie-I class). Today we can state that the reaction of the Russian military officials will be developing in the same way with the sunken submarine Kursk.

This story was typical for the Soviet times. Charlie-I attack submarine, K-429, returned home after a long trip to a base in the Russian Pacific Fleet in 1983. It desperately needed repairs. The crew went on vacation, the submarine was taken for maintenance. But nuclear weapons were still onboard the sub, so officially it was still in active force.

In late June, captain of the first rank Nikolay Suvorov received an unexpected assignment. He was to reassume the command of K-429 and to take part in an exercise. The order came from the HQ commander of the Pacific Fleet, Rear Admiral Oleg Yerofeyev. At that time the assignment came, the captain expected the documents for his transferral to St. Petersburg, his family packed their things, his crew was on holidays. He did his best to resist. What exercises? They are planned for autumn. K-429 was out of order. He took it to the shipyard himself. But the commander of the Pacific Fleet HQ Yerofeyev and division commander Alkayev used the old trick: Feel like facing tribunal or quitting Communist Party membership?

Suvorov did not feel like that, as without Communist party membership he could end up in the middle of nowhere as a commander of some floating barrack.

On June 23, on the first day of the journey, people from five different crews were put together on K-429, blatantly violating all the regulations, which say that the submarine with 30% substituted crew is not ready for operation. Suvorov himself realised that they were not a crew but some pack of people incidentally put together. More over, there were 120 sailors onboard instead of 87 defined by regulations. As soon as they were at sea a message arrived from Rear Admiral Yerofeyev with the order to proceed promptly to district 21 – the shooting range. But Suvorov refused and said: “According to the plan, I have to go for a test dive first. I do not know the people gathered on this submarine well enough in order to dive with them in district 21.”

The depth in district 21 was around 2,000 meters. If Nikolay Suvorov had followed the order of Yerofeyev, he would have stayed on the bottom together with his Communist Party ID card and all the crew.

K-429 reached Sarannaya Bay with 50 meters depth. During a test dive there, water gushed through the open ventilation hatch to the 4th reactor compartment and 14 people died after having managed to shutdown the reactor and report the water intrusion. With the equipment out of order, K–429 was doomed. Having taken on 420 cubic meters of ice-cold water, it crashed to the bottom.

It happened close to midnight. Batteries were breaking down, the old ones released hydrogen. Fire could break out any second. Emergency buoys appeared to be welded to the hull in order not to lose them at sea. Escape capsule was also tightly welded to the submarine’s body. How to report to the surface about the accident location? Examining the situation, Suvorov assumed that he had reported to Yerofeyev and the officer on duty at the navy headquarters about the dive. With no reports about the boat’s surfacing, an alarm should have gone on in the navy’s control room. Even Yerofeyev should have become worried about the disappeared submarine. They should have started to search them. When connection with the stern compartments was established, Suvorov told the sailors to stay tight and wait for help.

The time passed, but nothing could be heard from the surface. A day later, the commander called for volunteers who had to put on diving suites and get to the surface from 50 meters depth through the torpedo hatches. Two sailors from Suvorov’s original crew agreed. At the surface, they saw nobody and swam to the shore. Once ashore, they were stopped by the frontier guards. Luckily, they were not taken for foreign commanders and shot on spot. Only after that Rear Admiral Yerofeyev learned that the submarine, which was supposed to spend one hour underwater, had been lying on the bottom of Sarannaya Bay for a day. He forgot about K-429. The officer on duty of navy headquarters lost his memory as well.

Today, 15 years after the tragedy, I want to ask Admiral Yerofeyev, who later became the Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Fleet: “What did you do from midnight to noon on June 24, 1983? Did you sleep well in your cabin? Did you not see your sailors drown in cold water in your dreams? Perhaps, you raised a glass for those at sea?

The country should know its heroes. What kind of navy it had if during 12 hours nobody even got worried about the nuclear submarine with nuclear weapon onboard? What kind of navy chiefs it had? I posed these questions to all the submariners I know and they said with surprise that it was not possible that a submarine was out for 12 hours and nobody looked for it.

