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Cold War Warriors

A day with the last soviet navy leader - Admiral Konstantin Makarov

Commander John Murphy, USN, Ret.

On the 4th of July weekend in 1988 I received a phone call from a friend in the Pentagon. He asked if I could provide Russian language services for the visit of a senior Soviet naval officer the following Monday, 11 July. He went on to explain that the visitor was the equivalent of our Chief of Naval Operations – the Soviet Chief of the Main Navy Staff - Admiral Konstantin Makarov. They needed me to help prepare a briefing to give to Admiral Makarov in the Pentagon’s Navy Command Center. Also, to serve as a Russian interpreter throughout his visit to the Pentagon, and the U.S. Naval Academy that day.

I agreed to do this, but worried about what I had gotten myself into. State Department Russian interpreters thought it inadvisable to take on such an assignment unless … you had worked with the person for at least three hours beforehand. To get a feel for their style and manner of speech. Also, their vocabulary. The Navy assured me there was no chance for a meeting with Admiral Makarov prior to the actual event. We would just have to take our chances. I would be working for the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Navy Command Center in the Pentagon. A world I knew pretty well because I had served there in the 1970s. Also, I was concerned that we had less than one week to prepare for this historic visit – over a holiday weekend. I would be working directly for Vice Admiral Henry C. (Hank) Mustin who was the Navy’s Director of Planning. Mustin headed up the U.S. Navy’s Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) talks with the Soviet Navy at that time.

In fact, he had just been to Moscow and worked with Admiral Makarov during the final days of the ratification of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) treaty which had been signed in Washington D.C. by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987. The Treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate in May and had just gone into effect on 1 July. The INF treaty covered all Soviet and U.S. nuclear-armed, ground-launched, ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (approximately 300 to 3400 miles) and their infrastructure.


The name Makarov rang a bell. But why? I knew there were many famous Makarov’s throughout Russian history. Particularly Vice Admiral Stepan Makarov who was a brilliant Russian naval leader who perished at Port Arthur during the Russo Japanese war (1904). I knew that he was a famed oceanographer and that the Soviets had named a Naval Academy after him in Leningrad…now St. Petersburg.

But who was Admiral Konstantin Makarov? Was he any relation to the 19th century naval hero? My research over the frantic 4th of July weekend yielded very little. Today, I know that he was born in 1931 (two years before me) and had an illustrious career in the Soviet submarine service. The living incarnation of Tom Clancy’s commander of the Red October. He graduated from the Soviet Naval Academy in 1967 and was immediately ordered to command a nuclear submarine in the prestigious Northern Fleet based in Murmansk. Five years later he was commanding an entire Division of Northern Fleet nuclear submarines. In the 1970s he bounced from the Main Navy Staff in Moscow to command assignments in the Baltic Fleet. In 1985, the year Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power - Konstantin Makarov was completing the prestigious General Staff Academy course. Part of "Gorby’s" team. One who could accept and implement the ideas embedded in Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost’ policies. A man for the future.

When I worked with him on 11 July he was in the middle of his seven year assignment as Chief, Main Navy Staff, USSR. When he got out of his car at the Pentagon’s River Entrance at 0845 on July11, 1988 - he wore three stars - a Vice Admiral. The following year (1989) he was promoted to Fleet Admiral - a four star rank held by eight others in Soviet naval history. The equivalent of a Field Marshal or General of the Army.

Preparing for the visit - I was told to report to the Navy offices in the Pentagon on Monday 4 July. The Soviet delegation of senior military visitors - led by Marshal of the Soviet Union, Sergey Akhromeyev were to tour U.S. military facilities from 5 to 11 July. I lugged my trusty Macintosh computer (which was fluent in Russian) to the Navy Command Center and worked with the Navy staff on crafting a one-hour, Powerpoint briefing - totally in Russian - regarding U.S. Navy operations worldwide. The briefing was to be given in the secure briefing theater for the Chief of Naval Operations. My job was to first translate all the text given to me into Russian and then produce the briefing slides in Russian (Cyrillic) text.

We went through four drafts and produced the final briefing on Saturday afternoon, 2 July. I went home and spent the next day boning up on Russian vocabulary that I thought might come up. On Monday morning I stood with Admiral Hank Mustin and three other senior Navy Department officials on the steps of the Pentagon’s River Entrance. We chatted nervously as we waited for the arrival of an official sedan from the Soviet Embassy. At 0841 the radio of a Navy security officer standing next to me crackled with the message "Four minutes out!"

At precisely 0845 a large black sedan slid up to the River Entrance and Captain Mikhail Popov, a Soviet Naval Attaché bounced out of the car and stood at attention as a young looking Vice Admiral Makarov emerged - meticulous in his informal, summer khaki uniform. I thought at the time "So unpretentious. But … so practical for a long day of meetings and tours." It was showtime!

