Soviet Nuclear Submarine Sinks in the Atlantic

The decline of the Soviet Union’s navy was reflected in an incident in which a fire on a Soviet nuclear submarine resulted in the loss of three lives and the sinking of the vessel.

Summary of Event

On October 5, 1986, the Soviet newspaper Pravda reported in a brief article that a fire had broken out on an unnamed Soviet nuclear submarine carrying ballistic missiles. The ship was in waters some one thousand miles northeast of Bermuda. According to the article, three crew members died in the fire, but the fire had been brought under control with the aid of Soviet ships that came to the rescue. Soviet experts determined that there was no danger of accidental missile discharge or of nuclear leakage from the submarine. Despite the implication in the article that the submarine would be kept afloat, however, two days later Pravda reported that at 11:03 a.m. on October 6, the ship sank. Disasters;sinking vessels
Nuclear energy;submarines
[kw]Soviet Nuclear Submarine Sinks in the Atlantic (Oct. 6, 1986)
[kw]Nuclear Submarine Sinks in the Atlantic, Soviet (Oct. 6, 1986)
[kw]Submarine Sinks in the Atlantic, Soviet Nuclear (Oct. 6, 1986)
[kw]Sinks in the Atlantic, Soviet Nuclear Submarine (Oct. 6, 1986)
[kw]Atlantic, Soviet Nuclear Submarine Sinks in the (Oct. 6, 1986)
Disasters;sinking vessels
Nuclear energy;submarines
[g]Soviet Union;Oct. 6, 1986: Soviet Nuclear Submarine Sinks in the Atlantic[06170]
[g]Russia;Oct. 6, 1986: Soviet Nuclear Submarine Sinks in the Atlantic[06170]
[c]Military history;Oct. 6, 1986: Soviet Nuclear Submarine Sinks in the Atlantic[06170]
[c]Disasters;Oct. 6, 1986: Soviet Nuclear Submarine Sinks in the Atlantic[06170]
Yazov, Dimitry T.
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations]
Gorbachev, Mikhail
[p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations]

Soviet sailors from the submarine and assisting ships had tried for three days to keep the stricken vessel afloat, but they failed. There was no further loss of life, and specialists insisted that there was no danger of nuclear contamination because the ship’s reactor was shut down. The authorities established an investigative committee to examine the cause of the disaster, but the sinking was preceded by a rapid shipping of water. When the commission finished its work the following spring, it blamed the fire and the sinking on the negligence of the submarine’s captain, who was sentenced to prison.

The incident caused little notice in the world press. The world was still reeling from the major nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine the previous spring. Under the circumstances, the loss of the submarine and any potential danger stemming from the event did not appear newsworthy. Also, the sinking occurred during preparation for a landmark summit meeting between U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland. This meeting was a major breakthrough in Cold War Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. Although relations between the two superpowers had improved in the 1970’s, the Cold War had reached new heights during the first years of the Reagan administration. It appeared that a period of peaceful cooperation was to begin. With reports of the cordial atmosphere of Reykjavik on the front pages, the Western press did not wish to focus on the Soviets’ misfortune at sea. The Soviet press and the TASS news agency, as was their custom with Soviet disasters and accidents at the time, reported only brief, factual accounts of the incident.


The loss of the Soviet submarine caused few repercussions in the political arena; the greater disaster of Chernobyl together with the liberalization of Soviet society and the beginnings of the fall of communism overshadowed it. Any worries over the potential harm caused by the sinking of a nuclear submarine paled in comparison with concerns about the environmental, political, and social effects of the damage caused by land-based nuclear reactors such as Chernobyl and Chelyabinsk in the Urals in 1957 and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.

In 1989, a similar but much more serious accident involving a Soviet submarine occurred off the Norwegian coast. On April 11, 1989, at 11:41 a.m., slightly more than one hundred miles off Bear Island in the Baltic Sea, a fire broke out on the nuclear-powered submarine Komsomolets
Komsomolets (submarine) and spread from chamber to chamber. The crew tried to extinguish the fire but failed. At 5:15 p.m., the ship sank. Other Soviet ships then arrived to aid the survivors. Forty-two members of the crew were lost in the accident. Soviet minister of defense Dmitry T. Yazov reported that the reactor on the Komsomolets was shut down and there was no danger of radiation, and later tests of the water by Norway confirmed that no radiation had escaped. This sinking, unlike that in 1986, was well publicized in the Western press.

A third incident occurred off Norway on June 26, 1989, when a conduit burst in the reactor of a Soviet nuclear submarine while it was traveling submerged. This time, however, the ship did not sink. The submarine’s captain, Yuri Kasatkin, immediately shut down the reactor and surfaced the vessel using auxiliary power, and there was no loss of life. The ship was towed into the port of Sevromorsk.

All of these accidents reflected the decline of the Soviet military in the 1980’s, which resulted from the disastrous war in Afghanistan and paralleled the profound changes occurring in Soviet society in the late 1980’s. The reforms introduced by Gorbachev—glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring)—brought about a dissolution of confidence in the Soviet system and eventually its downfall. The dissolution of the Soviet Union accelerated as the various ethnic groups who made up the nation’s republics aspired to national autonomy and independence. Environmental concerns, particularly fear of nuclear disasters in the wake of Chernobyl, played a major role in these changes.

A U.S. Department of Defense photograph shows the damaged Soviet nuclear submarine off the coast of Bermuda in October of 1986. The vessel, along with two nuclear reactors and sixteen missiles, eventually sank to the bottom of the ocean.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The profound changes that were taking place drastically affected all of the country’s armed services, the once-proud heart of the Soviet Union. The navy, in particular, held a special place in Soviet history. The Communist Revolution of November, 1917, succeeded when sailors from the Kronstadt naval base and St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress came over to the Communist side and the battleship Aurora fired on the Winter Palace, the seat of the Russian provisional government.

