Russian Navy

The Triumph and Tragedy of the Leninskiy Komsomol

One of the most remarkable days for the Soviet submarine forces was the launch 50 years ago of the first Soviet nuclear-powered submarine K-3 later named Leninskiy Komsomol. Her historic value is not less than manned spacecraft Vostok that performed the flight with the cosmonaut #1 Yuri Gagarin on board, or cruiser Avrora. It would be enough to say this craft was the first in the USSR Navy to reach the North Pole.

The crew of Leninskiy Komsomol at the North Pole. The photo from Lev Zhiltsov’s archive

The Sea-Folk Remained Aside

As the matter of fact the Americans were the first to dive under the polar ice. They took a lead over the Soviets in building of the first nuclear-powered submarine called SSN Nautilus in 1954. In spite of being the second the Soviets as always took their own way and achieved a lot in such a way.

K-3 had nothing in common with SSN Nuatilus as there were no copying or taking. The more so the idea of a transport reactor occurred to the Soviet scholar Igor Kurchatov yet in 1950. When on September 12, 1952 Stalin signed saying absolutely nothing for the uninitiated governmental prescription with the title “On engineering and construction of item 627” the Soviet scholars had already accumulated a certain scientific reserve required for the development of future submarine with nuclear power plant.

The first-born of the Soviet nuclear shipbuilding was developed in a top-secret atmosphere. The work was coordinated (already in the times of Nikita Khruschev) by the Ministry of Medium Engineering Industry and on the Navy’s side only Naval Minister Nikolay Kuznetsov was let in to the process of K-3 building although only partially. Later he was joined by the Head of Navy Shipbuilding Department Admiral Pavel Krotov. But they had no power on decision making. It was planned to equip K-3 with one huge torpedo with nuclear warhead of 24 m. length and about 2 m. in diameter. It was designated to deliver a strike on enemy’s naval bases at a distance of 50 km.

From the military standpoint it was ridiculous as the Americans already raised anti-submarine lines at 100 km. off the coast. While the meeting of the mock-up committee with the participation of the Chairman Council of Ministers Nikolai Bulganin Admiral Kuznetsov took the floor “I do not understand such a submarine. We need a sub capable to sink ships in the oceans and destroy enemy’s lines of communication. Thus she needs not a single torpedo but the substantial supply of both torpedoes with usual payload and nuclear warheads “.

In such a way not immediately with setbacks at every step the terms of reference for K-3 was altered, although the sub’s hull had been built by that time, it was subjected to rebuilding. Anyway it should be considered that against all the odds it passed only 5 years from the idea to the actual launch of the never-seen-before ship. We can only be envious of such pace of construction nowadays (just as a reminder: presently Borei (Boreas) class SSN Yuri Dolgorukiy is on the stocks since 1996). The Americans spent 9 years for Nautilus construction.

For the first time submarine displayed whale-shaped lines and due to these lines submarines of projects 627 and 627A obtained their generic name “whale”. Thanks to the efficient lines the “whales” outmatched considerably the American Nautilus in subsurface speed. The father of the Soviet nuclear power engineering Academician Anatoli Alexandrov wrote the following to the chief designer of the first Soviet nuclear ship Viktor Peregudov “Your name will make into the history of engineering of our homeland as the man who created technical revolution in shipbuilding meaning the same as the transfer from sail to steam”.

Literally the first nuclear-powered ship was constructed by the whole country although the major part of the participants did not even guess of their belonging to such unique project. The new type of steel was developed in Moscow allowing the submarine to dive at the unthinkable at that time depth of 300 m. The reactors were built in Gorkiy. The structure of K-3 was tested in the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute. The crew passed the training at specially designed stand in Obninsk. For total 350 plants and institutions created the wonder-ship “by pieces”. Should for the secrecy order she would have become famous for the whole Soviet Union. After all Osipenko carried out the performance tests of the first “hydrospace ship” capable to remain in the oceans for the whole three months with the single surfacing in the end of the cruise.

The nuclear navy was developed simultaneously with space technology that is why any space related comparisons are quite justified. According to the second commanding officer of the sub Lev Zhiltsov “To be listed as an officer in the first complement of the first nuclear-powered submarine was as prestigious as several years later to be in the cosmonauts’ team”. He in particular faced the challenge to prove the Soviets were capable to reach the North Pole.

