Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

Cuban Missile Crisis: Soviet Submarines Attack?

By LtCol Brent Stricker

“It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity is inherently DANGEROUS. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.” –Jeffrey Pelt, The Hunt for the Red October


The lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis remain relevant today when nuclear powers struggle in crisis and do their best to avoid escalating to conflict. As a prime example, the Russia-Ukraine War has similar parallels to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States objected to Soviet missiles in Cuba seeing them as a direct threat to the United States and the Western Hemisphere. Russian President Vladimir Putin provided NATO expansion and “military development of the territories of Ukraine” as a similar existential threat to Russia justifying the invasion of Ukraine. A review of the confrontation between the navies of the Soviet Union and the United States during the crisis may inform the Western powers supporting Ukraine in its current defense against Russia.

Soviet Submarines Bound for Cuba

In addition to its missiles and bombers, the Soviet Union intended to establish a naval base in Cuba. A submarine flotilla was dispatched before the crisis began. Ryurik A. Ketov, the commander of one of these submarines, wrote of his experiences during the crisis. The Soviet Navy made a critical error in sending Foxtrot class diesel submarines to Cuba as these boats were designed for northern latitudes and were required to run on the surface or snorkel to recharge their batteries. Oddly, the Soviet leadership in Moscow seemed unaware that diesel boats, and not nuclear powered submarines which could make the entire trip submerged, were being sent to Cuba. This would lead to confrontations with the U.S. Navy who attempted to force these boats to surface.

To make this confrontation more dangerous, the submarines were each armed with one nuclear tipped torpedo. The Americans were unaware of this, and mistakenly assumed as the Soviet submarines were identified as Foxtrots that they did not have nuclear weapons. The torpedoes also required the voyage be covert, with the boats expected to stay undetected.

The torpedoes were a last-minute addition to the voyage added a week before. The torpedoes were each guarded by a designated officer who slept by it. They were not fully combat ready. The designated officer would prepare the weapon for use and was the only one carrying the keys to load the torpedo. The boat captains were provided vague instructions for the use of the nuclear torpedoes.

As Captain Ryurik Ketov recalled:

“Vice-Admiral A.I. Rassokha He said, ‘Write down when you should use these. . . . In three cases. First, if you get a hole under the water. A hole in your hull. This is the first case. Second, a hole above the water. If you have to come to the surface, and they shoot at you, and you get a hole in your hull. And the third case – when Moscow orders you to use these weapons’. These were our instructions. And then he added, ‘I suggest to you, commanders, that you use the nuclear weapons first, and then you will figure out what to do after that.’”

The crisis began while the flotilla was underway. The Soviet crews were able to monitor U.S. radio broadcasts to keep current with the emerging events. This was how they first learned of Soviet missiles in Cuba and the quarantine to be imposed on Cuba. 

As the flotilla headed south toward the quarantine line, conditions aboard the boats began to deteriorate. The internal temperature of the boats rose. The Foxtrots were designed to operate in northern latitudes and began to experience difficulty as they approached the Caribbean. Captain Ketov noted, “there was an insufficient supply of fresh water for the crew, no air conditioning in the compartments – which would otherwise have facilitated the smooth operation of the boat’s machinery – and most importantly, no one had experience in servicing equipment under such high temperatures.” This became worse as the boats tried to avoid U.S. Navy anti-submarine (ASW) patrols forcing the boats to attempt to recharge using snorkels which were unable to vent the boats with fresh air.

The Kennedy administration was anxious to avoid a misunderstanding when confronting Soviet ships, particularly submarines. Defense Secretary McNamara had the U.S. Navy developing a system to signal the submarines. These signal instructions were provided to the Soviets in a Notice to Mariners (NOTMAR). The surface ships would drop practice depth charges (PDCs) above a submarine and transmit the signal to surface. Submarines were expected to surface with a bearing to the east. The NOTMAR stated the signaling devices were not harmful. The Soviet captains never received the NOTMAR.

The flotilla was soon closing with the U.S. Navy ASW forces. The U.S. Navy was broadcasting in the clear, and at first the Soviets were suspicious. Captain Ketov wrote, “We started to listen to US radio stations, and compared their announcements with US ASW communique´s, as well as with messages from home, we came to believe that these transmissions could be taken into account to determine where and when the ASW ships and planes would be located.” The U.S. Navy was able to locate and track three of the four submarines. When located, PDCs were dropped on the submarines which the Soviets perceived as attacks.

The Soviet crews found themselves in a physically stressful and dangerously perceived environment. They could not know if a war had begun, and the constant explosions and heat were taking their toll. Captain Ketov noted, “My men began fainting from heat stroke, and the increase in humidity started to affect the operating condition of the equipment. The average air temperature inside the submarine rose to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, and up to 144–149 degrees in the engine compartment.” They each had a nuclear torpedo, but no specific instructions on when or if they could use it.

This situation nearly came to a head during the efforts to force the B-59 under Captain Savitsky with flotilla commander Captain Arkhipov aboard. The U.S.S. Beale encountered the submarine at 4:49 p.m. on 29 October 1962 and spent the next four hours signaling her with PDCs and hand grenades. Captain Savitsky was heard to say, “‘Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing summersaults here’ Political Officer Valentin Grigorievich, screamed “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.’” The nuclear torpedo was not assembled—otherwise flotilla commander Captain Arkhipov might not have been able to convince Savitsky to not fire on the Beale.

The B-59 was eventually forced to surface at 8:59 p.m. due to its low battery levels. The Soviet crew was greeted by a ship’s band playing jazz. This surreal situation might have fit into a scene from Dr. Strangelove.

