The Hunt for the Truth

Gregory Young and the cover of his book

Gregory Young, UNC assistant professor of Political Science and the cover of his book that tells the story behind Tom Clancy’s "Hunt for Red October."

Three decades ago, Gregory Young uncovered a mutiny in the Soviet navy that drew the attention of an insurance salesman by the name of Tom Clancy. Young’s own book and upcoming TV appearance tell the true story behind “The Hunt for Red October.”

The unidentified caller spoke in a hushed voice, with a thick-Russian accent, from a pay phone outside a Washington, D.C., library. He implored Gregory Young, a student at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School at the time and now assistant professor of Political Science at UNC, to look into a mutiny that took place five years earlier aboard a Soviet navy vessel during the Cold War.

That was back in 1980 as Young’s master’s thesis was about to transform from human factors in assessing military capability to something that would years later garner international attention and lead to the basis for Clancy’s first best-selling novel and subsequent movie.

Published in 1982, Young’s thesis, “Mutiny on Storozhevoy (Russian for Sentry): A case study of dissent in the Soviet Navy,” identified the ship and the navy officer who aimed to lead a revolt against the Soviet Union by “using its own armor against it.” Valery Sablin, fed up with a USSR regime that he decided had lost sight of Lenin’s communist ideals, convinced nearly 200 crew members of the Storozhevoy to commandeer the destroyer on the eve of the 58th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Sablin planned to sail from Riga, where the ship was anchored for the celebration, to Leningrad to overthrow leader Leonid Brezhnev.

As is so often the case, the real story, which will be recounted this week in a docu-drama featuring Young that airs on the Smithsonian Channel, veers from the fictional account.

Spolier alert (skip this paragraph if you plan to read Young’s book “The Last Sentry: The True Story that Inspired The Hunt for Red October”): The heisted ship made it to international waters and Sablin transmitted what turned out to be an encrypted message on a military network before the destroyer was intercepted by Soviet forces. Grave consequences awaited Sablin, who a few months later was executed (something his family found out about months later; to this day, they don’t know where his body is.)

Young’s thesis, meanwhile, resided in the U.S. Naval Academy’s archives in Annapolis when Clancy, who worked as an insurance salesman in a nearby Maryland town, found it in 1983. He eventually tracked down Young, who at the time was flying Navy planes in the Philippines, and asked if he could use portions of it for his first novel.

“It was in the public domain, and I didn’t own the copyright,” Young said. “At the time, I was just thrilled someone had read it, so I said sure.”

The exchange set the stage for frequent conversations between the two while Clancy wrote the novel and his next one, “Red Storm Rising,” before “he moved past my pay grade,” Young said.

Both Clancy’s novel and Young’s assertions based on research available at the time concluded that the leader of the mutiny was a “Jeffersonian democrat yearning for freedom.”

“Twenty years later, we now know it was just the opposite,” Young said. “This was a die-hard communist upset with the sycophancy and the movement away from true communism. He wanted to lead a revolution to take the Soviet Union back to the true path of communism.”

In 2005, after working on his doctoral dissertation in Russia, Young clarified in “The Last Sentry” Sablin’s motives thanks to face-to-face interviews with sometimes-reluctant sources in Russia including Sablin’s widow, Nina. Nina and the couple’s son, Mikhail, wrote the foreword in Young’s book.

“I wrote the book and got it right,” Young said. “But it was more of the pinch-me moment. In 1982, I was trying to get any scrap of information over the phone and then 20 years later I’m sitting with the wife of the man who led the mutiny and the crewman for the ship.

“I think what this would have been like in 1982 to have any of these sources. I was making these inferential leaps from nothing and then 20 years later I’m sitting talking to people who were there.

“That was more amazing to me.”

About the Docu-Drama
UNC Assistant Professor of Political Science Gregory Young, a retired commander who spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy, will be featured in a docu-drama for his work that provided the inspiration for Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October.” The show, “The Real Story: The Hunt for Red October,” will premiere on the Smithsonian channel and run eight times between May 23-28. (sneak peek at http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/site/sn/show.do?episode=135868, beginning at the 1:40 mark. Young is featured at the 3:35 mark.) Young holds a master’s degree in National Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Colorado at Boulder. In addition to UNC, he’s taught at CU, the Air Force Academy, Naval Academy and Central Texas College.

- Nate Haas