The Day of Glory

By summer 1962 when the cruise to the “top” of the Globe was carried outK-3 was not the only nuclear-powered submarine in the list of the Soviet Navy. Other newer submarines could dive under the ice as the “third” had been rather worn because as type ship she was subject to numerous tests under marginal conditions for the mechanisms primarily for the reactor, steam generators, turbines, etc. The steam generation system “was beaten black-and-blue” as later recalled Zhiltsov “hundreds of cut off, re-welded and blinded pipes”. Specific radioactivity of the primary coolant circuit exceeded the same at serial submarines thousand times. Then why being aware of the near emergency condition of the submarine such a question of national importance as cruise to the North Pole with the goal to claim the control over the Pole was decided in favor of K-3? The answer may look weird for the foreigners but absolutely clear for the Russians. In our country in the choice between the technics and people the latter always had been getting an upper hand”.

Zhiltsov had no doubts in his crew that is why he gave his consent for the Pole’s exploration in such a submarine. The crew certainly did not require courage. When it became known the crew of power generation compartments is exposed to radiation hundred times more than the crews of the end sections the crew of remote aft torpedo compartment offered to share the radiation hazard equally between the whole crew of the submarine in other words to rotate the complement regularly. The offer was accepted. Thus all hands steering men, torpedomen, commanding officers and even sub’s cook received equal radiation dose as reactor and turbine operators. Thus under the new circumstances the old principle was followed namely there is no more parity than in a submarine either everybody wins or everybody looses. Or everybody rays like in this case…

And having such a complement Zhiltsov made a dive under the Polar ice. They traveled literally hell and gone. Instead of the detailed map with isobath curves and markings of underwater peaks the navigation officer possessed a simple grid map. They were blind and deaf. The soundmen found themselves for the first time in an environment when the ice cap above echoed the noises of own propeller screws giving birth to auditory illusions. One day the under-keel clearance started decreasing dramatically.

Zhiltsov recalls “After such alarming report I ordered immediately to float up sub to a smaller depth and slow the speed. Everybody’s eyes were fixed upon the echogram awaiting what to happen next. Nobody knew where that underwater rise did come from and where was its peak.” This was the discovery of the huge sea range down below the Arctic Ocean. It was named after the well-know hydrographer Yakov Gakkel. After the Russian sailors mapped Severnaya Zemlya in 1913 that was the greatest geographical discovery of the 20th century.

On June 17, 1962 at 6 hours 50 minutes and 10 seconds K-3 submarine crossed the point of the North Pole. Some jokers gave an advice to a midshipman on the wheel to make a slight turn in order to avoid collision with “the Earth axis”.

Later the submarine surfaced at the Pole. Let’s appeal to Lev Zhiltsov’s memories again who we succeeded to interview while alive “Ice thickness varies from 20 to 25 meters. In order not to miss the ice opening we floated up close to the surface just in case. As soon the opening was spotted we made a jerk to the surface by means of one motor and killing the way the sub’s bow stopped at the very edge of the ice. As they say made the gold! I opened the hatch to the bridge and thrusted my head outside. K-3 was like a stone squeezed by ice from every side. You could make a jump to the ice right from the sail as there was no even a thin strip of water between sub’s hull and ice. The silence was striking and dinging in ears. The air was still the clouds were low and that was quite unenviable environment for hydrographers and navigators who were to look for the sun.”

The national ensign was triumphantly planted down at the highest ice block. Zhiltsov announced a “shore-leave”. An unadulterated joy broke out. The commander noticed “The submariners at the Pole behaved themselves like kids having wrestling, pushing, climbing ice blocks, playing snow balls, etc. Lively photographers took many pictures of the submarine in ice and many laugh getters. Yet the security combed through the sub to find any still cameras. Though who knows the submarine’s secret places better special agents or her own crew?”

The home bound trip was performed at full speed. Country’s head Nikita Khruschev was waiting the submarine at the pier in order to decorate personally the head of the cruise Rear-Admiral Alexander Petelin, commanding officer of K-3 captain III rank Lev Zhiltsov and engineer captain Ryurik Timofeev with the hero’s stars. Yet earlier Leonid Osipenko became a Hero of the Soviet Union the first to be so highly favored after the war.

Way Home with the Half-Mast Flag

When they speak of Leninskiy Komsomol her trip to the North Pole come to mind first. But the submarine spent over 30 years in the Navy’s lists. She experienced many events during this period of time… The dog-days also fall upon her as for example on September 8, 1967 when Submarine Division Staff located in Gremikha received an alarm signal for the Norwegian Sea – fire on board of K-3.

Cruiser Zheleznyakov immediately weighed anchor and rushed at full speed to the crippled submarine. It was not known how would the torpedoes with nuclear charges react in the fire environment would their preventers respond should detonating mixture of hydrogen and air explode in the battery well. Nevertheless the submarine returned to the base under own power on surface but with the flag at half-mast. Meaning lost hands on board.