The B-59 was the closest the crisis came to a nuclear exchange. While the Kennedy administration had attempted to mitigate this with the NOTMAR, the confused situation aboard the submarines and the perceived threat of armed conflict at any moment made war very risky. On the Soviet side, “at least some officers in the Soviet military command thought that it would have been better if the submarines used their weapons rather than allow the US forces to force them to the surface.” The Soviet captains insisted they were never forced by U.S. Navy ASW efforts to surface; their drained batteries required it.


Uncertainty and confusion amongst the Soviet Captains concerning the ASW activities by the U.S. Navy could have led to a nuclear confrontation. Despite the precautions of the NOTMAR to the Soviet Union, this message was never transmitted through bureaucratic channels to submarine commanders. Vague orders on the use of nuclear tipped torpedoes and the heat and confusion might have caused a local commander to launch these weapons, dragging two nuclear powers into an escalating exchange both desperately wanted to avoid.

This potentially escalatory exchange at a pivotal moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis offers a cautionary tale for the continuing conflict in Ukraine. The availability and usability of bureaucratic channels, for example, seems an important starting point not only to ensure messages are received but that communication can even take place. And while uncertainty and confusion were potentially unavoidable in the Cuban Missile Crisis’ near-nuclear exchange, the Kennedy administration’s anxiety to avoid a misunderstanding when confronting Soviet ships might still hold implications for Western powers in their support of Ukraine in the current conflict there.

LtCol Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as a military professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Soviet submarine B-59, forced to the surface by U.S. Naval forces in the Caribbean near Cuba. (Credit: U.S. National Archives)

Defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis: Naval Quarantine as Strategic De-escalation

By LtCol Brent Stricker

“I thought of the many times that I had hear the military take positions which, if wrong, had the advantage that no one would be around at the end to know.” –Robert F. Kennedy, October 19, 1962.1


The Cuban Missile Crisis has lessons each generation should study, such as the danger of nuclear powers struggling from competition to potential conflict. The upcoming 60th Anniversary is an important occasion to review what happened when the Soviet Union and the United States nearly stumbled into nuclear war. The Russia-Ukraine war has a similar parallel with Western powers providing weapons for Ukraine’s defense, particularly since their justifications are identical to those made by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for sending weapons to Cuba.

President Kennedy’s actions during the crisis, however, were informed by reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August where European powers were seemingly unable to find anything but a military solution to avoid the First World War. President’s Kennedy’s own advisors urged the same offensive military option against Cuba. This article will explore the Crisis, the search for options to avoid confrontation, the legality of the quarantine, and lessons for rules of engagement for the armed forces when trying to deter and de-escalate during a crisis.


The Cuban Missile Crisis began at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, October 16, 1962, when President Kennedy called his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to come to the White House. The Crisis would last for the next 13 Days. Reconnaissance aircraft had photographed Soviet installations under construction since the summer of 1962 to house medium-range ballistic missiles with a range of one thousand nautical miles. The Soviets were also deploying bombers to Cuba. Robert Kennedy later noted in his biography of this period, “[T]he Russians, under the guise of a fishing village, were constructing a large naval shipyard and a base for submarines.”2 The Soviet Union was attempting to establish all three branches of the nuclear triad in Cuba: land-based missiles, bombers, and nuclear ballistic missile submarines.

This foreign military presence challenged nearly two centuries of United States dominance of the Western Hemisphere to the exclusion of other Eastern Hemisphere powers as evidenced by the Monroe Doctrine, the 1939 Panama Declaration, and the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. Despite Soviet peaceful protestations of seeking to provide aid to the Cuban people, these weapons would threaten the territorial integrity of all nations within their range. Placing them in Cuba allowed the Soviets to bypass early warning systems which were directed north since a Soviet nuclear attack was expected to come over the Arctic.

Cuba becoming a flashpoint for a nuclear war is even more telling considering its recent history. A revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro had swept the previous Cuban dictator from power in January 1959. The revolutionary leader’s decision to nationalize all American property in Cuba in August 1960 was a turning point in U.S.-Cuba relations. The outgoing Eisenhower administration tried economic sanctions, but ultimately severed diplomatic relations with Cuba. A failed invasion by Cuban exiles, planned under the Eisenhower Administration and executed under the new Kennedy administration, left the question of Cuban territorial integrity unanswered. In a bi-polar world, Cuba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance.

EXCOMM: Delay a Decision

The Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) assembled on the morning of October 16, 1962 to discuss options. The initial reaction was to see the threat and attack. An attack by the United States targeting Soviet troops and equipment in Cuba would likely lead to a similar retaliation by the Soviet Union. Inevitable escalation would result and two nuclear powers and their contending defensive pacts would likely be in a nuclear war.

Faced with a lack of options, the President withdrew from EXCOMM, leaving it to find another solution. This delayed the decision of whether to attack. It is likely practical considerations that delayed the order of air strikes since there could be no guarantee of destroying all of the missile sites.

Intelligence indicated that in addition to the material in Cuba, Soviet shipping was underway with more offensive weapons. This raised the option of imposing a naval blockade or quarantine on Cuba. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued a “quarantine would convey to Khrushchev the determination of the President to see those missiles were removed, without stimulating a military response.” The President decided to impose the quarantine, after a delay of three days, on the afternoon of October 21.

President’s Speech

President Kennedy met with Congressional leaders on Monday, October 22, 1962. The Congressional leadership had much the same reaction as EXCOMM thinking only of attack or “at least something stronger than a blockade.”3 The President noted that attack would lead to reprisal, and he would not take that chance until he exhausted all other options.4

President Kennedy addressed the nation, explaining the threat the missiles posed: “Each of these missiles is capable of striking Washington D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area.”5 President Kennedy explained that a quarantine would stop all shipping bound for Cuba for inspection, regardless of flag state or port of origin. Any containing “offensive weapons” would be turned away. The quarantine label was benign, as blockades are acts of war. Kennedy also compared the quarantine to the Soviets’ 1948 Berlin Blockade with the notable exception that the quarantine would not deny Cubans the “necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do” in 1948.

