There seems to be an entire genre based on Soviet sub tragedies. This is another one of those stories- Hostile Waters: The Death of Soviet Sub K219. I read this book first as a teenager, interested in military life and apathetic about Russian life. Nowadays, my interests have realigned, so I took several pages of notes on language and culture while rereading the book.
How much do you know about submarine life? Are you ready for some new vocab words? I’ll share a few things I learned with you…
здравия желаю: used as a greeting in the military (in lieu оf здраствуйте)
есть: instead of saying да in response to a command in the armed services, the proper response is есть
каштан: a microphone used to communicate between different areas in a sub (the microphone resembled chestnut, hence the name)
замполит: this is short for заместитель командира по политической части, Communist Party representative (according to the book, this guy was the least liked guy on the sub)
глубинка: this word is a fond way of referring to deep countryside, but in the book it was also used to describe a sailor from a remote village
старпом: this is short for старший помощник командира корабля, chief mate
мичман: a navy rank…
I’m not exactly sure which one? (see comment below post)
К-219: the к in all these ship names is short for корабль, ship
I also learned that this particular submarine had both a баня, steam room and a tiny smoking cubicle used by the officers. What?! I guess the banya makes sense- I could see an area near the engine room offering steam + heat- but a smoking area, really? Isn’t fire the biggest hazard on a sub?
The K219 fell victim to another kind of danger, though: the catastrophic combination of salt water leaking into a missile silo while deep underwater…
This was a good book, but it was a bit heavy-handed when describing Soviet technology. The K219 is described as an “old cow” by the American sonar operator. The overwhelming dominance of American weaponry is driven home whenever possible. For example, on page 2:
“Russians, like Americans, are a patriotic people. Out of duty and out of pride, knowing full well the risks, they drove their clanking, obsolete vessels under the noses of a superior enemy.”
Here are a few other quotes from the book that I felt were based on stereotypes an American audience wants to read-
(p. 177, while in Moscow) “[They were] were ushered into a dark hall redolent with stale tobacco, boiled cabbage, and unwashed urinals.”
(p 203) “They don’t have any medical supplies on board except for some alcohol. They put a soaked rag in his mouth and he’s breathing through it. It’s supposed to help.” Of course there would be alcohol. Forget OBA canisters. Forget using seals that actually stand up to the kind of chemicals that might attack them. Forget designing missiles that are more of a danger to the enemy than his own crew. Forget anything that makes sense, but a Soviet ship without alcohol? Unthinkable.
But some quotes are right on:
(p. 182) What they didn’t seem to get was that Gorbachev was a pebble sitting at the top of a big, ugly pyramid. It was easier to move the pebble than the pyramid.
(p. 183) He just thought that giving your umbrella to a smooth-talking Communist who promises it will never rain wasn’t such a good idea, either.
Overall, it was a hard book to read. The writing itself was good, but the story it told was so, so sad. Still, I think it’s important to read these stories and not forget history- once upon a time, subs glided through the seas pointing weapons of mass destruction at people’s homes. (Well, this is probably still true.) Here’s an example of another such close call: You (and Almost Everyone You Know) Owe Your Life to This Man.
In Hostile Waters, one of the heroes was Sergei Preminin. This sailor went into the submarine’s reactor chamber with just a gas mask in order to stop the reactor from melting down. He did it, but it cost him his life.
The temperature in the reactor room was 80 C / 176 F.
Sergei Preminin was 20 years old.
Hostile Waters ties in with an incredibly-dated looking HBO movie starring Martin Sheen-
At the end of the book, there’s an update on the fate of the abandoned sub. In 1988, a Soviet research ship sent down remote controlled cameras to view what was left:
(p. 282) The submarine was sitting upright on the sandy bottom. It had broken in two aft of the conning tower. Several missile silo hatches had been forced open, and the missiles, along with the nuclear warheads they contained, were gone.
The authors imply that American forces had taken the warheads.
Have you read any books like this one? Maybe you’ve seen a similar movie, like K-19?
What are your thoughts on “the complicated art of underseas murder”?
PS: Here’s my favorite quote from the book-
(p. 65) Everything seemed perfectly normal, if being locked inside a steel pipe beneath the ocean, carrying enough firepower to end the world could be considered normal.