Sadly, we never got farther than this. The client passed away unexpectedly. This was shaping up to be a great story, full of lots of interesting detail!
Commodore MN Nair was a seasoned submariner; an admiral in the making. He had done his submarine training in Riga, the capital of Latvia, where in the 1960s Russia had established an academy for their Communist allies like Poland and Vietnam, and friendly countries, including Libya, India, and Syria. Known as the Baltic Naval Military Institute “Admiral Fyodor Ushakov”, the academy’s courses were both practical and rigorous. The first six months were spent on intensive Russian language studies. Only those candidates that passed the language course moved on to submarine training.
The Institute was well-designed, with the academic complex and amenities contained within a six-story building. There was a mess for bachelor officers and sailors, where food from their home countries was specially prepared. The married officers and their families, along with bachelor officers, were housed within the complex, but sailors shared separate dormitories, as their families were not allowed on deputation. Even some of the Russian instructors and their families lived in the complex. It was a tidy, compact, little international community.
Nair was proud to have been part of this community, for it taught him valuable skills that he would draw upon throughout his career. At first the Russian training methods had seemed harsh and unreasonable because they were entirely different than the training modules of the Indian Navy. For example, the Russian submarines employed the user/maintainer concept, which meant that each submariner learned how to maintain the equipment he used, unlike the Indian system, which separated the jobs. Nair recognized that the training was very systematic and well-planned. At the end of every day, each sailor was required to put all their study materials in a chamadan (bag), which was sealed and stored in a safe. Not a single pen or piece of paper could leave the study hall. The next morning each man would sign in and receive his chamadan for the day. Nair credited this rigorous system of discipline for developing his ability to quickly memorize data. His self-assurance in memorizing and synthesizing data boosted his approval ratings with his superiors, especially when he earned the rank of Captain on his first attempt. Thereafter he moved quickly through the ranks, and by 1990 he was the commanding officer of COMSUB WEST, with the privilege of commissioning a new vessel, S-13, that year.
Settled in the tower of S-8, Commodore Nair reviewed the orders he had just received. It was a combat mission. Finally, after all the years of preparation and military exercises, his skills would be put to the test. No more “what if” scenarios; this was the real deal. He embraced the opportunity with open arms.
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Squadron commander and senior officer of the six submarines taking part in the operation, Commander Sam was the commanding officer of S-9, INS Sindhudhavj. Sam was commissioned January 1, 1985 and joined submarines in 1987. He had heard much talk about Riga from his superiors, and felt lucky to be in command of the EKM sub S-9 when it was sent to Latvia in 1996 for retrofitting of Klub missiles. Sam attended a Russian language course in Mumbai prior to the start of the retrofit mission, and he hoped to represent his country well when interacting with his counterparts in Riga.
Sam was not sure what to expect from his mission, but he was already enthralled by the ancient city before he even stepped foot on shore. More than 800 years old, Riga huddles on the edge of the Baltic Sea, and is dissected by the River Daugava, which separates the city into two parts: Vecriga (Old Riga) and Pardaugava. The city is connected by four bridges, which accommodate both railway and road traffic. A blend of the modern and the medieval, Sam found himself captivated by the narrow cobblestone streets in the old city. It was so different from where he was raised. India was teeming with people, awash with the bright colors, sounds, smells, and sights of the busy markets. The old part of Riga was much slower, more stately; faded and timeworn. As he stood in front of the famous Latvian National Opera, Sam felt as though he were looking through a dusty glass back in time, and experienced some slight nostalgia for a world he would never know. He felt remorse as he observed the Salaspils Memorial, dedicated to the thousands who died at the hands of the Germans during World War II. Sam met a few of the survivors and veterans, many of whom had been permanently altered both mentally and physically, as a result of the torture they had endured. Their images stayed with Sam long after the encounters were concluded.
But despite its quaint old city, Riga was not locked into the past. After seven centuries of domination by alien countries, the Republic of Latvia declared its independence in 1991. Prior to independence, Latvia had been usurped into the erstwhile USSR. The Latvian people never liked the Russians and spent 70 years grumbling under their collective breath, while fear of the iron fist of Communism prevented them from speaking aloud. Once independence was gained, theaters and traditional music and shows entertained eager crowds. Ice hockey became a huge draw for both locals and tourists. Night life returned to the cities.
Sam was an easy-going fellow, and he effortlessly made friends with many of the Russian submarine officers. On weekends he would fish with them in the Daugava, and drink strong Russian vodka while their catch cooked in the smoker. Not enjoying the smell of the raw fish, Sam always brought some turmeric, vinegar, and chili powder to season the filets, introducing his Russian friends to some traditional Indian flavors. They, in turn, introduced him to old-style home-brewed vodka. Although President Gorbachev had tried to curtail the menace of alcoholism afflicting his countrymen, the practice of home brewing flourished on farms throughout the land, and the officers were happy to share the potent brews lovingly distilled by their grannies.
Sam enjoyed going out in the evening, and he favored the Vino Bar, a dive situated in a cellar previously used by the Germans to confine prisoners. The Vino Bar served only wine; and the DJ played classic British and American bands like the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, The Doors, etc. Sam found that he enjoyed dancing, and there were plenty of local girls who would come in to sip wine and forget for a while that they were living under Soviet control. The Latvian girls were beautiful, most of them being tall and fair, with the classic European complexion. It seemed to Sam that they were all pleasant mannered and graceful in their colorful traditional dress. Once again Sam considered himself lucky to be there, experiencing a life that was as different from his own as anything he could imagine.
During the month of August, Sam and his fellow officers were given an opportunity to travel by train to St. Petersburg. Lt. Rajesh, the navigations officer, was Sam’s companion, and they had a great time sightseeing in the noble city, taking in the imperial palaces of Catherine, Peter the Great, Alexander, and the Pavlovsk, which contained the domed palace of the Emperor Paul. These architectural wonders were impressive beyond measure, but Sam found himself mesmerized by the English-style park at Pavlovsk. The huge variety of plants and flowers, the expansive green lawns, and the cascading fountains filled him with wonder. It was like Paradise; he had never seen such a beautiful, magical garden.