So You Want to Be a Soviet Navy Political Officer
The term “Soviet political officer” aboard a warship during the Cold War conjures up images of an iron-willed dogmatist — in the style of The Hunt for Red October — at odds with the military officers entrusted with running a ship at sea. In reality, the job wasn’t that dramatic, though it was extensive and involved craftiness and prowess in propaganda skills.
That’s according to an overview of the Soviet Navy’s political officers published by the USSR Ministry of Defense which was obtained by the CIA in the 1980s — and which the agency translated, declassified and recently released to the public. It’s all part of a larger document dump of secret Soviet military literature which high-level sources leaked to the agency between the 1960s and 1980s.
The work of Soviet political officers is well-trod ground, but the document is interesting as it describes in detail what the job required — and the role of political officers in the event the Kremlin ordered its ballistic missile submarines to launch nuclear weapons at NATO.
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union considered its political officers — known informally in the West as “commissars” — to fill an essential role within military units and aboard warships.
In practice, this meant maintaining discipline and disseminating propaganda so “that the party has a daily and undivided impact on [sailors] entire life and activity.” In an especially blunt passage, this propagandizing amounted to “instilling personnel with class hatred for the imperialists and all enemies of communism and exposing the reactionary policies of the aggressor.”
The document continues on the political officer’s expected duties:
— indoctrinating servicemen in the following; the ideas of Marxism-Leninism and the spirit of Soviet patriotism; selfless devotion to the socialist homeland, the Communist Party, and the Soviet Government; the indestructible unity and fraternal friendship of the peoples of the USSR; socialist internationalism; faithfulness to the military oath and the Combat Banner of their military unit (the Navy flag); personal responsibility for the defense of the homeland — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; and readiness to give all one’s efforts and, if required, one’s life in its defense;
Keep in mind that the political officer’s work was not limited to preaching to sailors about the virtues of Vladimir Lenin and the Communist Party.
Far from it.
Above — an illustration from ‘Soviet Military Power,’ produced by the Department of Defense. At top — political officer Ivan Putin, played by Peter Firth, in ‘The Hunt for Red October.’ Paramount capture
In Soviet practice, the job included providing sailors with cultural support, looking after their living conditions and welfare, organizing medical treatment for the wounded and sick, and arranging funeral services for fallen servicemen. The job shared many duties with the U.S. military’s sergeant majors and — in the U.S. Navy — command master chief petty officers.
In other words, to be a political officer was to serve as an advocate — of sorts — to sailors by making sure they were “continually provided with everything they need for life and combat” while also functioning as a watchdog in case they fell under the sway of “the enemy’s ideological and psychological influence.”
Not that this differed greatly with the duties of the commanding officer, either, whose duty was to maintain morale and discipline as well. Nevertheless, the role reflected the officer-heavy nature of the Soviet military, and an overriding belief that that the armed forces were inseparable from a state-directed communist ideology operating in a siege mentality.
For that purpose, political officers doubled as counter-intelligence officers on a mission to root out potential spies, and if on land, the job would include disseminating propaganda such as via loudspeakers in occupied areas during a war.
Of particular interest is the political officer’s role in case of nuclear war:
When conducting combat actions with the employment of nuclear weapons, the most important tasks in political work are: ensuring timely and complete implementation of measures to repel an enemy nuclear attack and ensuring the precise execution of the order to deliver our own nuclear strikes and also use the results of such strikes in support of the execution of the combat task; maintaining high morale among personnel; and mobilizing personnel to implement measures in a timely manner to protect themselves against the enemy’s weapons of mass destruction and rapidly restore the combat capability of forces that have been subjected to nuclear strikes.
This makes one wonder what the political officer would have done if a skipper hesitated on giving an order to launch his nuclear weapons. The passage is clear that the political officer’s responsibility is to ensure the attack goes forward.
In reality, however, he still worked closely with and reported to the commander who was “fully responsible” for the operations of his vessel. Suffice to say, a scenario from a military thriller with the “commissar” screaming and pulling a gun on his nervous commander betrays a misunderstanding of the political officer’s duties.
So now that you know what the role of political officer was really about with this handy guide, try it at your workplace, comrade.