President Kennedy framed the issue as a regional problem, rather than a dispute solely with Cuba or the Soviet Union. He called for the matter to be put before the Organization of American States (OAS), reasserting the two centuries of Western independence to exclude Eastern Hemispheric powers noting, “The United Nations Charter allows for regional security arrangements—and the nations of this Hemisphere decided long ago against the military presence of outside powers.” He also warned of a retaliatory response for offensive action by the Soviet Union from Cuba stating, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

The following day, the OAS Organ of Consultation met and voted unanimously—save Cuba which had been expelled—a resolution for its members to “’take all measures, individually and collectively including the use of armed force’” to stop the transport of additional offensive weapons into Cuba.

Legality of Quarantine

The quarantine should be viewed as a collective act of self-defense. War is prohibited by Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter. Article 51 of the UN Charter authorizes member states to act in self-defense, but requires notification to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for resolution. In all other instances, only the UNSC can authorize the use of force. Of course, in a conflict between permanent members of the UNSC (Soviet Union-United States) the veto power would prohibit the UNSC from resolving the crisis.

The Kennedy administration made use of Article 52 of the UN Charter and its provisions for regional agreements to bypass this roadblock. As noted in the President’s speech, the OAS acted as a regional body with a resolution calling for the dismantling and withdrawal of missiles from Cuba. The Kennedy administration argued that the quarantine did not require UNSC authorization because under Article 53(1) the resolution recommended removal and armed force was not necessarily required to effect this removal.

When acting in self-defense jus ad bellum, one must consider the Caroline Standard. The “necessity of self-defense, [must be] instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.” As the President noted, “Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may be regarded as a definite threat to peace.” If the missiles were launched, there would be little warning and no defense. The demand for their removal and a quarantine to prevent further importation of offensive weapons was a reasonable response.

The Presidential proclamation created the quarantine zone which consisted of two parts: a five-hundred-mile circle centered on Havana in the west and a five-hundred-mile circle centered around eastern Cuba. The quarantine zone did not close these areas to shipping, it merely prohibited the transport of certain offensive weapons. These were “surface-to-surface missiles; bomber aircraft; bombs, air-to-surface rockets and guided missiles; mechanical or electronic equipment to support or operate the above items; and any other classes of material hereafter designated by the Secretary of Defense.”

The quarantine may be considered similar to the law of contraband where shipping is stopped for inspection to determine if it is carrying goods for a belligerent, typically weapons. This process may also be referred to as a warship’s right to visit and search. Armed force was not required to enforce the quarantine. This measured response was reasonable. If the quarantine was resisted, force could be used.

The Kennedy administration took measures to ensure any use of force would be proportionate to the resistance faced. Ships would be signaled by radio and semaphore informing them of the quarantine and to heave to for inspection. If a ship attempted to avoid inspection, its steering and propulsion would be shot at to disable the ship. It would then be towed to a port for inspection.6

This use of force meets the proportionality requirement of jus ad bellum. A state may only use the limited, reasonable, and minimum amount of force against an aggressor.7 The quarantine had clearly stated objectives, occurred on the high seas so as not to interfere with Cuba’s territorial integrity, interfered with free navigation to the minimum amount required, and its effects could be reversed at any time.8 Most telling is that the Kennedy administration clearly stated there was no intention to go to war.9

The legality of the quarantine was of great importance to the Kennedy administration. As Robert Kennedy wrote, “It was the vote of the Organization of American States that gave legal basis for the quarantine. [It] changed our position from that of an outlaw acting in violation of international law into a country acting in accordance with twenty allies legally protecting their position.”10

“Quarantine” Not Blockade: Strategic De-escalation

The quarantine went into effect on Wednesday, Oct 24, 1962 and would remain in place until the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles and offensive weapons on Sunday, October 28, 1962.11 As noted above, the Kennedy Administration was keen to avoid any military escalation or misunderstanding by excessive use of force. Any use of force would be limited to the threat faced.12

The first ship to be contacted by the U.S. Navy was chosen specifically by the President. At 7 a.m. on Friday, October 26, the U.S. Navy boarded the Marucla, a Panamanian-owned, Lebanon registered ship chartered by the Soviet Union. It was intercepted by two destroyers USS John Pierce and USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.13 This ship was chosen because ”[President Kennedy] was demonstrating to Khrushchev that we were going to enforce the quarantine and yet, because it was not a Soviet-owned vessel, it did not represent a direct affront to the Soviets, requiring a response from them.”14 Marrucla was inspected and cleared.15

The first contact with Soviet ships was expected on Saturday, October 27. Two Soviet ships, the Gagarin and Komiles, were the first freighters. A Soviet submarine positioned itself between the U.S. Navy and the two Soviet freighters. The carrier USS Essex was sent to dispatch anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters to signal the submarine with sonar and point defense cannon (PDC) to order it to surface and identify itself. Before this happened, 20 Soviet ships near the quarantine line stopped or reversed course at 10:32 a.m. President Kennedy called off the Essex in response.16 No Soviet ships were to be stopped that day.

