Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!
Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.
Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
Today, Tom Clancy is perhaps best known as the author who’s books have inspired such video games as Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell and the most recent open-world shooter-RPG from Ubisoft, The Division.
In 1982, Clancy started writing his first novel in his spare time while running an insurance agency he bought from his wife’s grandmother a couple years before.
It was an editor by the name of Deborah Grosvenor who was working at the Naval Institute Press when she got her hands on a copy of Clancy’s novel.
She loved it and convinced the Naval Institute Press to publish the book.
After cutting the novel down by about 100 pages to remove some of the more technical details, Clancy’s writing career was launched when he sold his first novel to the Naval Institute Press for a mere $5,000 in 1984 — which is about $11,600 in today’s dollars thanks to inflation.
The book was titled The Hunt for Red October and told the story of a daring defection of a Russian submarine captain named Marko Ramius. Ramius is fed up with communist U.S.S.R. and attempts to take a routine test of a top-secret and state-of-the-art new submarine the U.S.S.R. has just built and defect to the United States with it.
Clancy was quoted as saying he would’ve been happy to have sold 5,000 copies of his first book. It sold 45,000.
One of those copies was sold to none other than the President of the United States at the time, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan also loved the book, and himself was quoted as calling it “the best yarn.” This praise from the President placed the book in the public’s eye.
Sales jumped to over 300,000 copies of the hardcover and over 2,000,000 paperback copies, making it a bestseller in the United States. A lot of high-ranking military officers praised the book for its technical accuracy, leading to opportunities for Clancy to meet these officers and serve as the basis for Clancy’s continued books.
The Hunt for Red October also introduced a character Clancy would go on to use in many of his books, Jack Ryan.
On March 2, 1990, Hollywood’s version of Clancy’s book hit theaters. Staring massive stars such as Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Tim Curry, Fred Thompson and James Earl Jones, The Hunt for Red October was released just mere months after both the Berlin Wall fell at the end of 1989 and the Communist Party lost power in the Soviet Union.
This certainly may have helped the movie’s popularity, but it also led to a top secret White House screening hosted by Tom Clancy himself along with guests such as the CEO of Paramount, James Earl Jones, Colin Powell and the head of the CIA at the time, Robert Gates. To this day, the guest list of that White House screening on February 19th, 1990 is still a secret.
The movie was also a massive success for the public, raking in over $120,000,000 on its way to being nominated for three Oscars and winning one in 1991.
All of this would launch Tom Clancy’s career as he went on to become one of the best-selling writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Although most of the public came to know Sean Connery’s great acting performance as Captain Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October, the book is actually based on truth.
Although the story behind The Hunt for Red October is based in truth, quite a few of the facts were changed. In fact, at the time Tom Clancy wrote his best-seller, much of the truth had yet to be revealed publicly so it makes sense that a lot of the story had to be made up to fill in the blanks.
Still, the structure of the story was based on the mutiny of a man by the name of Valery Mikhailovich Sablin in 1975, just seven years before Clancy first started writing his book.
Valery grew up destined to serve in the Soviet Navy as both his father and grandfather before him. So from an early age, Valery was ingrained with a sense of duty to his country as he grew up on a naval base.
When Stalin died in 1953, the USSR was thrown into an era of discontent as the new Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, intended to remove many from the ruling class.
Two years after Stalin’s death, in 1955 and at the age of 16, Valery began his own military career when he joined the elite Frunze Military Academy in Leningrad. Right away, he was praised by his teachers as an exemplary student. It didn’t take long for him to be voted as the head of the Communist Youth Organization where Valery’s love of Communism only grew.
Throughout his early years at the Academy, it was obvious to everyone who came into contact with him that Valery was a dedicated Communist. But this political passion along with his military heritage led him to believe in doing more than preaching his beliefs — he wanted to put them into action.
And so he did.
At age 20, Valery did something no one was supposed to do when he wrote to Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier at the time, and denounced Soviet socialism. He was convinced the Soviet nation was headed away from Lenin’s communist ways, and that wasn’t something he liked. And he wasn’t afraid to share his distaste for the direction of the country he loved.