Sergei Eisenstein, Eisenstein, Sergei the great Soviet filmmaker, lionized the Russian navy in his epic production Potemkin
Potemkin (film) (1925), which recounted the story of a mutiny on a battleship of that name during the Revolution of 1905. In the Soviet period, all the armed forces had a special and privileged role in Soviet society. Although inferior to the industrialized world in many aspects, the Soviet Union, because of its military, was a superpower and in military affairs the equal of the United States. The victory over Germany in World War II—for the Soviets the Great Patriotic War—became, after the Communist Revolution, the central event of Soviet history.

The Soviet navy introduced atomic submarines in the 1960’s. Soviet leaders concentrated the nation’s atomic fleet on submarines rather than on surface ships because they believed that nuclear-powered surface ships were not sufficiently superior to conventional ships to justify the investment. The Soviets did build a nuclear-powered icebreaker, however. The Soviet atomic submarines were all-purpose vessels. The Soviets planned to use them as attack vessels against both other submarines and surface ships. They were to be used against land-based targets and were armed with ballistic wing missiles and conventional torpedoes. Their missiles carried both nuclear and nonnuclear warheads. In short, this atomic fleet was the core of the Soviet post-World War II navy.

For Soviet society as envisioned and directed by the Communist leadership, the military was the source of pride, patriotism, and ultimate cohesion. Although much was said about Marxist-Leninist ideology, which envisioned the creation of a socialist and then communist society and the solidarity of the international proletariat, the heart of Soviet existence was centered on an artificial nationalism that was vaguely merged with the Russian nationalism of imperial days. The armed forces formed the hard structure of this Soviet nationalism. The needs of the military were answered without question. Almost every male was required to serve, and teenage girls received required military and civil defense training in Soviet schools. Induction day, when young men reported to the draft, was a high point in the life of every boy and his parents.

In 1979, the Moscow government invaded Afghanistan to maintain a friendly regime in power. Soviet Union;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan] The drawn-out war that followed was reminiscent of the Vietnam War and had just as debilitating an effect on the Soviet Union as the latter had on the United States. Within the armed services, morale and preparedness deteriorated rapidly.

The Soviet failure in Afghanistan was one of the circumstances that illustrated the need for fundamental change in Soviet society. Under Gorbachev, however, the attempts at change led to rejection of the whole Soviet system and of the Soviet Union itself. Parliamentary government based on Western models replaced the single-party Communist state. After hard-line conservatives, including Defense Minister Yazov, failed in an attempt in 1991 to oust Gorbachev and restore the old Soviet systems, national divisions among the more than one hundred ethnicities within the Soviet Union helped to tear the union asunder. Soviet Union;dissolution

These national differences had been incubating for years. Sectarian wars had broken out in various Soviet republics. Furthermore, the Soviet military had become a prime target of attack for the non-Russian populations. The military was seen not as Soviet or as all-Union, but instead as Russian, and to those in the minority homelands, it represented the means of national oppression. Non-Russian youth refused to report for their military service, leading to clashes between Moscow and some republican and autonomous governments.

The final collapse of the union after the failed August, 1991, coup led to the formation of independent states in the former republics. These governments, along with those of the former dependencies of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe that also broke away from Soviet control in 1989, demanded that the Russian military personnel and apparatus leave. They also demanded, however, a share of military material for their own new armies. For the navy, this initiated disputes over how the fleet should be divided, and the disputes continued for years afterward. This was particularly true of the Black Sea fleet, the ownership of which was disputed by Russia and Ukraine. The republics also argued over how the union’s nuclear arms should be divided.

The series of accidents that befell the Soviet navy in the late 1980’s can thus be traced in part to the navy’s decline, which reflected the decline of the Soviet Union. No extraordinary radiation danger was apparent from these accidents, but the frequency of the incidents did raise some concerns. Disasters;sinking vessels
Nuclear energy;submarines

Further Reading

  • Current Digest of the Soviet Press 38, no. 33 (1986). Contains brief reports of the sinking from the Soviet news services.
  • Goldman, Marshall I. The Spoils of Progress: Environmental Pollution in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972. Classic American work on environmental issues in the Soviet Union, written before the Gorbachev era.
  • Kerblay, Basile H. Gorbachev’s Russia. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989. A valuable history and analysis of the Gorbachev period written just before the events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Contains information about environmental questions but excludes information about the sinking of the submarine.
  • Miller, David. Soviet Submarines. Vero Beach, Fla.: Rourke, 1988. Brief illustrated volume describes nuclear and conventional Soviet submarines. For general audiences.
  • Polmar, Norman, and Jurrien Noot. Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies, 1718-1990. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991. Informative volume provides a comprehensive survey of Russian and Soviet submarines. Chapter 21 is devoted to nuclear submarines.
  • Tall, Jeffrey. Submarines and Deep-Sea Vehicles. San Diego, Calif.: Thunder Bay Press, 2002. Highly illustrated history of submarines includes discussion of the Soviet Union’s nuclear fleet. Features bibliography and index.
  • Weir, Gary E., and Walter J. Boyne. Rising Tide: The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines That Fought the Cold War. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Detailed discussion of the Soviet Union’s submarine fleet draws heavily on post-Cold War interviews with seven Russian admirals. Includes an account of the 1986 loss of the nuclear submarine off Bermuda.

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