The Kennedy administration considered other options to pressure the Soviets and Cubans if the quarantine failed to produce results. This included the first suggested option of attack and full invasion of Cuba. President Kennedy was reluctant to pursue this option. There was serious consideration of expanding the list of prohibited items beyond offensive weapons to include petroleum imports to Cuba. It was hoped that this deliberate escalation would have an impact on the Cuban economy.17


Directing EXCOMM to find other options than attack and the Soviet pause by stopping or turning its ships around bought time for the two leaders to discuss a resolution to the crisis. On October 26, Krushchev sent a letter to Kennedy which took three hours to transmit. Its tone signaled a change from previous exchanges, with Khrushchev writing that he had been in two wars and “[I] knew that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.”18

Krushchev argued that the Soviet forces and weapons in Cuba were defensive and meant to prevent an American-led or supported invasion of Cuba.19 Krushchev proposed what would be the first part of the resolution, “[The President should] declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its forces and will not support any forces which might intend to carry out an invasion of Cuba.”20

While EXCOMM was considering this message, a second letter was received on October 27. Khrushchev added an additional demand that the U.S. remove nuclear missiles based in Turkey. Khrushchev compared the threat to the U.S. of missiles in Cuba as similar to threat of missiles in Turkey toward the Soviet Union. He wrote, “But how can we, the Soviet Union and our government, assess your actions which, in effect, mean that you have surrounded the Soviet Union with military bases, surrounded our allies with military bases, set up military bases literally around our country, and stationed your rocket weapons at them?”21 Khrushchev proposed now that the U.S. withdraw its missiles from Turkey, the Soviet Union would do the same for Cuba, and the Soviet Union would declare it would not violate the territorial integrity of Turkey while the U.S. made the same declaration for Cuba.22

The U.S. chose to respond only to the October 26 letter: “EXCOMM decided to respond to the former message and ignore the latter, agreeing to refrain from invading Cuba but not promising to remove the Jupiters from Turkey.”23 The terms of the resolution were thus set.24 Krushchev agreed to the American proposal on October 28.25 He did not mention the missiles in Turkey in his response.26


The crisis was resolved and it was clear that neither side wished to use force knowing the demand for escalating retaliation would be strong. The Kennedy Administration succeeded by not making a decision and allowing EXCOMM to find another option. The quarantine, a euphemism for blockade, drew a line on a map directly signaling to the Soviets that crossing that line and not submitting to inspection would be met with force. The decision to stop and turn the Soviet freighters was a signal for negotiation.

“The evidence to date indicates that all known offensive missile sites in Cuba have been dismantled. The missiles and their associated equipment have been loaded on Soviet ships. And our inspection at sea of these departing ships have confirmed that the number of missiles reported by the Soviet Union as having been brought into Cuba, which closely corresponded to our own information, has now been removed. The Soviet Government has stated that all nuclear weapons have been withdrawn from Cuba and no offensive weapons will be reintroduced.”–President Kennedy’s Statement on Cuba. November 20, 1962.

LtCol Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as a military professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.


1. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 48 (1969).

2. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 25 (1969).

3. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 54 (1969).

4. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 54 (1969).

5. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 163 (1969).

6. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 67 (1969).

7. Lois E. Fielding, Maritime Interception: Centerpiece of Economic Sanctions in the New World Order, 53 LA. L. REV. 1191, 1209-10 (1993). Thomas M. Franck, Proportionality in International Law, 4 L. & Ethics HUM. Rts. 229 (2010).

8. Lois E. Fielding, Maritime Interception: Centerpiece of Economic Sanctions in the New World Order, 53 LA. L. REV. 1191, 1209-10 (1993); Myres S. McDougal, “The Soviet-Cuban Quarantine and Self-Defense” The American Journal of International Law, Jul., 1963, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), pp. 597-604, 602.

9. Lois E. Fielding, Maritime Interception: Centerpiece of Economic Sanctions in the New World Order, 53 LA. L. REV. 1191, 1210 (1993);

10. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 121 (1969).

11. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 67 and 110 (1969).

12. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 67 (1969).

13. The later ship was named for President Kennedy’s older brother who was killed in World War II. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 82 (1969).

14. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 82 (1969).

15. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 82 (1969).

16. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 69-71 (1969).

17. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 207-08 (1996).

18. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 209 (1996).

19. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 209 (1996).

20. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 209 (1996).

21. “You are worried over Cuba. You say that it worries you because it lies at a distance of ninety miles across the sea from the shores of the United States. However, Turkey lies next to us. Do you believe that you have the right to demand security for your country, and the removal of such weapons that you qualify as offensive, while not recognizing this right for us?” Second Letter from Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy October 26, 1962. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 197-98 (1969).

22. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 197 (1969).

23. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 197 (1969). President Kennedy sent his brother to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on the night of Saturday, October 27, 1962 to explain the U.S. would agree to pledge not to invade Cuba and to remove missiles from Turkey. Removing missiles from Turkey could not be made public as this might weaken NATO Allies confidence in American commitment to their defense. Fred Kaplan “The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War” 73-74 (2020).

24. Kennedy’s October 27 Letter to Krushchev: “As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals … are as follows: (1) You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision, and undertake, with suitable safeguards, to halt the further introduction of such weapons systems into Cuba. (2) We, on our part, would agree — upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations—to ensure the carrying out and continuation of those commitments (a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect and (b) to give assurances against the invasion of Cuba.” Robert Smith Thompson “The Missiles of October: The Declassified Story of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis” 335 (1992).

25. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 228 (1996).

26. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 228 (1996).

Featured Image: A U.S. Navy Lockheed SP-2H Neptune (BuNo 140986) of patrol squadron VP-18 Flying Phantoms flying over a Soviet freighter. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Vice Admiral Vasili Arkhipov on Soviet Submarine Operations During the Cuban Missile Crisis

The following translation was conducted by Svetlana Savranskaya for the National Security Archive and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

Presentation at the Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 14, 1997, Moscow. Source: Kirov Naval Academy (National Naval Academy, Baku) website.

By Vice-Admiral Vasili Arkhipov

Before this conference, there has been a lot written, even though in a veiled form, about the Caribbean crisis. [It was published] in mass media, covered in conferences, symposia, roundtables with participation of representatives from all three sides. However, the first time we were informed about the actions of the submarines of the 69th brigade of the Northern Fleet in the operation codenamed “Kama,” it was in the “democratic” newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in the middle of 1995, under the odious title “In Case of Ambush—Use Nuclear Weapons.” It was written with the goal—as fashionable at the time as it was vile—to denigrate and defame prominent Soviet military and naval leaders, such as Grechko, Gorshkov, Vershinin, Fokin, Rassokho, and of course, to kick the CC CPSU. The article was part of the plan to destroy the Soviet Armed Forces.

