BOOK REVIEW – Admiral Gorshkov – The Man Who Challenged the U.S. Navy

Norman Polmar and Thomas A. Brooks, Admiral Gorshkov, The Man Who Challenged U.S.Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019. 264 pp.

Reviewed by Hans Christian Bjerg
Denmark Naval Historian

Today, probably very few are familiar with the armament and the dominant role of the Navy of the Soviet Union during the Cold War over three decades away. In the period of 1970-90, the Soviet Navy was able to challenge the U.S. Navy on the World’s Oceans. In the beginning of the Cold War there was a common sentiment that the Soviet Union was a great land power with a huge army, but that the sea was almost exclusively ruled by the United States and its maritime allies. Yet, from the end of the 1960’s the Western naval analysts observed that the Soviet Navy was beginning to build ever-larger ships. The Western analysts also took note of the fact that Soviet warships began to operate in the Indian Ocean and, from 1986 on, entered formal collaboration with the Indian Navy. From 1968 to 1974 the number of so-called ship-days of Soviet warships increased yearly in the Indian Ocean from 1,200 to 10,500.

Nevertheless, it came as a shock for the Western powers when the Soviet Navy in 1970 produced a global naval exercise called OKEAN-70. The exercise took place on the most of the world’s oceans and consisted of 84 surface warships, more than 80 submarines (including 15 with nuclear propulsion), and 45 auxiliary ships. Several hundred land-based air craft participated as well. It is still the largest accumulation of warships in peace-time ever!

The man who stood behind the increased armament of the Soviet Navy and the exercise OKEAN-70 was Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov (1910-1988). He was Commander in Chief of the Soviet Navy for nearly three decades, 1956-1985, and is an example of how a single character through will and ideas can turn the wheel of the history.

Whole libraries of books and articles have been published about the armament of the Soviet Navy during the Cold War and the influence of Goshkov upon it. Now, here in this publication about the Admiral is a book that both tells the story of Gorshkov but also gives an excellent survey over the history and development of the Russian and the Soviet Navy from the beginning of the 20th Century until now. The team of authors are probably the most capable in the West to produce such a book. The naval analyst and prolific author Norman Polmar has, together with Rear Admiral Thomas A. Brooks, earlier published books about this subject. An expert in Russian conditions, George B. Fedoroff has contributed heavily to the team.  This is certainly a strong team to write a book like this.

The reasons to publish a new book about Gorshkov lies in the fact that several new books with new details and information  about Gorshkov and the Soviet Navy under his command have been published in Russia. Therefore, an updated book about this subject was absolutely necessary.

Admiral of the Fleet Sergei G. Gorshkov was born in 1910 and became a naval officer in 1931. He became known early for his remarkable duty as Captain, and was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1941 at the age of 30. Of course the many purges in the Soviet Union and among its naval leaders  gave Gorshkov, who escaped these purges, numerous opportunities for further promotions. 

After the death of Stalin in 1953 Gorshkov was promoted to admiral, and later in 1956 he became the commander-in-chief of the Soviet Navy, nominated by Nikita Krushchev, the new leader in the Kremlin.

A fascinating point in the book is that in addition to a presentation of Gorshkov as a human, is the presentation of the history and development of the naval strategy of the Soviet Union since the Revolution and up to today. The book also explain the transition from the Soviet Navy to the contemporary Russian Navy and its position in the Putin System.

According to the description of the book, the Soviet sea strategy over time changed  from a ‘Blue Water School’ to la jeune école, here labelled as the ‘Young School.’ Just after the Revolution the new regime  outdistanced the concept of a Great Power Fleet. The new Red Navy was a defensive one, whose only purpose was to support the Red Army in its ’maritime flanks’. As a consequence of the dislike of the Czar-Navy, the internationally-based naval ranks were abandoned. The rank of Admiral was, together with the other normal naval ranks, reintroduced in the Red Navy in 1940.

After Stalin took chair in 1924 he created new naval plans in order to establish a Great Power Fleet following the concept of the Blue Water School consisting of battle Ships and cruisers. The war stopped these plans, but they were reconstituted after 1945.

However, the building of a Blue Water School Navy came to an abrupt end when Nikita Krushchev took over in 1953. In his point of view the navies of the future consisted only of submarines supported by missiles.  The building of large ships was cancelled, and he ordered Gorshkov to realize his type of a navy. But Krushchev made a mistake here. In the long run it was not Gorshkov’s intention to follow the ideas of Krushchev. In the beginning Gorshkov merely pretended to obey orders and follow Kruschev’s dictates.

The first opportunity to try to change course came out of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. For Krushchev the course of the crisis was a fiasco, especially concerning his concepts of military strategy. It was obvious that the Soviet Navy in no way was able to support and secure an initiative like the Cuban adventure. The way ahead was to build a ocean-going fleet which at least could result in a kind of respect from the US. Gorshkov used the fiasco to ”sell” the Navy to the politicians and the Soviet people. After the fall of Krushchev in 1964, Gorshkov could take the next step to an oceangoing fleet. Several big surface warships were put in order, and at the same time he improved the organisation of the Navy overall. His intention seemed very clear. In 1968 Gorshkov was quoted in Time Magazine for the statement, that ”sooner or later, the U.S. will have to understand that it no longer has mastery of the seas”.

OKEAN-70 was the first proof on this endeavor. In the West, leaders and admirals were convinced  that the navy of the Soviet Union was a substantial power in the Cold War. This acknowledgement produced comprehensive  considerations of an alarmist nature in form of studies, books, and articles. The mentions in the Western media undoubtedly helped Gorshkov  to create a better platform in the Soviet Union for the navy. Apparently the Western powers were very serious and worried about the Soviet naval power.

Of note, Gorshkov, besides his remarkable efforts to create a big navy, was also a voluminous  writer about naval history and the concept of sea power. In 1972 he published a series of articles in which he described in a very original way naval history through ages. The articles were published in the U.S.N.I. Proceedings with comments given by several American admirals. His main contribution was ”The Seapower of the State” from 1976.

It is fair to mention Gorshkov together with Mahan and Corbett – yet the present book says he was neither a historian or a theorist. It is more correct to compare Goshkov with von Tirpitz and  John Fisher who both established big navies and at the same time formulated  the conditions and purposes of these navies. According to the present book, Gorshkov created a independent frame of purpose for the navy, here called ’the Soviet Model of Sea Power,’ which was based both on Mahan, Corbett and la jeune école. Some have considered this model as a way to integrate the Western concept of sea power with the ideology of communism. Gorshkov’s navy was to a great extent a ’balanced fleet’, an expression he often used by himself.

Gorshkov’s comprehensive work of writings was produced together with his full time job as C-in-C of the Soviet Navy. Therefore, his authorship regarding publications in his name has been discussed. Of course he had assistants, but he was more than merely an editor.

The length of his duty as C-in-C (1956-85) is impressive and is without any other examples in naval history as such. He was allowed to continue in his position after he had passed the normal age for retirement, but was sacked in December 1985, a short time before he reached a tenure of three decades. We do not known the explanation for this,  but at that time Gorshkov was yet again asking for more money to the fleet. Perhaps the political leaders were tired of his remaining claims. He died in 1988.

The climax of his work was reached when the Soviet Union, in the beginning of the 1980’s, began to build aircraft carriers. This was truly an indication of an oceangoing fleet.

The present book about Gorshkov is highly recommended to all who want to know more or to study the development of the Soviet and the Russian Navy. The book is also an invitation to become acquainted with the writings of this legendary admiral.   

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