Of course, as you might imagine, the Soviet government wasn’t too happy with him speaking out against them.
Because of his letter to the premier, the government delayed Valery’s graduation. Undeterred, Valery continued to focus on his studies — and he excelled at them.
His brilliance couldn’t be ignored, and while there was certainly plenty of people continuing to monitor him, Valery was allowed to graduate and begin serving in the Navy.
In 1964, another regime change for the Soviet leadership when Leonid Brezhnev replaced Nikita Khrushchev. This opened up new opportunities for Valery, and within five years he was given a huge honor when he was offered the command of his own destroyer. At the time, having their own command was almost unheard of for someone his age — 30 years old.
Although flattered by the offer, Valery was still sticking to his belief in action to better his country. To do that, he needed to have a better understanding of how the Soviet engine worked.
So at the shock of his family, Valery turned down the offer and decided instead to go back to school. This time, he enlisted in the Lenin Political Academy.
Valery’s already strong views of Communism continued to grow as he studied the classic writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. He wanted to know about one of the pivotal moments in history.
But even more, he wanted to know exactly how the cogs in the U.S.S.R. were built — essentially how things were supposed to be working according to those he looked up to. Once he knew how things were supposed to be, it’d be a lot easier to see what was going wrong.
Days turned into months, and Valery continued to pour over the classics of Marxism that sparked the revolution that built the government of his time.
Before Soviet Russia, the country was run by Tsars — which is a derivative from the Roman title of Caesar, since the Russian Tsars are essentially emperors of the country.
With Tsars, Russians essentially was a country broken into class systems. This system, which went all the way back to the 1500s in Russia, came crashing down on when Lenin’s Bolshevik faction took up arms and used force to capture the government buildings in Petrograd, Russia.
The revolution may have been short-lived, thanks in part to yet another revolution earlier in the year that had weakened the Tsar’s hold on Russia, but it resulted in Soviet Russia being set up under Lenin’s Bolshevism.
Today’s Gregorian calendars mark the day of the 1917 Revolution as November 7th and 8th. However, it was 1918 when the Russians started using the Gregorian calendar. So when the revolt happened the year before, the Russians were using the Julian calendar.
And according to the Julian calendar, the 1917 revolution started on October 25th.
So that’s why in history, the Bolshevik revolt that was the beginning of Soviet Russia is referred to in the official Soviet literature as the Great October Socialist Revolution — or, by another name — Red October.
This is what Valery was fascinated with investigating. As he saw it, the current Soviet Russia was straying from the path that Lenin and his peers had started.
As he expanded his consumption at the Lenin Political Academy, Valery began to realize there were some works that he wasn’t allowed to access.
One of the key figures who’s works weren’t he couldn’t find in the library at the Lenin Political Academy was Leon Trotsky, who was one of the main leaders of the revolution alongside Lenin.
After Lenin’s death, Trotsky held a key position in the Communist party and continued to hold true to Lenin’s teachings as he led the fight against the differences in Stalin’s government.
But Trotsky’s writings were locked away and despite numerous attempts to gain access, Valery was repeatedly denied the ability to study them.
History shows letters written from Valery to his brother where Valery exclaimed bitter disappointment in the censorship of Trotsky’s writings. They were only available to a privileged caste. In Valery’s mind, this sort of behavior was just another example of how the pure form of Communism Lenin had fought to get rid of when he toppled the Tsars was going away.
According to historical documents from Valery, it was around this time that he wrote, “the armor of the State and Party is so thick that even direct hits won’t make a dent. This machine has to be broken from the inside.”
This statement gives insights into Valery’s state of mind and thanks to knowing what would soon come to pass — it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see where his mind was at.
All he needed, it would seem, is the right opportunity.
Valery was a patient man and dutifully performed his role. While we’ll probably never know many of the specifics in the early days of his plans or even when he began, the intricacies of his plan certainly weren’t something you’d come up with overnight. So while it’s my own personal speculation, it would make sense that Valery must’ve been formulating a plan for many years, but the details probably started to unfold and become clearer around the same time the next chapter of his life.