Here is the story told by deputy commander of K-3 Aleksander Leskov that time lieutenant commander.

”As the result of endless festive and worthless arrangements that lasted for several years after the cruise to the Pole the submarine became nothing but fetish. The crew was far from combat training. Exhausted by idleness the officers slowly turned to abusers and gradually they were dismissed”.

But K-3 managed to make a cruise to the Mediterranean in June 1967 when a war broke out at the Middle East. The complement was gathered as if in an emergency the new commander was assigned and the submarine was “kicked off” for the battle cruise. K-3 fulfilled the task decently. All 80 days of the patrol were spent under extreme conditions namely there is nothing worse than to be at sea during hot Mediterranean summer. The temperature in the turbine compartment was about 60 degrees Celsius during the whole patrol.

On the way home in the Norwegian Sea (unknown why but this area keeps the record of fire accidents at the Soviet submarines) a tragedy happened on board of K-3. On September 8, about 2 a.m. in the bow torpedo compartment the vapors of flammable hydraulic fluid caught fire. Actually it was an explosion. The disastrous events in the bow sections developed so quickly that compartment’s hands perished almost immediately. The people in the control room heard only short explosive sound via inter-compartment communication link.

Alexander Leskov that time was on watch in the control room:

”I pushed the switch and asked “Who is speaking?”. Then I released the switch and … many years since then I woke up in the nights because of nightmares with those terrible screams of people burning alive!

Seconds from the Nuclear Explosion

In few minutes 39 sailors died in the first and second compartments. It seemed the submarine was doomed as in the bow compartment there were a dozen of torpedoes on the racks plus torpedoes with nuclear warheads in the tubes. The situation was similar as later in 2000 at Kursk. Another minute and a half and the whole torpedo load would have detonated.

Yuri Stepanov commanding officer of K-3 took the only appropriate decision by giving an order to equalize the pressure with the emergency compartments. The thing is that trinitrotoluol explodes under condition of simultaneous increase of temperature and pressure. The pressure in the burning compartments jumped up. When lieutenant commander Leskov opened a slide valve of exhaust ventilation the air compressed almost to the explosive limit rushed into the control room with a violent roar. The control room was immediately filled by smoke fumes, a sailor in the sub’s hold choked to death due to improper drawn gas mask.

Nobody of the Navy’s heads wanted to take into account the extreme wear of the “third” as the type submarine. The crew and commanding officer were labeled as “emergency makers” as if the fire had broken out due to their fault. Although that was not right. And nobody but senior mechanical engineer of Gremikha nuclear submarine division captain I rank Ivan Morozov knew better of the reasons. He was the first to determine the causes of fire and to explore the burnt compartments for this purpose. In order to get into the nether world it was required to unscrew about fifty bolts and to elevate the plate above the electric battery loading hatch leading into the second compartment.

Morozov recalls, ”Upon long forced blowing the plate was removed. Two attendants of the hold volunteered to inspect the bow compartments. And here the unforeseen happened the first attendant that went below jumped out almost immediately. The true horror could be read in his eyes. He just said, “I can not… There is something…” I let the volunteers to the barracks and put my hand to the shoulder of my team fellow the head of electromechanic branch of ship damage control group captain III rank Pavel Dorozhinski.

”Pasha you should go… Look for Sergey, find the place where he lies.”

Sergey Fedorovich Gorshkov the first deputy commander of K-3 was our common friend. We had to render him our last service. Dorozhinski silently took a flashlight and went into the compartment. He kept enough self-control to go aft inside the submarine and get outside there. He looked like a ghost.

”Ivan Fedorovich,” he almost whispered, “I was in hell!” The major part of the deceased was lying in the aft section of the second compartment. They caked together into a mass therefore it was impossible to identify the corpses.

Then the horrible work of burnt bodies’ recovery begun. Torpedoes untouched by fire were unloaded later. The scene of the event was scrutinized. So what happened then?

A leak of a working fluid namely lubricant happened in one of hydraulic system units. High-pressure jet struck the lighted bulb of a lighting fitting. Bulb’s protective dome was missing as it had been broken before in a gale. The vapors of atomized oil inflamed in a twinkle. Torpedoes’ ventilation system was on at the time. The force of flame was as fierce as it cut the body of oxygen cylinder valve in two halves as like with the help of a blowpipe. It happened as it called fatal coincidence. The chain reaction of a misfortune that is known never comes along. The primary cause was the leak in the hydraulics. But why? It was commonly known that everything for the nuclear navy was made arch-reliable.

Let’s return to captain I rank Morozov again.

