Missile in Red Square.

Plokhy’s New Cuban Missile Crisis Book Offers Glimpse Into the Minds of Rank-and-File Soviet Officers

June 25, 2021
Simon Saradzhyan

Reviewing Harvard University Professor Serhii Plokhy’s new book, entitled “Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” was perhaps unavoidable for us at Russia Matters. After all, our focus is on Russia-related issues that have an impact on U.S. vital interests, and that crisis brought America and the Soviet Union harrowingly close to a nuclear Armageddon; John F. Kennedy estimated the odds of a nuclear war in October 1962 were “between one out of three and even,” while Nikita Khrushchev stated, “we stood on the brink of war.”

While opening Plokhy’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC) for the first time, I could not help wondering what prompted this renowned specialist in the history of Ukraine to offer his take on this series of events that unfolded some 60 years ago. Much has been written by so many on what has been called the “single most serious moment in human history.” Plokhy himself offered a three-fold explanation for his decision. First, as the director of Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute explained at a recent discussion of his book at the Atlantic Council, within the existing literature on the subject, certain niches remained to be filled in his view. “What I saw … did not fit any of the parts of the dominant narrative about CMC…  I found …  a lot of uncertainty, a lot of confusion, a lot of misinformation and I thought this is the kind of treatment of the crisis that [one can find] maybe in some of the articles, but that is not part of the dominant narrative.” 

Second, “I found documents that no one really looked at before and those were the reports of the KGB officers who accompanied the Soviet ships as they went to Cuba, stayed there and then went back…. I found a lot of things that were not, maybe, known or not highlighted in the history of the crisis,” he said.

Third and finally, while still a Soviet citizen, Plokhy lived in the same town where many of Soviet Union’s early ICBMs were manufactured, including R-12s and R-14s, which were deployed to Cuba in 1962.* That city was called Dnepropetrovsk at the time, but has since been renamed to Dnipro.

Of these three reasons, it was the second one that most merited a book on the subject in my view. Living in the same city where ICBMs were made hardly qualifies as a reason to publish a book on CMC, and Professor Plokhy seemed to acknowledge as much by smiling when stating that reason at his Atlantic Council appearance. More important, as stated above, there have been an abundance of studies of the CMC. Plokhy’s description of the history of the crisis on the level of strategic decision-makers is solid. However, while well-researched, his account does not change our fundamental understanding of how the crisis unfolded on the strategic level. The same can perhaps be said of his call to modern-day strategic decision-makers to revive nuclear arms control, which features in the book’s conclusion, and which has been made by many champions of arms control before.

As indicated above, where the book adds the greatest value, in my view, is in the parts where this renowned Ukrainian-American historian describes the impressions of some of the lower-level participants of the crisis. His description of deliberations between the top three Soviet Naval officers aboard the B-59 submarine on whether or not to fire a nuclear torpedo as the U.S. Navy harassed this Foxtrot-class diesel U-boat upon detecting it off Cuba has received praise for being the “most detailed” of its kind. I generally agree with this description insofar as it refers to the available English-language literature. (Though, some of the Russian-language accounts of these deliberations are “no worse,” as they say in Russian. In particular, I found Alexander Mozgovoi’s 2002 Russian-language book, “Cuban Samba of the Foxtrot Quartette,” for which he interviewed some of the officers who were aboard the B-59, to be quite informative).

As important, the author also cites previously unpublished reflections of the rank-and-file participants in the CMC on the Soviet side as Operation Anadyr unfolded. These reflections were recorded by KGB officers based on what they heard themselves as well as on what their informants told them. The author was apparently granted access to the archives maintained by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), which inherited the KGB’s archives in Ukraine following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, as well as from the archives that Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry inherited amid the same. In this context, the KGB officers’ accounts are quite eye-opening, revealing that some of Operation Anadyr’s participants did not quite enjoy their trip to the Caribbean, to put it mildly.

“It’s offensive that our fate was decided somewhere over a glass of vodka, and we have to pay the bill by heading off to Cuba, which is of no use to anybody,” wrote one officer to his wife before departure. “We’re being taken for slaughter,” another officer told a serviceman who turned out to be a KGB informer as they were headed to Cuba on the Nikolai Burdenko ship. “I’m ready to lose my party card as long as I get back to the Union,” continued Sizov, who was deputy head of his unit’s party cell: “The best thing to do on encountering Americans is to surrender and be taken prisoner.”

Andzor Somonodzharia, another Soviet serviceman from Georgia, “told his fellow soldiers that in 1956 Russian tanks had crushed the Georgian rebellion, killing old men, women, and children. He hated the Russians and was going to avenge the sufferings of his people,” according to Plokhy’s book.

Reading these and other previously unpublished accounts of living through the crisis made me  wonder why instead of mostly focusing on the strategic picture of CMC, which has been painted many times before, Plokhy did not choose to write a book that would reconstruct the crisis through the candid impressions of the Soviet rank-and-file participants in Operation Anadyr, perhaps, expanding his selection of these impressions to include reminiscences of  some of the servicemen who did not have such a dim view of that operation.

Perhaps, that could be the subject of another book on the crisis, memories of which continue to resonate as renewed tensions between Washington and Moscow increase the adversaries’ chances of stumbling into a war which “cannot be won and must never be fought.”

*R-14s were also manufactured in Krasnoyarsk.


Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters.

Photo shared via the Public Domain. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.