In the movie The Hunt for Red October, Marko Ramius — the fictional character Clancy made up based on Valery Sablin — is captain of the Red October, the most technologically advanced submarine of its time.
In truth, Valery was neither on a submarine or a captain. The next chapter of his life started after graduating from the Academy when Valery joined a ship called the Sentry as a political officer in 1973.
The Sentry was the Soviet’s most advanced submarine hunter at the time, and his role on board ranged from delivering political briefings to the crew, helping to maintain morale as well as keeping an eye out for anyone who might be doing something his bosses at the infamous KGB might not approve of.
Although he was supposed to keep an eye out on the crew and report back to the KGB, it was Valery himself who broke political protocol as he changed the state-approved Stalinist version of Marxist-Leninism into briefings filled with his own stances on Lenin’s true Communism.
In particular, Valery used this opportunity to share many of the things he’d learned during his time studying at the Lenin Political Academy about the October revolution. Over time, he began to capture the admiration of many of the men on board who began to sympathize with this perspective of Leninism that they likely hadn’t heard before.
One of the stories Valery liked to tell was that of the Potemkin. The Potemkin was a powerful battleship that gained its fame when the crew revolted against the ship’s officers in 1905. This act of mutiny was seen by many as the kick starter for the revolution that ended with Lenin’s Bolsheviks taking power twelve years later.
Although one of Valery’s favorites to mention, the Potemkin certainly wasn’t the only case of mutiny in the Russian Navy’s past. This fact is something Valery knew well, and something he would work into his political briefings on board the Sentry.
In the movie, there’s a scene in the captain’s cabin where Captain Borodin, played by Sam Neill, asks Dr. Petrov, played by Tim Curry, to leave the room. When he does, it becomes apparent that Captain Ramius, who’s played by Sean Connery, isn’t the only one who is involved in the attempt to defect. It’s almost all of the officers on the Red October.
This isn’t really true, as Valery didn’t have any allies on board the Sentry at first. However, with his political briefings and persuasive propaganda, slowly but surely Valery started to gain people he thought could be allies. But at some point, he had to make the jump and trust someone with his plan.
He chose to do this with a man by the name of Sasha Shein, a 20-year-old sailor who had spent some time helping Valery preparing his briefings.
As they spent time together Sasha, who was a self-proclaimed “rebel” made off-the-cuff comments about how politics in the Soviet Union were nothing more than a show. Official Communism in the U.S.S.R. wasn’t true Communism.
So if we take a step back from our story for a moment to think about the gravity of this situation. A young soldier is working alongside the ship’s political officer — someone who everyone knows is there to watch the crew and reports directly to the KGB. And yet he still has the guts to speak his mind openly like this.
While much of this may play into Sasha’s inner rebel, it’s more likely this sort of behavior shows just how much Valery had come to be trusted by the men on the ship. Through his countless political briefings, it had become quite clear that Valery wasn’t reading from the typical KGB-approved scripts.
On November 8th, 1975, the Sentry made port in Latvia. Their purpose was to take part in a military ceremony for the anniversary of the October Revolution — as you recall from earlier, the switch from the Julian and Gregorian calendars made the dates of the revolution change from late October into early November.
The symbolism of the date was too much for Valery to pass up.
He found Sasha in the lecture hall and asked him a simple question.
“Would you be willing to work for the KGB?”
You can imagine what Sasha’s face must’ve looked like when Valery asked this. Although he knew Valery was the political officer, he had gained their respect. Even worse, Sasha had admitted a lot of things contrary to the state’s teachings — things the KGB wouldn’t be happy to hear.
Had he been betrayed?
Without saying a word, he started to leave the room when Valery spoke. It was a test, and Sasha had passed.
Well, passed enough that Valery knew it was the best he could do if he would pull it off on the revolution’s anniversary.
In The Hunt for Red October, Captain Marko Ramius’s plan is to turn over the state-of-the-art Russian submarine as he defects to the United States. This happens after his wife’s death leaves him with nothing left in Russia to go home to.
As you can probably imagine, none of that is true.
