From the Archive of Soviet Secrets. The Death of the Navy’s Elite

The calendars marking the dates of commemoration do not contain an entry for what is mentioned in this text. Nor was it reported during the official news on the Soviet TV channels. For a long time, there was not even a record of it on the gravestones. The Soviet Union had many military secrets, some of which had to be kept secret because they could have had a strategic impact. However, some secrets were simply painful and… shameful.

In the afternoon of 7 February 1981, a Tu-104 plane crashed near Leningrad, near what was then Leningrad, while taking off from Pushkin military airport, carrying the entire Pacific Naval Command. 50 people. All of them were killed. That included 16 admirals and generals and a dozen other people who could be classified as the leading elite of the military. The Pacific Fleet was the largest in the Empire at that time, and suddenly, in a matter of minutes, it was as if it was decapitated. By way of comparison, during the whole exhausting World War II, the USSR lost (only!) ten officers of the rank of Admiral and Rear Admiral on all fronts and in all waters (four died in the military missions, four died of natural causes, one committed a suicide, and one was the victim of the Stalinist repression).

Here are some facts about the event. In the first week of February 1981, in the then Leningrad, an operational-mobilisation meeting of the entire USSR Navy command took place, a kind of hybrid of the staff exercise and a “general assembly”, where, apart from “war simulation games”, work plans were discussed, “pioneers” were rewarded, and among them were a number of those from the Far East. In the general context, the Pacific Fleet was recognised as the best. So, the mood of the Admirals was apparently good. The journey home to the Far East is short, but it did not seem to be too tiring.

The description of the crash states that the plane started to take off, but after about 50 metres, it turned, plunged downwards, touching the ground with its right wing, and burst into flames.

It is worth remembering that 1981 was a period of the fierce Cold War. Ronald Reagan took over the position of the President of the US, which did not promise a better life for the Soviets. The situation in Poland was worrying, and the war in Afghanistan was not going well. The first reaction to the catastrophe was therefore a diversion or even a declaration of war. Perhaps it was the enemy, perhaps it was the Americans, who had superiority on the seas, who started the war precisely by beheading the Pacific Fleet leadership. The version of war quickly faded away, but the possibility of a diversion was not excluded for some time, with suspicions even among close colleagues of the dead, who may have been seeking to fill the ‘vacant’ positions. (This is also a bit of an indication of human relations in the USSR government). In the end, the causes of the disaster turned out not to be military or even literally technical, but rather… domestic.

Immediately after the disaster, the information about the incident was classified. The only publication of the Tu-104 crash with the Pacific Fleet command was published in Krasnaya Zvezda, the official publication of the USSR Armed Forces: “On 7 February 1981, a group of admirals, generals, officers, sailors, and employees of the Pacific Fleet were killed in a plane accident. The Soviet Army and Navy express their deepest condolences to the families and friends and to the fallen comrades”. Without names and titles. Several seemingly unrelated photographs in black frames were in the condolence section. That’s all. The relatives of the dead, as they themselves say, have been warned that they, too, have no right to know too much about that.

So, what is the secret about?

First, about the plane. The Tu-104 plane, once called the pride of USSR aviation, was in fact a plane of poor reputation. It is a Tu-16 bomber made into a civilian aircraft. The bomber was developed in the 1950s, and although it did not fight in a real war, it fulfilled its military mission, and was even exported to some countries ‘friendly’ to the Soviets, including China, which eventually acquired a production licence. The passenger Tu-104 plane was difficult to handle and crashed relatively often. Of the 207 planes produced, almost one in five crashed, and 23 were tragic. The worst crash of this type occurred on 13 October 1973, when a plane from Kutaisi crashed on its way to Domodedovo airport in Moscow, killing 122 people. In 1979, after several serious accidents, the aircraft was abandoned for civil aviation, but the planes were retained for the Army service. Until the tragedies mentioned in the text. By the way, the plane that crashed at Pushkin military airport was produced 1957.

Now a little bit of domestic things and the everlasting Soviet disorder. As it became known, before the flight the pilot warned the air traffic controller that the plane was overloaded (later attempts were made to deny this), but there was no hint that the flight had to be stopped. The aircraft started to take off at 185 km/h, while the take-off speed was 270-325 km/h, depending on weight. The aircraft was taking off too vertically, so the speed was further reduced, and for some reason it rolled over to the right side…

So, what caused the overloading and other problems at the start of the flight? It sounds silly today, but somewhere it is said that … the plane was stocked with sausages, and other deficit foods. And it was also packed with clothes, household appliances – all those Soviet “luxuries” that did not exist in the Far East. The Navy commanders went shopping. That’s not the worst of it. The worst thing is that they loaded their belongings in disorder, sat wherever they thought it would be more comfortable, completely ignoring the pilots’ instructions. They, admirals, and generals, would not listen to some… who are like drivers. They have to listen, but people who have accompanied “starry” military men remember that, unfortunately, there was no shortage of people “showing authority” over the pilots. It is no secret that, after an exercise of the type that took place in Leningrad, the scientific and military “pioneers” were quite intoxicated with alcohol. The conclusion of the investigation into the crash clearly states that the main cause was not so much insufficient speed as unbalanced positioning of passengers and luggage. Some of the luggage was simply not secured, having moved during the take-off the plane. There was even more disorder. It is true that these are not the causes of the crash, but there were some civilians on board (which is forbidden by the rules) and some military personnel who simply “got on board” because they also needed to go to Khabarovsk or Vladivostok… These are the facts.

A memorial was erected in the Seraphim Cemetery in St Petersburg in 1983, as most of the people were buried there. It is known that after the crash the relatives of those who died were allowed to move to any place in the then USSR, and most of them chose… Leningrad. Closer to the graves.

The history of the memorial itself is also worth to mention because of the “customs” of the Soviet Union. The original version of the memorial was a reinforced concrete structure, which was changed to granite only thanks to an informal association of widows. At the beginning, the memorial was marked only by a very laconic and even cryptic inscription: ‘To the sailors of the Pacific War’. Why the Pacific Ocean and Leningrad all of a sudden? Only more than 17 years later, the inscription was expanded: “… For those killed in the line of duty on 07/02/1981”. And that is not the end of it. It is said that this, too, was only thanks to the efforts of the well-known Russian politician Galina Starovoitova. The Orthodox cross has also been carved. By the way, the church ceremony in honour of the dead took place only… on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy. It was only in 2017 that a memorial to the victims was also unveiled in Vladivostok on the Korabelnaya embankment. It is a marble stele commemorating… a sailing ship. Strange indeed.

However, the whole story is still under the “secret” label. Secret because the circumstances of the crash seem to be such that they cannot be made public. Or not yet.

Post scriptum. For me, this catastrophe was a kind of metaphor. The Soviet Union was a large and, in its own way, really powerful country. But it did not collapse because someone more powerful conquered it. It collapsed because of the absurdity of its own existence. It is not clear whether anyone will believe, even after a few hundred years, that generals and admirals do not die a hero’s death defending the honour of their country, but because, in addition to their immediate duties, they have the duty to get sausages, paper, pencils, toilet paper, a duty for which they sacrifice … well, how should I put it…

Egidijus Vareikis

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Autorius: Voras Online