The Visit - Admiral Makarov lit up when he saw Admiral Mustin waiting for him. A familiar face at this symbol of American military power - the Pentagon. Makarov later remarked to me that as far as he knew … he was the first Soviet flag officer to ever visit the Pentagon. That, to him it was a bit overwhelming. About the only thing that he considered overwhelming … during his visit. All else seemed to be pretty much what he expected.

We began a brisk walk from the River Entrance through the maze that was the Pentagon until we reached the Navy Command Center. After the initial polieties …I tried to exchange a few words with Captain Popov who I assumed was fluent in English. He was. We agreed that if I ever was having serious problems translating for Admiral Makarov … he would step in and help me out. We spoke for about 30 seconds when Admiral Makarov grabbed me … impatiently … and said "Come here! Stay with me. I have things I must say to Admiral Mustin." I can assure you I stayed glued to him the rest of the way to the Navy Command Center. When we arrived .. the briefing theater was filled with American Admirals and their senior staff. All were at attention and I noticed my briefing slides (in Cyrillic) were already lighting up the screens at the front of the room. Admiral Mustin introduced Admiral Makarov to the assembled dignitaries. The Navy security team secured the doors and the briefing began.

VADM Hank Mustin introducing ADM Makarov to OPNAV senior staff. I am the only one that didn't get the word on the uniform of the day. To right is Soviet Naval Attache, Captain Mikhail M. Popov.

The briefing was to be read by Commander Mike Rybinsky, USN … a U.S. Navy officer who had a wonderful Russian accent - given to him by his ancestors who immigrated to America in the early 20th century - just after the Bol’shevik Revolution. I thought at the time "How ironic. I was sure that Mike’s ancestors would be proud." When Mike began the briefing and had introduced himself … Makarov turned to me and asked - "?? ???????!?" (He’s a Russian?). I told him that Mike was an American of Russian ancestry. Makarov was given a printed copy of the briefing - "a keeper" … in Russian…. He stayed focused on the screen and the spoken word.

CDR Rybinsky later told me that he was a nervous wreck. I told him - "It never showed. You were totally in command and Makarov was impressed with your presentation." The presentation reviewed current U.S. Navy operations worldwide in 10 pages of printed text. It noted that we were like an ‘island nation" that needed access to the sea for our safety and to express our ideals. That we were a nation of immigrants (like your "briefer" Commander Rybinsky) that came here "attracted by the light of liberty . That our Navy was a strategic deterrence and a stabilizing force for peace. "

The majority of the briefing was devoted to a review of major commands (e.g. Atlantic, Pacific, Central etc.) worldwide and their missions. When the briefing was completed …. Admiral Makarov was asked for comments and he said that there was nothing unusual in the presentation and that he did not want to get into a discussion of strategy and doctrine in this forum.

He then rose and said he wanted to address those gathered in the Command Center. He noted that it was a unique for him to find himself surrounded by so many U.S. Navy officers and officials. Also, he realized it must be unusual for them to have a Soviet Admiral in their Command Center. He went on to say how impressed he had been with the "alertness and patriotism" he had seen at U.S. military facilities over the past week. At Camp Lejeune and New River, N.C. , the USS Teddy Roosevelt in flight operations off Norfolk, Fort Hood Air Defense command, and Air Force commands in San Antonio, and Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota (a bomber wing and a Minute Man silo). Captain Popov stepped in and assisted me in translating his observations of the aircraft carrier visit. He was throwing out terms that I was unfamiliar with … in Russian (e.g. "cat shots", assisted landings). He was very proud of the fact that he had made a catapult- assisted launch from the Roosevelt.

Interesting that he would note this fact. You see, Admiral Mustin’s grandfather and namesake (Captain Henry C. Mustin, USNA 1896) is considered the Father of Naval Aviation and the principal architect of the concept of the catapult launch aboard aircraft carriers. Obviously Makarov had done his homework. He showed this several times during the day.

Following the Command Center briefing we went to Admiral Mustin’s office for a few minutes to give Makarov a chance to have a smoke. We knew he was a virtual, chain smoker. Unfortunately his lighter would not work and so we sent aides scrambling down the E Ring in search of matches. Hard to find in a Pentagon where smoking was now banned. One of the aides finally found some matches and Makarov lit up one of his favorite Soviet cigarettes while Admiral Mustin explained his family’s naval traditions - from his grandfather, to his father in WWII and now to his sons ….. all through pictures that were hanging in his office. Admiral Makarov was visibly impressed and he noted that he had a son who was following in his footsteps in the Soviet submarine service.