Valery’s actual plan had nothing to do with the defection to the United States. Nor did it have to do with turning over the ship. In fact, perhaps the closest thing in the movie to truth is that both the Red October and the Sentry were state-of-the-art navy vessels. Even though one was a submarine and the other a submarine hunter.
In truth, Valery’s plan was much more ambitious than Marko’s plan in the movie.
Feeling betrayed by those in power of the Soviet Union, Valery wanted a total regime change. His plan was to do what Lenin had done decades before with a revolution that started on a ship and ended with toppling the Tsars.
This time, Valery wanted to take control of the Sentry and sail it to Leningrad. Once there, he’d use radio to usher in support from the working class, who he was certain would revolt as they’d done many times before in Russian history.
Using this support, he would then take over the Kremlin, just as Lenin had captured government buildings during the October revolution, and once he had the control he would introduce a new regime of true Leninism.
All of this he explained to Sasha in what almost certainly was a hushed tone so no one else but the two men could hear. Sasha, who most certainly was relieved that Valery wasn’t actually trying to recruit him for the KGB, was sold. He was in.
Three days later on November 8th, 1975 — exactly 58 years after the October revolution came to an end as it ushered in the Soviet era — Valery and Sasha put their plan into action.
It began when they sent a message to the Sentry’s captain, Anatoly Putorny, that some of the crew were getting drunk. An angry Captain Putorny went down to sort things out when Valery and Sasha locked him in the room once he entered.
Acting quickly, Valery started a film for the crew — Sergei Einstein’s 1925 silent film simply titled Battleship Potemkin. It was a retelling of the mutiny who’s story Valery had retold to the crew countless times. As the film played, Sasha called the men to action.
Now it was their time to do what the men on the Potemkin had done. Thanks to Valery’s years of briefings softening the men to the idea, before the film was done Sasha had rallied the entire crew behind their cause. They were unanimously in support of the revolt.
As Sasha was rallying the crew, Valery called the officers together to convince them.
He laid out his plan, doing his best to convince them it was their civic duty to help right the wrongs that were in the current Soviet regime. He was quite convincing, and half of the sixteen officers pledged their support.
It’s likely the other half weren’t as convinced not so much because they didn’t like the plan, but they were probably afraid of what the captain would do when he was released from his temporary prison below deck. Still, Valery wasn’t deterred. He wouldn’t give up now.
So he put the plan to a vote. The entire crew voted for revolt, and although there was some hesitation from the officers the overwhelming support for the revolt bolstered the morale of the everyone there.
It certainly was a pivotal moment in which most of the men must’ve thought they would be heroes — following in the footsteps of their own heroes who had struggled for revolution with great success so many years before. Although the ship’s crew were certainly elated by their new roles as heroes of the country, given the opportunity to be on the front lines of this new revolution, it’s likely that Valery wasn’t quite as optimistic.
He was a smart man, and from the years of studying Russian revolutions, Valery was well aware of the long path ahead. This was but the first step. The next would be to grow their numbers by lighting the same fire that burned in the hearts of the Sentry with the hundreds of thousands of workers in Leningrad.
And so, at about 1:00 in the morning on November 9th, the Sentry set back out to sea. This time bound for Leningrad about six hundred miles away around the Estonian peninsula and the northeastern coast of the U.S.S.R.
In The Hunt for Red October, before he left in the massive submarine, Captain Marko Ramius sent a letter to a good friend and his wife’s uncle in the Soviet government. The contents of the letter are something the Americans are trying to figure out, but in the movie as the audience, we know it was announcing his intention to defect.
In classic Sean Connery fashion, Marko calmly explains to his officers why he sent the letter by citing something Spanish sailor Cortes did — burn his ships. The letter was a way of ensuring no one would turn back on their defection.
Although most of the story in the movie about the letter aren’t true, there was actually a letter sent. It was sent by Valery Sablin before the Sentry left Riga, Latvia and was addressed to his wife, who was taking care of his young son at the time. In the letter he did something similar to what Marko Ramius did — he explained himself.
