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When This Russian Submarine Sank 18,000 Feet, What Did Gorbachev Do?

Michael Peck

Key point: The Soviets did not prioritize human life.

If you're a sailor on a Russian submarine that sinks in the middle of the ocean, don't expect much sympathy from the Kremlin.

Judging by the reaction of Soviet leaders to the accidental sinking of a Soviet nuclear missile sub 30 years ago, you'll be lucky if you're not shot by a firing squad.

Just how hard-nosed the Kremlin can be is shown in the transcript of a Politburo meeting on the maritime disaster, published by the National Security Archive.

On October 3, 1986, the Soviet Yankee-class ballistic missile submarine K-219, equipped with 16 R-27 nuclear missiles was on patrol in the North Atlantic, about 700 miles off the coast of Bermuda. A seal in the hatch cover of Number 6 missile tube failed, which allowed seawater to leak into the tube and mix with missile fuel (rumors that K-219 collided with a U.S. Navy submarine have been denied by both the U.S. Navy and the K-219's captain).

Seawater combined with missile fuel to produce heat and toxic gases. Despite a crewman venting the tube, an explosion erupted in the silo, ejecting the missile and its warheads into the sea. Five crewmen eventually died, and the boat began to sink. After a Soviet freighter unsuccessfully attempted to tow the submarine home, Captain Second Rank Igor Britanov ordered the crew to abandon ship. K-219 sank 18,000 feet to the ocean bottom, where it broke into two pieces, with several missile hatch covers open and the missiles gone.

That Captain Britanov was charged with negligence is not totally surprising: the U.S. Navy might have done the same. But charging him with sabotage and treason? That is truly remarkable.

"Could it [the accident] have happened due to lack of competence of the crew or because of cowardice?" asks Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev during the October 6, 1986 meeting. In other words, Gorbachev wonders whether the crew of a Soviet nuclear submarine, who were entrusted with the capability to start World War III, actually panicked and abandoned their boat without cause.

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