First published in the mid-1980s, “The Hunt for Red October” by Tom Clancy quickly rose from obscurity to national bestseller lists, with even then-President Ronald Reagan calling it “my kind of yarn.”
In 1990, the book was made into a blockbuster movie starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin.
The hit novel tells the tale of a next-generation Soviet ballistic missile submarine — the eponymous Red October — going rogue with both the United States and the Soviet Union racing against time to find the missing sub.
While the Soviet Union, to the best of our knowledge, never had a submarine and its crew attempt to defect to the West during the Cold War, it did have two very similar incidents — both of which served as the inspiration for this famous book.
In 1961, a young Soviet Navy captain by the name of Jonas Pleskys steered his vessel, a barge turned into a submarine tender, away from a charted course to Estonia in a successful attempt to defect to Sweden.
This Lithuanian-born naval officer, a graduate of the Leningrad Naval Academy, was thoroughly dissatisfied with life in the USSR, finding it corrupt and cruel.
According to Marion Boyle’s book, “Search for Freedom: The Man from Red October,” Pleskys planned his defection in advance, reaching port and protective custody in Gotland, Sweden, before the Soviet Navy was able to stop him.
In absence, the Soviet military sentenced the captain to death, though they would never have the opportunity to carry out the execution.
The CIA later hid Pleskys in South America before moving him to the US, where he lived out the rest of his years.
Years later, in the mid-1970s, a second (and considerably more embarrassing) incident involving a Soviet Navy vessel — a brand new Krivak class frigate named “Storozhevoy” — proved to be the second event that would factor into the making of “The Hunt for Red October.”
The ship’s political officer, Valery Sablin, seized control of the ship while it was berthed in a Soviet naval port, imprisoning the captain and many of the ship’s officers in compartments belowdecks. Quickly sailing the frigate out of port, Sablin aimed the ship’s bow towards Northern Europe.
With visions of Pleskys’ earlier defection flashing through their minds, Soviet brass deployed half of their Baltic Fleet immediately upon learning of their newest warship going missing and Sablin’s intentions.
Over 60 maritime patrol and attack aircraft were deployed to find and stop the Storozhevoy… and if it came to it, sink the frigate with its entire crew aboard.
According to former Storozhevoy officer Boris Gindin in his co-written autobiography, “Mutiny,” the frigate was never meant to fall into American hands. Sablin was loyal to the Soviet Union to the very end — he just wasn’t a fan of the corruption of the Soviet government, and saw their actions as a major departure from Leninism and “true communism.”
Instead, the disillusioned political officer wanted to sail the frigate to Leningrad (now known as Saint Petersburg), where he would moor the Storozhevoy alongside an old museum ship, the cruiser Aurora, and would then broadcast a message to the Soviet people with the hopes of revealing the government’s corruption, and with sparking a second communist revolution to retake the country.
As it turns out, the Soviet military wasn’t having any of that, and within a matter of hours, the Storozhevoy was found and hailed. Now less than 50 miles from Swedish territorial waters (though that wasn’t the ship’s destination), the frigate continued to sail on without heeding calls to stop.
The order was given to sink the ship.
Attack aircraft began strafing the ship with their cannons, obliterating the bridge of the Storozhevoy while pockmarking the rest of the gray warship with bullet holes. Bombs were dropped near the rogue ship, and soon, it became evident that the ship’s steering and propulsion was damaged to the point that the vessel could not go any further – it was dead in the water.
However, the Baltic Fleet had already closed in, and began firing warning shots from their deck guns. In a matter of minutes, Soviet naval commandos boarded the vessel and arrested the 200-strong crew of the Storozhevoy, regardless of who was and wasn’t involved in the mutiny.
As it turns out, during the ship’s escape from port, a number of its officers and crew, previously imprisoned for resisting the mutiny, had escaped captivity and overpowered Sablin and his bridge crew.
In true Soviet style, the incident was hushed up quickly, with Sablin facing a firing squad for treason against the Soviet Union. The Storozhevoy was quietly repaired in dockyard, repainted and sent back out to the fleet. By the end of the 1990s, the frigate was pulled from service and sold overseas to the wreckers.
In the early 1980s, a 37 year-old insurance salesman by the name of Tom Clancy Jr. came across the Storozhevoy’s tale in the US Naval Academy’s archives while doing research for his first novel.
Later making contact with Jonas Pleskys, and inspired by his and the Storozhevoy’s short-lived adventure, Clancy penned “The Hunt for Red October” soon afterwards, with the novel hitting bookshelves in 1984, a resounding success.