Meanwhile, among the forces engaged in Operation Anadyr, the submarines were in the most critical conditions, closest to using their weapons. Their experience is very instructive and has been critically analyzed by the Navy. Here is [an account of] how they acted.

Submarines B-4, B-36, B-59 and B-130 were given the task to sail secretly from the base to the Cuban port of Mariel. The problem was that the speed of movement was set at twice the one that would allow the subs to travel secretly (in practice, to travel secretly, the diesel submarine could only be at the surface for about 1% of its overall time at sea). On the night of 01.10.1962, the submarines left the Kola Bay with the interval of 30 minutes and started their journey.

During the transit to the Bahamas, there were three most dangerous anti-submarine barriers in terms of the likelihood of being discovered: on the border between the Barents and the Norwegian seas between Medvezhii Island and Nordkap; between Iceland and Faroe and Scottish Islands; and between Newfoundland and the Azores.

During the transit, the weather and visibility generally were conducive to keeping the secrecy—stormy weather, low clouds, low visibility, snow squalls, rain.

The first two barriers exhibited ordinary levels of anti-submarine activity, and the subs crossed them undiscovered.

On the third barrier, which was least studied by our side in terms of its equipment and presence of anti-submarine forces, we observed an elevated level of activity of anti-submarine aircraft radiolocation stations working in a short-interval regime. During crossing of that barrier, on October 18, radio intelligence unit on B-59 intercepted a message from a French radio station informing some correspondents that Soviet submarines entered the Atlantic and were now traveling to the American shores. How they discovered the submarine (or submarines) is hard to say.

American sources say nothing about it either. However, one can say with high confidence that the submarine was not discovered with aircraft radar.

Meanwhile, the U.S. President announced the blockade of Cuba in a televised speech in the evening on October 22.

The U.S. Navy command sent additional ships and aircraft to the Cuban shores and to the Atlantic, and stated that any submarine discovered on approach to the Bahamas must surface to be identified. The commanders of U.S. ships were instructed to be ready to attack if the submarine refused to surface.

Next day, on October 23, submarine commanders were ordered by the Navy Central Command Headquarters to take positions in specified quadrants and conduct reconnaissance. The quadrants were set in several dozen miles [from one another] along their route. The same radiogram warned the commanders about possible U.S. provocative actions against Cuba and our transports. They were ordered to be on full alert and to continue to navigate in secret.

The determined quadrants were cut very poorly, because they did not allow the subs to preserve the secrecy of movement, most likely due to the quickly changing military and political situation around Cuba. They were drawn 300 to 350 miles across from the Bahamas maritime straights. In these waters [the United States] deployed experimental deep-water systems for long-distance submarine detection.

Soviet Navy map depicting Foxtrot sub locations near Cuba, late October 1962. Submarine B-59’s position is indicated by the bright red rectangle outside the map itself, at top center of the margin. Click to expand. Source: Digital image by Svetlana Savranskaya.

On October 24, the submarines arrived to the designated areas. And at the same time, as Norman Polmar of the U.S. Naval Institute wrote, Khrushchev stated to the U.S. representative in Moscow, in response to Kennedy’s announcement, that if U.S. ships started searching Soviet merchant ships on the high seas, it would be considered piracy and that he would give orders to the Soviet submarines to destroy U.S. ships. The tactical situation around the submarines started to deteriorate rapidly. The activity of ship-borne and shore-based anti-submarine aviation picked up sharply, and then groups of aircraft-carrier-based search-and-attack groups, ASW, entered the areas of submarine deployment: [the group] led by aircraft carrier “Essex”—to the sub B-130 area; led by ASW aircraft carrier “Randolph”—to sub B-59 area; and helicopter-carrier “Tetis-Bay” with escort ships—to sub B-36 area of deployment.

All of them were searching for submarines with all means available to them: radio location stations, multi-frequency sonars, Julie sonobuoys, towed sono-locators, radio hydroacoustic buoys, sonars and so on; and in addition [used] explosions of grenades as a signal to come to the surface. All this banged and echoed in the sections of the submarines for several days, and had a depressing effect on the personnel. In addition, the living conditions on the submarines deteriorated substantially due to the impossibility to ventilate the compartments.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Randolph (CVS-15) in 1963. The crew displays two Battle Efficiency “E” awards, one awarded to the best anti-submarine carrier, and one the sixth consecutive Efficiency Award presented to the Engineering Department. On deck are aircraft of Carrier Anti-Submarine Air Group 58 (CVSG-58). (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The temperature inside the compartments, due to the high temperature of the sea water of +30-32 C, the work of the regeneration systems, the diesel engines, accumulator batteries and [other] mechanisms, was +50 C; in the diesel compartments and hydroacoustic cabins it reached +60-65 C. On top of that, high humidity, elevated pressure, vapors of fuel, oil, electrolyte, levels of CO2 several times exceeding the norm (1.2%), and lack of drinking water—all this created difficult conditions for the personnel. The submarine mechanisms could not endure the conditions that the men could still bear. The diesels, plugs [pads] for the outboard flaps and valves, water coolers, packing sealants for the shaft lines, broke most often, leading to the seepage of water into compartments and diminishing the depths to which submarines could submerge. Repairing the damage demanded great efforts and perseverance on the part of the personnel. Many sailors, especially engine personnel, were fainting. But then, after some rest and a chance to breathe, they returned to work or reported to watch duty.

