A Glimpse of Soviet Naval Might
By Ian Mitchell
Photos by author
One of the least publicized attractions that I know about in Moscow is the submarine Новосибирский Комсомолец (Novosibirskian Komsomolets) which is moored on the west, or Tushino, bank of the Khimki reservoir, on the Moscow–Volga canal, opposite the northern Rechnoy Voksal.
It is easily visited and makes a fascinating day out for anyone curious about the old Soviet defence establishment. The boat was originally called "Б-396" and was designed by the Soviet Union’s most famous submarine architect, Igor Spassky, in the mid-1970s. He was responsible for the design of nearly 200 boats, including the Kursk. The fact that that submarine was crippled when innovative and unstable explosives, in a torpedo spontaneously detonated should not take a way from his work as a marine engineer. He is currently involved with work on the new Yuri Dolgoruky class of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines, the first example of which was launched in April this year.
The Новосибирский Комсомолец was built in Nizhni Novgorod and served in the Northern Fleet, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean as a hunter-killer (as we would call it) from 1980-1998. It had six torpedo tubes, a crew of 75, and displaced 3,000 tons. After it was taken out of commission, it was transferred to the Sevmash yard at Severodvinsk in the White Sea, where it was made ready for public display.
This project was undertaken on the initiative of Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Lushkov, who decided, in 1999, that a marine military museum in the Khimki Reservoir should be assembled as a tourist attraction. The Новосибирский Комсомолец is the first exhibit. Plans are afoot to move a cruiser which is currently being refitted just north of the Rechnoy Voksal over to the site, and, more intriguingly, the amphibious plane, Orlyonok, moved there a month ago.
I did not see it on my visit but will definitely return to do so, as it was a fascinating project in its own right, arguably one of the many technically-adventurous projects which the Soviet Union produced but which died due to a lack of commercial infrastructure which might have lifted it out of the military-bureaucratic dead-end that was its eventual fate.
The Новосибирский Комсомолец is well displayed. The boat has been raised on piles so that, sitting unnaturally high in the water, visitors can see the propellers and rudder. Inside, the presentation is informative. Of course, any technically sensitive equipment has been removed, but this has made space for more general information on submarines and the sea. What is left is still interesting. For example, I was intrigued to see the officers’ mess, a small room with a table seven feet long running down the middle. There were very powerful lights above. I asked what those were for. “In emergencies, this room doubled as the ship’s operating theater,” I was told. “Those are the surgeon’s lamps. That was the operating table.”
Having been aboard HMS Vanguard, one of Britain's Trident-class, ballisticmissile submarines, the comparison was interesting, mainly for the similarities. Both boats looked cramped, old-fashioned although they had been hi-tech in their day. One big difference was that the Новосибирскый Комсомолец was an entirely Soviet product, whereas the whole missile section of the Vanguard is controlled by the United States. The result was that the British crew could not give me permission to photograph there, even though there were only blank missile- tube walls to be seen. Of course, the chances of getting aboard a Soviet submarine on active service, even without a camera, would have been nil.
Today the Новосибирский Комсомолец does not fly the Red Flag, but the Cross of St Andrew. This was the pre-Revolutionary Russian Naval ensign, and is the post-Soviet one as well.
The entrance fee is 150 roubles. Tours start every hour or so and are restricted to fifteen people each. The very friendly and knowledgeable guide speaks Russian only. The boat can be reached by a half-mile walk east along Химкинский Бульвар from Metro station Сходненская, and then a short distance down through the park to the water’s edge. You can’t miss it, and won’t regret it.