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
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.