In order to avoid giving the audience (or readers) an impression of what kind of battle ships those were, and how they could fight, I have to tell you that failures of equipment were not a rare occurrence and not limited to our country’s ships. For instance, according to the official data, in the period of 1960-1968, the U.S. Navy suffered 35 accidents and catastrophes, not even counting breakdowns (of equipment). Even during the crisis, the ASW aircraft carrier “Randolph” only stayed in the area for several hours and then sent a radio signal “The second main boiler is out of order. I am returning to the base.”

These submarines of the new project, built in 1959-1961, were the best in the world in terms of their combat and technological capabilities. They were armed with 22 torpedos. Their sailing range was up to 26,000 miles; they could sail autonomously for three months and dive to the depth of 300 meters. However, they were still not adapted for sailing in very hot climate, in the conditions of high salinity of water. Their mechanisms were still not fully broken in, tested and lapped. Later, these problems were fixed, and soon after our journey, submarines of this project became the main ships of our Navy on combat duty. And when I am speaking about malfunctions on these submarines, it is only because I want to emphasize the difficult conditions of sailing, under which, for several reasons, it was impossible to fix all the problems, and so they accumulated.

October 28-29, 1962 – Soviet submarine B-59, forced to the surface by U.S. Naval forces in the Caribbean near Cuba. (Photo via U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Record Group 428, Item 428-N-711200)

The submarines had to charge their accumulator batteries with many interruptions as they were trying to avoid being discovered by the anti-submarine forces.

The U.S. Navy had an existing tactical protocol against diesel submarines called “hunt to exhaustion,” analogous to the British tactics of fighting against the German submarine fleet during World War II along the Biscay ASW barrier called “war of attrition.” In that case, these tactics were justified and had led to the logical conclusion.

On the night of October 25, U.S. destroyers detected submarine B-130, after which, according to all the American documents, all other ASW forces were directed at it, and the pursuit started. After the accumulator battery got discharged, the submarine came to the surface in the ASW area patrolled by the aircraft carrier “Essex.” As it became known from the memoirs of John Kennedy’s brother Robert Kennedy, the President was informed about the discovery of the submarine on the morning of October 27. This made everybody deeply anxious. He writes: “I think these minutes were the time of gravest concern for the President.” He said, “ Isn’t there some way we can avoid having our first exchange with a Russian submarine— almost anything but that?” But right after that a message came that the Soviet ships stopped. This stage of crisis was over.

However, after this incident, the pursuit [of the submarines] was intensified. And approximately in the same circumstances, submarines B-36 and B-59 were detected, and after three days of pursuit, they had to come to the surface.

I would like to focus on the actions of B-59 as the most typical of them.

Upon surfacing, it discovered [the following]: an aircraft carrier, nine destroyers, four airplanes of Neptune type, three of Trekker, encircled by three concentric circles of coast guard forces. This submarine experienced the entire range of provocative activities of the U.S. forces. Overflights by planes just 20-30 meters above the submarine’s conning tower, use of powerful searchlights, fire from automatic cannons (over 300 shells), dropping depth charges, cutting in front of the submarine by destroyers at a dangerously [small] distance, targeting guns at the submarine, yelling from loudspeakers to stop engines, etc.

We would not need to talk about this except for one crucial question: Why did the submarine not use its weapons?

The battle instructions for the commander state [in] point 8: “during the sea passage, weapons should be in a battle-ready state. Use of conventional weapons— upon the order from the Navy Commander-in-Chief, or in case of an armed attack at the submarine.” Therefore, to use or not to use the weapons depended on how you read the situation: is the fire from the aircraft cannon an armed attack or not? At that time, the events could have developed in the following way: after the first salvo from an aircraft cannon, the commander could have instinctively, without contemplation ordered an “emergency dive”; then after submerging, the question whether the plane was shooting at the submarine or around it would not have come up in anybody’s head. That is war.

But the plane, flying over the conning tower, 1 to 3 seconds before the start of fire turned on powerful searchlights and blinded the people on the bridge so that their eyes hurt. It was a shock. And the commander physically could not give any orders, could not even understand what was happening. And when he blinked and blinked his eyes and could see again, it became clear that the plane was firing past and along the boat. And the subsequent similar actions (there were 12 overflights altogether) were not as worrisome any longer.

To explain the behavior of the commanders, one has to understand the context in which they had to make their decisions. In practice, the submarines had unreliable communications with the Central Command Headquarters. They learned about the developments around Cuba from short intermittent radio intercepts of the U.S. public broadcasting stations. From that information, they made a conclusion that the situation was tense; however, that it was on the verge of war, they only learned after their return to the base, when member of the Military Council of the Northern Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sizov told them during the meeting with the submariners of the 69th submarine brigade: “We did not even expect you to come back alive.”


1. This was the first encounter between Soviet submarines and the entire complex of the U.S. anti-submarine warfare forces and equipment; in the area, which was extremely unfavorable for our submarines and very favorable for U.S. anti-submarine forces. This encounter led to a reassessment of the U.S. anti-submarine forces both by the Soviet Navy and in the United States. Detection of the submarines became possible as a result of massive concentration of all anti-submarine forces and efforts, which is only possible to sustain for a short period of time. That is understood in the United States as well. This [conclusion] is supported by the fact that both B- 36 and B-59, after completing the charging of their accumulator batteries, were able to get away from their pursuers with relative ease, and submarine B-4, which was spotted by the ASW aviation, after charging its battery was able to successfully escape from the search area.

2. The command of the United States and NATO made certain conclusions from the actions of ASW against the submarines of the 69th brigade, and rapidly increased the number of military exercises of anti-submarine forces. Thus, just in September-October of the following year [1963] they held seven comprehensive military exercises, and the number was increased in the subsequent years.

