The Hunt for Red October: The True Story

The historical documentary series returns for a new run on Five. The first instalment explores the real-life events that inspired the Tom Clancy novel and film, ‘The Hunt for Red October’. In 1975, a disgruntled Soviet officer led a mutiny on board a state-of-the-art Russian warship. Unlike the movie captain portrayed by Sean Connery, this maverick sought to cause a revolution in his own land – and almost sparked a war in the process.

In 1984, an insurance salesman-turned-author named Tom Clancy published his bestseller, ‘The Hunt for Red October’. The book, and the 1989 film starring Sean Connery, depicted the hijacking of a Russian nuclear submarine by a Soviet captain determined to defect to the West. Yet, as this documentary reveals, the story that inspired Clancy’s fiction was equally dramatic.

Clancy’s book had its roots in an uprising on the Soviet frigate Storozhevoy, or Sentry, in November 1975. The mutiny was instigated by Political Officer Valery Sablin, the second-in-command, who had grown unhappy with corruption in the Soviet state. “He saw the party elite line their pockets with oil contracts and diamond mines,” explains historian Gregory Young. Infuriated by a state of affairs that saw workers living in poverty, Sablin, a committed communist, decided to spark a new revolution.

Sablin’s plan was to seize the Sentry in Riga and sail it up the Baltic Sea to Leningrad, where he would launch an uprising. He began by locking the captain in a compartment and calling the ship’s 16 officers to a meeting. With impassioned rhetoric, Sablin tried to persuade them to back the mutiny. “It really was the speech of his life,” says Young. In the event, the officers were split down the middle. Some, including Lt Boris Gindin, saw folly in the plan. “He was going against the military Russian machine that could destroy you in a second,” he says. Gindin and seven others were locked in the hold by the plotters.

However, Sablin’s plan to sail out of Riga as part of a convoy was dashed when one of the officers who had voted to back him slipped off the ship and went to raise the alarm. Sablin had no choice but to sneak out of the harbour and head for international waters. When the military learnt of the mutiny, they immediately assumed that Sablin was trying to defect – with nearby Sweden his likely destination.

Russia’s leaders, including the premier, Leonid Brezhnev, knew they could not risk letting the Sentry fall into enemy hands. Although the ship had no nuclear capability, its state-of-the-art design was still unfamiliar to western intelligence. The officers locked in the ship’s belly were well aware that Russia would sooner sink the vessel than let it escape. “We were very scared because we knew that the Russian government would never let us go,” recalls Gindin.

Russia launched boats and planes to scour the area. They were assisted by a dense fog, which forced Sablin to switch on his radar – thus alerting the military to his location. The pursuit was also being watched by the Swedish military, uncertain if they were witnessing an invasion. As the Sentry neared a busy shipping lane, the danger of a Russian plane attacking the wrong vessel increased. “If a merchant ship or a ferry had been hit, there would have been a really major crisis,” says Professor Eric Grove.

The turning point came when Russian jets launched an assault on the Sentry. Sablin ordered his crew not to fire back and, in the confusion, sailors opted to release the Sentry’s captain. The mutineers were rounded up and the ship returned to Russia. Sablin was later executed and the crew members were demoted or discharged. Sablin’s co-conspirators now look back on his bold plan with mixed feelings. Reflecting on the book inspired by these events, Gregory Young remarks: “The true story of a political officer not leaving his motherland but determined to change his motherland… is a better story.”

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