To help put ourselves in the mind of this daring sailor who was putting his own life at risk by doing something to fix what he believed was a broken country, here’s a quote from the letter he sent to his wife:
“Why am I doing this? The love of life. I mean not in the sense of a comfortable bourgeois, but a bright, truthful life which inspires a genuine joy in all honest people. I am convinced that in our nation, just as 58 years ago in 1917, a revolutionary consciousness will alight and we will achieve Communism in our society.”
And so, with the crew of the Sentry convinced, Valery, Sasha and their comrades made their way from Latvia to Leningrad — modern day St. Petersburg — to try to turn more to their side.
Originally, Valery wanted to broadcast a speech he had written as soon as they arrived in Leningrad, but he was so excited he decided to hand off his speech to the ship’s radio operator. He told him to use the ship’s PA on a wavelength commonly used by ordinary citizens. Essentially he wanted to broadcast to any radio that would hear it.
Here’s a portion of the speech:
“I address myself to those of you who take our revolutionary past to their hearts, to those who can think critically but not cynically about our present and about the future of our people. Ours is a purely political act. The real traitors to the Motherland will be those who attempt to stop us. In the event of a military attack on our country, we will defend it loyally. But now we have another aim — to raise the voice of truth.”
As fervent a call to revolution as Valery’s speech may have intended to be, it didn’t have the impact he wanted. But not because of how it was written or delivered.
While there’s not very good documentation on exactly why this happened, for whatever reason the radio operator who was handling the broadcast did everything he was told. He simply overlooked common sense. You see, while he broadcast the speech on a common wavelength and it was picked up by many people, he broadcast it in the typical code used by the Soviet Navy.
So the speech that was aimed at the working class of Leningrad ended up only being understood by Valery’s bosses in the Soviet Navy.
And as you might imagine, they weren’t too happy with what they heard.
The first to hear the broadcast were in Riga, where the Sentry had just left. When they heard it, they didn’t really believe what they were hearing. Who would broadcast something like this? And in code so only they could hear? It didn’t make sense.
But it was also too serious to ignore.
So they wanted to investigate and issued an order to the Sentry from the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy himself to turn around and return to Riga.
Valery had expected the broadcast to be open, so he had to have known the authorities would know about it right away just as he hoped the working class would. He just didn’t know his superiors in the Navy were the only ones who understood the message. He ignored the order and kept going.
After this blatant disregard for a direct order, people started to take this even more seriously. The Politburo, or the committee who was in charge of creating all of the policies of the Communist government in the U.S.S.R., was called. It was still the dead of night, but this didn’t stop them from waking up the leader of the Soviet Empire, Leonid Brezhnev, and letting him know what was happening.
In the movie, The Hunt for Red October, Captain Marko Ramius, and his crew are bound for the east coast of the United States. It’s an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride as the Russian fleet is mobilized to catch up with the Red October while at the same time trying not to alert the United States of Marko’s real motives.
While there’re too many details that aren’t true to pick them all out, it’s easier to mention the shred of truth that is there. And that is when the Russian Navy was mobilized to hunt down Valery Sablin and the Sentry. This happened at 4:00 AM or about three hours after the Sentry left the port in Riga.
While we can’t know for certain the intentions of Brezhnev, historians mostly agree that the thought in the Soviet command was that either the Sentry was going to defect to Sweden or it was going to Leningrad to start a revolt. Not taking any risk, Brezhnev issued a direct order himself to the Soviet fleet in the Baltic. The order was essentially the same as in the movie: Find the Sentry and stop it or sink it.
Although the movie made it seem like the pursuit was a long, drawn out affair that happened over the course of a few days, in truth the Sentry never really strayed far from the coast as it was going between Latvia and Leningrad. So by daybreak, the thirteen vessels sent after the Sentry had caught up to it.
The first ship who sighted the Sentry thought they just happened to be at a point in the journey where they were traveling along a path that would be heading the same direction for both Leningrad and Sweden. So even there was really no way for the Soviet ships to know where the Sentry was headed, the men aboard the Soviet ship who were convinced the Sentry was headed to Sweden. That meant only one thing: Defection.
The KGB officers aboard the Soviet ships radioed the Sentry, offering the men a pardon if they helped stop the ship from defecting to Sweden.