Naval academy visit - We took a short Marine Corps helicopter flight from the Pentagon to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. We were greeted upon arrival by the USNA Superintendent, Rear Admiral Ronald Marryott. We went directly to Admiral Marryott’s office where Makarov was given a short briefing on the Naval Academy’s mission, curricula, student body and facilities. Makarov noted that he was surprised by the sheer size of the campus. Also, that they (the Soviets) did not have one large Naval Academy - rather they had several smaller academies that were spread throughout the Soviet Union.

We then had a brief tour of the USNA Chapel including a visit to the crypt where John Paul Jones is buried. The Academy staff noted that Jones never became an Admiral in the U.S. Navy. He had to go to Russia to receive this honor from Catherine the Great for his service with the Russian Navy in the 18th Century Russo- Turkish war in the Black Sea. As we were leaving the Chapel … Makarov asked me to tell Admiral Marryott that he did not believe in God, but could see where the Chapel was important to instilling discipline in future officers. We then toured major academic buildings to include Michelson Hall (laser and computer labs), and Rickover Hall (naval engineering and ship design). Later, aboard one of the Academy’s training ships (i.e. a small ship known as a "YP" with special control centers to teach ship handling) he seemed "underwhelmed" with what he was seeing. He was, however, caught by surprise at the end of the tour by the Midshipmen when they presented him with an official U.S. Naval Academy bathrobe - with Vice Admiral’s stripes. The tour of the Academy completed with a tour of the Bancroft Hall - the Midshipmen’s dormitory. The largest student dormitory in the world. He was impressed.

Pentagon flag mess luncheon - We returned to the Pentagon before noon by arine helicopter. We were due in the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) Flag Mess at noon…. After a brief meeting with the #2 officer in the Navy staff - Admiral Huntington (Hunt) Hardisty, USN. Hunt and I could hardly believe we were sitting together chatting with the Chief of the Soviet Navy. When we last saw each other … we were both Commanders serving aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in the Tonkin Gulf. When we entered the Flag Mess at noon … the room was filled with Admirals including a Full Admiral (Kinnard McKee) Special Assistant for Nuclear Power programs and seven Vice Admirals who were the Deputy Chiefs of various parts of the Navy Staff - Surface Ships, Aircraft, Submarines, Manpower, Policy, Logistics and yes, even Intelligence. During lunch there were toasts (Orange juice! You could tell we weren’t in Moscow.) and Admiral Hardisty asked me to explain to Admiral Makarov … sitting across from us - that Admiral McKee wore "two hats" - one in the civilian world for Nuclear Power programs and a second, in the Navy - for submarines.

Makarov brushed this aside saying "I know Admiral McKee quite well." They both laughed and then agreed that they probably had met years earlier - while in command of nuclear submarines floating around each other - in the Mediterranean. All laughed. Admiral Hardisty toasted Admiral Makarov’s historic visit and Makarov countered with a toast noting that U.S. and Soviet Navies could pride themselves on the fact that they had never had any serious incidents at sea. That they set an example for the other services for their "direct talks" on "professional matters".

Afterthoughts - I have thought about this day often in the twenty-three years since the Makarov visit. I thought it went quite well. I stood with Admiral Mustin at 2 PM at the Pentagon’s River Entrance as Admiral Makarov’s limousine slowly departed for Andrews Air Force base and the trip home to the USSR. When the car was gone, Mustin said "We made some history here today John. Thank you." I supposed we did, but Admiral Mustin is in a much better position to judge … just what kind of history we made.

For example - In his toast in the CNO Flag Mess on 11 July - Admiral Makarov said the U.S. and Soviet Navies could take pride in the fact that they had never had any serious incidents at sea. What about the reported sinking of the USS Scorpion in May 1968? All I really know about this incident is what I read in two books last year - "Scorpion Down - Sunk By The Soviets, Buried By The Pentagon", by Ed Offley and "All Hands Down: The True Story of the Soviet Attack on USS Scorpion" by Kenneth Sewell. If only I had this information when I walked the corridors of the Pentagon with Admiral Makarov… and Admiral Mustin.

Then again … maybe it is just as well I did not know about it back then? Or its supposed ties to other incidents such as the USS Pueblo seizure and the John Anthony Walker espionage case? Admirals Makarov’s and Mustin’s jobs were to worry about the Incidents and Sea. My job was just to help with the communications. Was this one of the last great secrets of the Cold War? Only time will tell.

Admiral Konstantin Makarov would become a four star Admiral of the Fleet of the USSR - in 1989. One of only 9 Soviets to ever achieve such a prestigious rank. He was a USSR future star - except - the USSR would disappear in just 3 years, 5 months and 14 days (25 December, 1991) from the day of his 1988 historic visit to the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy. Admiral Makarov retired from active duty in 1992 – after 43 years service in the Soviet and Russian Navies.

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