New Delhi. Admiral Gorshkov is known as the name of the aircraft carrier that India is acquiring from Russia.
But the legendary Admiral on whom the ship is named, was responsible for transforming the Soviet Navy from a coastal defence force into the world’s second-largest Navy, and a formidable power to project the Soviet might against the US and NATO naval power at the height of the Cold War.
He was clear that the Soviet Union – or Russia – was a maritime nation, and that its future lay in its control of the seas.
The Admiral vigorously assisted the Indian Navy towards becoming a blue water force, and assets built during his time contributed to the success of the Indian Navy in blockading Karachi as well as in effective action against the Pakistani Navy during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
One of the Soviet Union’s, and Russia’s, greatest Admirals, he was a good friend of India in the good old days of Indo-Soviet relations, and visited India a few times.
In the late 1960s, the Indian Navy got what it asked for; Petya class ships, Project 641 (or Foxtrot) Submarines, a submarine tender INS Amba, Osa class missile boats, and a host of associated weapons and P 15 Styx missiles. He helped lay the foundations of the Indian Navy. It is this inventory of ships that helped the Indian Navy to carve out a glorious role for itself in the 1971 war.
Three times during his visits to India, this writer had the privilege of being associated with him, and knowing him first-hand as a warm, good-natured person who made sure that everyone around him was comfortable.
Gorshkov admired how ingeniously the Indian Navy employed the missile boats off Karachi on 4th December 1971.
(In fact, besides the Indian Navy, the Indian Army and Indian Air Force (IAF) also used the Soviet equipment in ways that the Russians themselves had never envisioned. For instance, during the 1971 war, IAF used AN 12 transport aircraft to bomb Pakistani concentrations when they were just about to launch an offensive into Jammu & Kashmir. The IAF surprised the Russians once again when Gp Capt Ashok Goel (later Air Marshal) landed an IL 76 on a small runway of 1700 metres (about 5500 feet) at Thoise (height 3500 metres or 11000 feet) in Jan 1987 to deliver Soviet-supplied BMPs for the Army).
Admiral Gorshkov also agreed to lease a Charlie class nuclear submarine K-43, to India. Named as INS Chakra by the Indian Navy, it arrived in India in 1987, two years after he had retired. The old timers in the Indian Navy still recognize him as the architect who laid the foundations of today’s powerful Indian Navy.
Sergey joined the Soviet Navy in 1931 at the age of 17, and in 1956 at the age of 42 he became its youngest Supreme Commander. It took him just 20 years to turn the Soviet Navy into a formidable around-the-world power, and by 1985 when he retired, the Soviet Union matched the US might with a nuclear missile for every nuclear missile on the other side.
Some CIA experts believed that the Foxtrot submarines that Moscow had deployed off Cuba during the Bay of Pigs crisis in April 1961 carried nuclear missiles, but there is no confirmation.
The Soviet submarines, long-range bombers like the Tu-95 Bear, and other assets kept track of various US Navy Task Forces 24 x 7. There were many close-quarter situations, and the two opponents occasionally nudged each other. Fortunately, no nuclear crisis erupted even after Moscow shot down a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union or when the US tried to send a secret force into Cuba in the so-called Bay of Pigs crisis.
India had taken a principled stand not to join either the US or Soviet camp, but concerned over the massive US and western military aid to Pakistan, it relied on the Soviet Union for defence equipment.
He supported the Indian Navy generously, and established close friendships with Indian Admirals of his time including Admiral S M Nanda, Vice Admiral N Krishnan and Rear Admiral S G Karmarkar who corresponded with him through demi-official letters to cut the bureaucratic red tape. The Soviets supplied equipment against easy credits.
Gorshkov wrote a thesis on Sea Power which was shared with Indian officers, and they read it with admiration.
As I had learnt the Russian language as a cadet at the National Defence Academy (NDA), I was attached as the Flag Lieutenant to Admiral Gorshkov when he visited Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1964. Rear Admiral Karmarkar, who had given me the assignment, asked me to make sure that the visiting dignitary was comfortable.
I remember I made small talk, remained close to Gorshkov throughout his visit carrying his brief case and occasionally offered him refreshments. Every time he met an Indian Admiral, I would say, Eta Admiral Pyot or Eta Admiral Kharasho Pyot, or Eta Admiral Nye Pyot.
Pyot in Russian means drinks, and this updated Gorshkov on the drinking inclinations of his host.
If his host did not drink, after I had told him “Eta Admiral Nye Pyot”, Gorshkov would accordingly ask for Frukti (fruit juice). If I had indicated that his host would drink, Gorshkov replied Krahashaov (very well). He observed the protocol to make his hosts comfortable either way.
Such was the warmth that the Indian Navy had been instructed to offer vodka to the visiting entourage at all times of the day during visits to ships and establishments, and to exchange toasts with “bottoms up” in small goblets as is customary in Russia.
During evening functions, when naval wives were present and the Admirals were out of uniform, I would whisper in Russian and remind him which Admiral he had met earlier and where, and point out which lady was whose wife.
He found it difficult to remember Indian names and distinguish Admirals out of uniform. He confided in me that most looked alike to him, specially the Sikh officers. Nonetheless, he made an effort, and the ladies were particularly impressed he addressed them by their names. Later, he proved that he could recall the faces and names of several Indian officers.
No wonder that when he came to India in 1969, he asked the Naval Headquarters for me by name, to be his Liaison Officer and affectionately called me Sturman, the Russian for a Navigator. He told me to navigate him in various official and social engagements.
This was when he met my newly-married wife, Praveena, who asked him to bring Mrs Gorshkov on his next visit. He agreed if she promised to look after Babushka (grandmother) personally.
So it was in 1976 that Admiral Gorshkov came to India on his third visit, and my name was down for his visit yet again as his escort all over India.
Indeed, he had Mrs Gorshkov with him. As chance had it, my wife became the Lady in Waiting for her as the escort Rear Admiral Narpati Datta’s wife was unable to accompany the delegation.
The Ministry of Defence inquired if Mrs Praveena Rai knew Russian. I honestly informed the then Deputy Chief, the late Rear Admiral Datta, that she did not know Russian. In Nelsonic style, he asked me if she could say Dobri Utro, or Good Morning, in Russian, I said, of course. So he confirmed to the MOD on file, for sanction to travel in the IAF VIP 748 aircraft that Mrs Rai speaks average Russian.
The visit of Admiral and Mrs Gorshkov went off well and he visited Khajuraho, Vishakapatnam, Cochin and Bombay.
There was warmth all through, and of course, more Russian ships, submarines and aircraft joined the Indian fleet in the years to come by.
On his last visit to India in 1984, he visited the Western Fleet off Bombay and witnessed a missile firing. Recognizing me during the event, he hugged me on board INS Rajput, a new Guided Missile ship built to the designs of the Soviet Kashin class Destroyer, and asked: Karahshaov pyot, Sturman?
Or, are you drinking well, Navigator?
The Indian Navy will long remember the Tovarish (Comrade) Admiral who gave India Druzba (Friendship) and introduced missile power into the Indian Navy.
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