”I witnessed the stripping in the first compartment. The ill-fated hydraulic unit was dismantled (it was designated to open and close the vent valve of starboard ballast tank #2). It was discovered the nipple in the unit instead of the issue red copper packing was equipped with the roughly cut paronite (asbestos-based packing material used in motor-car engines) gasket. In the course of time the packing gave way and parted while regular pressure jump in the system. Yet the pressure differential in the system is quite impressive and varies from 50 to 100 kg/cm. Somebody replaced the gasket while sub’s docking.

The docking is usually performed by plant workers. One of the old workers of a ship-repairing plant Alexander Isoplatov used to work up North in the sixties once told that although the red copper is not of precious metal group it was still of a high value among the can-do men. From that very gasket taken away from the hydraulic unit somebody perhaps turned a ring for his girl-friend. Apparently in somebody’s family box among old badges, buttons and other trash it still rests. The faded copper ring that cost thirty nine lives…

Moscow as it is known was burnt due to the candle one kopek worth. Leninskiy Komsomol as it turned out faced the disaster due to the tiny paronite packing.

Commander’s Fate

In half a year Stepanov was decommissioned and transferred to the Black Sea Fleet’s Naval Academy named after P.S. Nakhimov. There he was awarded with the Red Banner Order for saving the first-born Soviet nuclear submarine. How did the fate shaped of this officer who had saved not only the sub but the Norwegian Sea from the nuclear pollution? Last summer one of us tried to track him down in Sevastopol.

The Academy Stepanov once taught in does not exist any longer. And nobody knew where to find his traces. The regional military enlistment office was our last resort. But it was other country that time and now the office belongs to the new state. A girl in the Ukrainian uniform kindly told that all the records of the Soviet officers had been destroyed long time ago. At best the copy could survive somewhere in Kiev but the chances were fat.

As the formality the girl bearing warrant officer marks went to check the archive shelves and suddenly somewhere from the top fall the record of captain I rank Stepanov. Such a feeling as if Stepanov himself from the next world gave a push to that thin archive folder.

”My hat! Survived.” marveled the girls.

What the record of reserve officer can tell? Way too many of what is making the outline of the military service but almost nothing about personal life. But nevertheless let us try to understand this individual with the help of this paper trace of his life.

So, Yuri Fedorovich Stepanov was born on May 15, 1932 in Kalinin. He graduated from Nakhimov’s Naval College in Riga, in 1952 graduated from Naval Submarine Academy and in 1966 completed the study at the Officers’ Courses. He was navigation officer as per his military profession. He was assigned to the post of K-3 commanding officer on May 5, 1967.

Quotation from cadet’s and officer’s evaluation reports, “…company’s petty officer. Champion of the college and between college competitions in wrestling. At sea orientates good and takes justified decisions. An officer with good stamina and endurance.” Another record states “In September 1967 in an emergency situation received carbon monoxide poisoning accompanied by loss of consciousness and later resulted in psychic trauma. During 3-4 months five times fell into a swoon.”

That was an end of his career as a commanding officer. Instead of the bridge he received the post of the head of the on correspondence study department in the Black Sea Fleet’s Naval Academy. But he did not capitulate and entertained a hope to return in commission. In 1976 at the Northern Fleet he went through the training at the courses for nuclear submarine commanders. But medical report was implacable – not fit for service at submarines. Some other person would surely fail but Yuri Stepanov stood firmly to his colors – at first a commander of a training battalion, tutor and later deputy head of tactics department in the Naval Academy. For the achievements in the field of cadets’ training he was awarded with the Order of Red Banner. He retired in 1989. For some time he worked as a librarian. He had a son Vyacheslav and daughter Tatyana. Date of death is not mentioned in the record. It happened sometime in the nineties. He was buried in Sevastopol.

Heading to the Eternal Mooring

That tragedy at Leninskiy Komsomol did not come into the memory neither in 1967 nor in the “times of glasnost” and even today it is hardly known. The sailors burnt in K-3 were commemorated by a humble nameless monument located far from the populate places with the inscription on it “To Submariners Perished at Sea on 08.09.67”. A small anchor is placed at the foot of the monument. The submarine herself lives her last years at the pier of a ship repairing plant in Polyarniy.

The fulfillment of the order signed by the Navy’s Commander-In-Chief in the early nineties regarding turning of K-3 into a museum has been dragged for indefinitely long time. Quite recently the current head of the Navy Admiral Vladimir Masorin confirmed the intent to establish a museum from the nuclear submarine K-3, as “it is impossible scrap the history”. As far as is known they are looking already for the place at Neva River for the eternal mooring of the sub. It is possible the place will be allocated in the vicinity of cruiser Avrora.

Source:, Authors: Nikolai Cherkashin, Mikhail Lukanin
Translated by:

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