30.12.04 Thursday  N 49  2004  
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YESTERYEAR
Capt. Sablin's Sword Bearer
Valery Kuznetsov
Twenty-seven years ago, an extraordinary event happened in the Soviet Union that for years remained known to just a few people. Today Capt. 3rd Rank Sablin's revolt is a fact of history. Yet the names of many heroes of those days are still in limbo, in particular, that of Alexander Shein, the rebellious officer's "accomplice"
 
Cruiser Hijacked

An early November morning after the night before. The scene: a dorm room shared by four students at the Higher YCL School of the All-Union Lenin Young Communist League Central Committee, in the Moscow district of Veshnyaki. Three of its occupants, still very much the worse for a drinking bout in honor of the 58th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Valery, the fourth, who has just returned from his home town of Riga, bursts into the room.

"Lads, a zampolit (deputy commander for political affairs) hijacked a cruiser from the Riga port to Sweden. But he did not make it - the cruiser was destroyed by air strikes."

"This is a good cause to drink to the glorious Air Force and pay tribute to the seamen," Tolya, a Barnaul native, responded from his bed.

A couple of days later all of us were summoned to the rector's office, where the shots at the time were called by Higher YCL School Pro-Rector Yuri Afanasyev, one of the future fathers of future Russian democracy, and took the rap for spreading and discussing rumors besmirching the honor and integrity of the army, navy, and everything else besides. Fortunately, it did not get to the partkom, or the Communist Party Committee, or we all would have been expelled from the Party. We had never again talked about the rebellious cruiser in our room.

It was not until the early 1990s that I ran into the cruiser again, which in fact turned out to be a large ASW ship, The Storozhevoi, or rather, not the ship itself but its crew member, Alexander Shein, the right-hand man of the rebellious zampolit, Capt. 3rd Rank Valery Sablin - the heroic mutiny leader, as Alexander Shein, the now grizzled resident of Togliatti, still sees him.

Meanwhile, Sablin, as he later on admitted in a letter from prison, saw himself as a Don Quixote. How else can you describe a person who, being a ship zampolit, at the height of the stagnation era, suddenly decides to issue a challenge to the whole power system in the country, seize the ship and steer it out of the Bay of Riga, to, of all places, Leningrad, the Neva, next to the Revolution symbol, the Avrora cruiser, and go on the air from there with a nationwide address to the people? In that address, he was going to say what people were saying in the privacy of their kitchens: the Revolution and Motherland were in danger; the ruling authorities were up to their neck in corruption, demagoguery, graft, and lies, leading the country into an abyss; the lofty ideals of democracy had been discarded, and there was a pressing need to revive the Leninist principles of justice.

"Bomb and Sink!"

The numerous interrogations shed little light on how a brilliant navy officer had come by such seditious ideas. Although it could well be presumed that he had simply been reading Lenin's works too thoroughly. Such a reading at the time perforce raised numerous questions that reality failed to answer.

True, it is not so important how such thoughts had occurred to him. What is important is what Valery Sablin did.

Alexander Shein was a good artist and so the zampolit was constantly assigning him to decorate the education and propaganda room or the ward-room. They were in close contact, and the seaman had growing respect for his zampolit. Some two months before November 1975, Shein, in his third year of service, went on leave to his home town of Togliatti. His mother had never seen him in such an elated state. He kept talking enthusiastically about the Storozhevoi and could not wait to get back. He said that they had a great zampolit and that he was missing him now, although the other lads looked askance at that, meaning that only finks were friends with zampolits.

On the night of November 9, 1975 Valery Sablin, resorting to a ruse, locked the ship's commander in a stateroom, leaving him a note of explanation and inviting those crew members who did not agree with his plan to move on Leningrad to lock themselves in the crew's quarters. He must have known that he would have to mount the scaffold later on, so he did not want others to get into trouble. The Storozhevoi did not have any ammunition on board. It had been taking part in a military parade, and in those days all combat supplies on hand were on such occasions removed, just in case. And so the ship headed for the Neva. In the heat of the moment a warrant officer fled the ship and reported the revolt. The order by the supreme commander, Leonid Brezhnev, was harsh and curt like a gunshot: "Bomb and sink it!"

The best air pilot in the regiment who was to carry out the order, however, "failed" his mission. With an accurately targeted strike he only disabled the Storozhevoi's propeller and steering gear, stopping it dead in its tracks. There was no other damage nor casualties. They say the pilot was awarded an order for that but never once wore it.

Following the Commander

As soon as the Storozhevoi stopped, it was seized by marine infantry commandos. All crew members, handcuffed, were sent to Moscow for an investigation. Yet only two eventually went on trial: Don Quixote Valery Sablin and his loyal Sancho Panza, Alexander Shein. All others, who sincerely repented anything wrong that they had or might have done, were let off the hook. Especially given that Valery Sablin claimed entire responsibility for the act. Only Alexander Shein, a 26-year-old seaman, said he had consciously followed Sablin, fully sharing his views.

Sablin was found guilty of high treason in the form of an armed revolt (as mentioned earlier, the ship was completely unarmed) and sentenced to death by firing squad. Shein was sentenced to eight years: Although the verdict said "labor camp," he had to spend five of the eight years in the Lefortovo high security prison. It was not until the authorities were sure that he would never reveal why he had actually been convicted that they sent him to the Kirov labor camp on a trumped-up charge. Three years later he returned to Togliatti with a young wife, a woman who had run away from one of the labor camp chiefs. The first thing he did was to go to Lefortovo to thank the investigator who had handled his case. Alexander still respects that person with the blue KGB shoulder boards.

More than 10 years after he walked free, when there was no longer either the Politburo or the KGB in the country and when all participants in the failed military coups had been amnestied, a public hearing on the Sablin case was held in Moscow, initiated by Sergei Alexeyev, one of the finest lawyers in the country at the time. Both the officer and the sailor were deemed victims of political reprisal. The verdict was also reviewed. Political charges were dropped - only to be replaced with charges of military crimes. As a result, the long executed Valery Sablin was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Alexander Shein to five.

Of course neither the Sablin nor the Shein family received any apology for the unjust sentences, let alone any compensation. They were generously given moral satisfaction.

When he was released from prison, Alexander, unsurprisingly, was not admitted to any senior college. He was not even allowed to take entrance examinations. In the mid-1980s, when production cooperatives were allowed, he went into business. He went bankrupt. His wife left him. Alexander Shein, 47, a former seaman broken by the System, has fallen by the wayside.

Only his elderly mother and father keep fighting for his complete rehabilitation. Meanwhile, seaman Shein is one of the very few people who risked his life to break the System and bring about a new setup.

Chances are that Alexander Shein will never be completely rehabilitated in this country. Yet his parents have never heard him say a word of reproach with respect to his late commander, to the effect that he dragged him into a reckless adventure and ruined his life. "He was a wonderful man," Alexander says, adding, "and he was absolutely right." In his situation, all he can do is wear the unjust verdict like a Badge of Honor, not a stigma. This is difficult, but there is just no other way.

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