3. Conclusions and suggestions on the basis of the submarine operations were reported to the command of the 4th submarine squadron and to the Northern Fleet after the submarines’ return to the base. There is no need to repeat them now, because that was the last encounter when the Soviet leadership and the Armed Forces of the USSR stood up to defend its interests as equals with the United States.

4. The journey of the submariners of the 69th brigade deserves appreciation and admiration of the courage, perseverance and patriotism of sailors, non- commissioned staff and officers in extreme conditions of their sail.

Thank you for your attention

Former Chief of Staff of the 69th submarine brigade
Vice-Admiral, Retired,
V. Arkhipov.

Featured Image: Photograph of Soviet submarine B-59 close-up with Soviet crew visible, taken by U.S. Navy photographers, circa 28-29 October, 1962 Source: U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Record Group 428, Item 428-N-711201

What Dostoyevsky Taught Me About a Navy Technologist’s Predictions

By Bill Bray

A few years ago, when I was serving as a senior Navy fellow, a technologist on the team predicted that sailors soon could be wired, fitbit-style, to such an exquisite degree that everything about them, from moods to future bad choices, could be known, tracked, logged, and used. As he explained, this technology would be used for everything from emergency intervention to evaluation writing. In fact, the evaluations would practically write themselves. He was young and, to my knowledge, had never led anyone, yet presented with an almost breathless certainty.

Those of us who had spent years in the fleet could be forgiven for being skeptical, or even surprised, since we may think we know people—who they are, what makes them tick, or why they do the things they do. As much as I was surprised by the young technologist’s easy confidence, as he spoke I found myself recalling an experience I had as a young officer. With more than three years on board my first ship, I thought I knew the sailors I led and worked with very well. Know your people was a leadership mantra even back then, although it had yet to be taken as far as the young technologist’s predictions. What I could not predict was that early one morning, one of my sailors would wake up at his off-base San Diego apartment, retrieve his legally owned handgun, and shoot and kill his two roommates while they slept.

When first visited in jail, he said very little beyond that he felt he had the right to do what he did. While a bit aloof and arrogant, he was otherwise quiet and mild-mannered and had never been in trouble. A few days after the murders, I wondered to my captain how such an unassuming young sailor could do something so horrible. He said, perhaps now in contradiction to the technologist with whom I would later work, “you will never know.”

One who wrestled with a mid-19th-century version of the technologist’s optimism was the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Naturalism was then the rage (Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859). There was great confidence that man could be understood (entirely) through observation and experimentation (the scientific method). For example, one of Dostoyevsky’s contemporaries, Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov, published The Reflexes of the Brain (1863) based on his research with frogs (his main claim was that all human behavior could be explained as reflexive action). Dostoyevsky had seen too much in life by then to believe it. He thought it not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense. Its implications for political and social life were terrifying.

I first read Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s first novel of his major literary period, a few months after leaving my first ship. As I read it and ventured into Dostoyevsky’s world for the first time, the sailor and his fate were front of mind. With crime, the why is always more difficult to know, and more fascinating to contemplate, than the what. Military justice deals primarily with the crime itself, with the important goals of deterring criminal activity and maintaining good order and discipline. But at a grander level Dostoyevsky was not writing about crime and the criminal. Through a dramatic narrative, he demonstrates how human intentions, motivation, subjective experience, and behavior are not knowable, let alone explainable, solely through physical observation. They cannot be categorized into “data sets,” to borrow a more contemporary term. Dostoyevsky helped me be skeptical of, if not the whole human resources field, at least the faith that technology can ever make human performance and behavior predictable.

Ideas were not inconsequential for Dostoyevsky. Crime is often a phenomenon that begins with an idea. Examining how humans can be swept up by an idea and rationalize crime is a recurring theme—one could say an obsession—for Dostoyevsky throughout his major literary period beginning with Crime and Punishment (1866). He was a gifted dramatist, so much so that in Crime and Punishment, while there is no question of the student Raskolnikov’s guilt or that he will not escape earthly justice, the reader almost hangs on every paragraph, searching for answers to the why of the crime—and to eternal questions, such as can murder ever be justified, and for what? Crime and Punishment might be the greatest whydoneit ever written.

The Mystery of Man

Hemingway famously wrote in Green Hills of Africa that “Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia. Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.” Indeed, Konstantin Mochulsky, one of the greatest Dostoyevsky biographers, writes in the introduction to Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work, “The life and work of Dostoyevsky are inseparable. . . Dostoyevsky was always drawn to confession as an artistic form. His works unfold before us as one vast confession, as the integral revelation of his universal spirit.”1

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). (Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born 30 October 1821. His father, Mikhail Andreyevich, was a doctor, and by most accounts could be stern and moody. After Dostoyevsky’s mother, Marya Fyodorovna, died in 1837 of tuberculosis, father Mikhail retired to his country estate, where his drinking and treatment of serfs worsened. In 1839, while Dostoyevsky was enrolled in the Nikolayev School of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg, the serfs allegedly beat his father to death following one particularly abusive episode (evidence uncovered in the 1970s casts some doubt on this story).2

Dostoyevsky did not care much for engineering. He passed into the School of Engineering more interested in reading writers such as Schiller, Hoffman, Balzac, and Pushkin than in studying mathematics. In The Diary of a Writer (a series of essays he wrote in the 1870s), Dostoyevsky claimed that as soon as they arrived in St. Petersburg in May 1837, he and his brother Mikhail made a visit to the spot where Pushkin died (Pushkin was killed in a duel with his brother-in-law in February of that year).3 By 1839 he knew for certain his calling. That year he wrote Mikhail:

To study the meaning of man and of life—I am making sufficient progress here. I have faith in myself. Man is a mystery. One must solve it. If you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery because I want to be a man.4

By the mid-1840s, Dostoyevsky was becoming known in St. Petersburg literary circles. He published his first book, the novella Poor Folk, in January 1846. Shortly thereafter, he requested release from military service. He then published the The Double in late January. In the next two years, he associated himself with at least two political-literary groups.