It is possible.

Then the rescue operation started. The Commander of the Russian Navy Gorshkov sent a personal message down to the submarine saying: “Comrade Suvorov, I admire your actions.” The whole crew had to use the torpedo hatches to reach the surface. 16 men perished.

Trial. Prison
Three months later, a Korean civilian jetliner was shot out of the sky over Kamchatka (Russian Far East) in September. The USSR showed that its borders were intact. The international uproar was mounting. And here comes such an unpleasant accident with the submarine. The guilty had to be punished severely.

But who was to blame? If the investigation was fair, all those who had forced Suvorov to go to sea on the defective submarine, all who bunched the people from five different crews together into one ship should have appeared in court. In particular, Yerofeyev and Alkayev, duty officer of the Pacific Fleet, the chief of the Pacific Fleet. But it would be too much. The system could not sue itself. So, submarine commander, Nikolay Suvorov, and Likhovozov, chief of the 5th compartment, were accused of violating the navigation rules. Suvorov received 10 years in prison, Likhovozov was sentenced for eight years. They were arrested right in the barracks where the court took place, without letting them to say good-bye to their wives.

“I am not fully innocent. But a fair analysis should have been made to avoid such accidents in the future. I told the judges in my concluding statement: if you do not say the truth, others do not learn from bad experiences – more accidents will happen, more people will die,” Suvorov said to me with sufferance in his eyes.

Here is the opinion of Admiral Yevgeny Chernov, the former commander of Zapadnaya Litsa submarine base at the Kola Peninsula: “I read about the case of K-429 while working in the expert committee on determining the reasons of personnel deaths during accidents and catastrophes of military equipment. Having examined the investigation documents, we found out that from us, submariners, the real reasons of this catastrophe were concealed. The principal culprits were not named, while the victims were punished.”

“It is absolutely clear that the death of the submarine and its 16 crewmembers was the result of violence and arbitrary actions of the direct superiors in respect to the commander Suvorov and his crew. It is them [the superiors], who violated the norms and rules of navy laws and forced the commander to go to sea on the defective submarine with a crew 30% of which consisted of people he was unfamiliar with.”

Why then the head of the Soviet submarine fleet, Admiral Chernavin, wanted to cover the principals of the tragedy?

Already then, being close to the top of navy hierarchy, Chernavin had big plans for his future climbing in the Soviet stage of honour. The navy’s interests went to the background while the personal interests, and, in particular, the interests of political career, became the first priority. The Communist Party Politburo always evaluated military chiefs according to their personal loyalty, readiness to do anything. The best would be to become a relative of someone from the Politburo. Yerofeyev was not an ordinary rear admiral. While studying in Baku, Azerbaijan, he married a relative of Alieyev, a powerful master of the Soviet Asia, now the President of the republic. Chernavin did the favour for Alieyev, saving his relative from prison. Alieyev in return helped Chernavin to become a deputy of the USSR Supreme Council. During Yerofeyev’s reign in the Pacific Fleet, K-429 sank twice. The second time, he even did not get a reprimand. It was also Yerofeyev who sent the defective Komsomolets to sea with an untrained crew. His background includes three accidents, 58 victims, two persons sued on arbitrary pretexts. During these 10 years, Yerofeyev graduated from the Naval Academy, was promoted three times, then became vice-admiral, followed by the admiral rank, then he was appointed to be the chief of the Northern Fleet.

It seems that in the Soviet Navy the officers were promoted in an interesting way. The logic seems to go that the more own submarines they managed to sink the better, since they could likely do the same to the enemies’ subs.

Chernavin helped Yerofeyev, Yerofeyev helped Chernavin, so they paid to each other. The state confided into these admirals the navy, and they used it, betraying the sailors, sending them to die in their defective boats. They played with people’s lives. And when an accident happened, they blamed the victims.