The Sentry sailed on, and the crew on board replied to the KGB’s message saying: “Comrades! We are not traitors to the Motherland. We are not going abroad!”
This gave the men on the ships pursuing the Sentry pause. Weren’t they defecting?
The commander of the Baltic Fleet ordered jet fighters to scramble in an attempt to get them to stop. The Soviet jet fighters did a close flyby in an attempt to get the Sentry to stop. When the Sentry didn’t stop, the jets were given the order to open fire.
When asked to give verbal confirmation of the order to kill their fellow comrades, the fighter’s squadron leader confirmed.
The jets roared toward the Sentry and screamed overhead with a deafening blow. Seconds must have seemed like hours as the men on board the Soviet ships watched for the explosions of the missiles impacting the Sentry.
The explosions never came.
As the sound of the jets retreated into the depths of the sky, the commander of the Baltic Fleet started to understand what had happened. The squadron had disobeyed his order. They refused to kill their comrades.
Furious, a squadron was launched. This squadron, most certainly being afraid for their own lives if they refused to disobey a direct order as the previous squadron did carry out their orders.
The first bomb landed just to the front of the Sentry. The explosion rippled through the hull of the ship. Another bomb landed just behind the ship. This one splashed the crew, who was watching helplessly as they refused to open fire on their own comrades.
The Sentry lurched forward for a moment, then slowly began to circle. The crew’s ability to control the Sentry was obliterated and with it all hope of reaching Leningrad.
Within six hours of leaving Riga, and only about 200 miles into their 600-mile trip to Leningrad, Soviet soldiers and men from the KGB swarmed and boarded the ship. The KGB immediately took over, ordering the crew to line up on the deck. For the next nine hours, the men were ordered to stand still with soldiers watching them closely as the KGB scoured the ship. The orders were simple: If any of the rebels moved, shoot them.
Finally, the men were allowed off the ship and sent back to Riga where they were immediately arrested at the port. The KGB didn’t really know anything about what had transpired and were determined to get to the bottom of it. But they had already begun to be murmurings among the Soviets at Riga of yet another revolution such as the Potemkin, and the KGB couldn’t allow another revolt. So they sent Valery, Sasha and 14 others to the Lefortovo prison, one of the most notorious prisons in Moscow, for interrogation.
In the movie, Captain Marko Ramius and his officers make it safely to the United States and while there were some losses, for the most part, The Hunt for Red October ends with a “happily ever after” type feel.
That’s not what happened in real life. For months, Valery, Sasha and the other officers and crew were interrogated by the KGB. While there’re no records to show the extent of the torture, one can only imagine the horrors they faced as the KGB tried to get to the bottom of the thwarted revolt.
There was a trial. Valery, Sasha and more were given the chance to tell their side. Again, we can only guess how much this helped them feel as if the trial was giving them a fair chance.
What we do know is the trial was simply a show. Based on sentences handed out to others for similar crimes, Valery must’ve expected somewhere around a 15-year prison sentence without the chance to even see his son grow up.
In front of a packed courtroom, the judges ordered Sasha and Valery to stand before the court as they read the sentences. Sasha’s was read first, and for his part in the revolt, Sasha Shein was given an eight-year sentence. This must’ve given Valery some hope that his own sentence would be less than he thought.
Then it was Valery’s turn.
The judges pulled a sheet of paper out, and while we’ll never know what it said exactly, we know what the gist of what was on that paper. The Kremlin had intervened and issued a direct order for Valery’s sentence. It came from none other than the leader of Communist Russia, Leonid Brezhnev.
Valery Sablin was sentenced to death by firing squad.
Sasha and Valery stared ahead in disbelief. The judge who had read the order hurriedly stuffed it back into its envelope and rushed out of the courtroom. Guards led Sasha away, but before he left the courtroom, in classic Hollywood fashion, he took one last look back.
Valery had slumped forward, leaning against the railing in the courtroom and being held up by a guard. The weight of everything that had happened finally fell on him.
Three weeks after the trial, Valery was shot by a Soviet firing squad and subsequently buried in an unmarked grave.
To this day, no one knows where Valery Sablin was buried.