The 1840s were heady political times in Europe, and affiliating with such groups was risky in imperialist Russia. One group was founded by Mikhail Petrashevsky, long a proponent of social and civil reform in Russia. In 1848, revolution swept western Europe and the Tsar Nicholas I became more fearful of losing his grip on power. In April 1849, members of the Petrashevsky circle, including Dostoyevsky and his brothers Andrey and Mikhail, were arrested and jailed in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg (Dostoyevsky’s brothers were released within two months for a lack of evidence). A military court found Dostoyevsky guilty in November and recommended he be executed. However, the Tsar agreed to commute the sentence, but only after the writer endured a mock execution on 22 December at Semenovsky Square. The Tsar’s messenger arrived just in time to announce the commutation—“Nicholas carefully orchestrated the scenario on this occasion to produce the maximum impact on the unsuspecting victims of his regal solicitude.”5

Dostoyevsky spent four years of hard labor in a prison camp in Omsk, followed by five years of military service. One can scarcely imagine how ghastly life in a Siberian prison camp was in the 1850s. Dostoyevsky’s first letters to his brother on release in 1854 (he was unable to correspond while in prison with one exception) and his later account in Notes from the House of the Dead (1861) vividly describe a horrifying penal existence.

Yet the “unspeakable, interminable suffering” was the turning point in the writer’s spiritual development.”6 In many letters Dostoyevsky describes his time in prison as one of introspection and “regeneration.” Dostoyevsky could never reconcile his religious faith with the radical rationalism so prevalent in the mid-1800s. “The ‘magic of extremes’ which had shaken Dostoyevsky’s personal life made him follow man into the darkest corridors of his mind, where nothing remains hidden and where the only way out is the flight into God’s open arms.”7

When he returned to St. Petersburg in 1859, he found the intellectual environment brimming with this radical rationalism. The “vibrational stew” he encountered, according to James Parker, included “nihilism, egoism, materialism. . . The human is being reconceived.” Reason is pitted against faith, against the irrational. What is more truthful? What is more authentic? What is man capable of if he believes only in his capacity to reason? From where comes the moral law in a world where man is the only lawgiver? These questions plagued Dostoyevsky. As Mochulsky put it: “And thus began the struggle between faith and reason in the writer’s consciousness, thus arose the fundamental problem of his philosophy.”8

From Mystery to War

What I should have first read, before Crime and Punishment, is Notes from Underground, published in 1864 in the January and April issues of Epoch, the second magazine Dostoyevsky ran with Mikhail (the first, Vremya [Time] was closed by the censors the year prior).

At just 125 pages, Notes from Underground is the philosophical premise of the author’s great works. In it, we find a thundering cry from the wilderness, an author whose “regeneration of convictions” and long years observing man’s capacity for cruelty and depravity coalesced into a fiery conviction to save humanity from destroying itself. In today’s parlance, Dostoyevsky was a culture warrior—a reactionary who saw the state of man in the mid-nineteenth century as corrupt and sick, an outcome of his almost breathless arrogance before nature and God. Society was deep in an existential crisis. Its foundations were beginning to crumble. Few seemed to recognize the coming apocalypse.

Dostoyevsky was at war with the prevailing intellectual current of his time, one that placed humanity’s fate squarely in the hopes of a scientific positivism that held that understanding man’s character, nature, and behaviors can be derived through sensory experience (observation), experimentation, and reason. Change man’s environment for the better through science, and man’s nature will change for the better.

One of Dostoyevsky’s antagonists was the socialist Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, who in 1863 published the utopian novel What Is to Be Done? No less than V.I. Lenin would point to Chernyshevsky’s novel as a pivotal influence. Richard Pevear, in the forward to the translation of Notes from Underground he and his wife Larissa Volokhonsky published in 1993, explains that Dostoyevsky initially planned to write a review of What Is to Be Done? in Epoch, but decided that literary critique alone would be inadequate. It required the force of an artistic response, consistent with Dostoyevsky’s conviction that only through art can the human condition be understood in a way that could expose the pretensions and falsehoods of a thinker such as Chernyshevsky. Pevear notes:

[Chernyshevsky’s hero] is the voice of the healthy rational egoist, the ingenuous man of action. Dostoyevsky takes up the challenge. Though Chernyshevsky is not mentioned by name in Notes from Underground, his theories, and in particular his novel, are the most immediate target of the underground man’s diatribes and of Dostoyevsky’s subtler, more penetrating parody.9

Rational egoism was Dostoyevsky’s bête noir. He knew where this unquestioned belief in science to answer all questions was heading, and it was not pretty. His tortured, mysterious characters can be seen as irrationality resisting science’s dogmatic adherents. His underground man mocks Chernyshevky:

Oh, tell me, who first announced, who was the first to proclaim that man does dirty only because he doesn’t know his real interests; and that were he to be enlightened, were his eyes to be opened to his real, normal interests, man would immediately stop doing dirty, would immediately become good and noble, because, being enlightened and understanding his real profit, he would see his real profit precisely in the good, and it’s common knowledge that no man can knowingly act against his own profit … Profit! What is profit? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect exactitude precisely what man’s profit consists in? And what if it so happens that on occasion man’s profit not only may but precisely must consist in sometimes wishing what is bad for himself, and not what is profitable? And if so, if there can be such a case, then the whole rule goes up in smoke.10

Of course, Dostoyevsky notes, man acts against his own self-interest all the time. This is natural, if incomprehensible, behavior. Man is at once rational and irrational. The observation/experimental method had no answer for this (modern neuroscience has not provided an answer either).

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment is the epic, full-bodied drama that poured out of Dostoyevsky in a frenzy of creative activity following the 1864 deaths of his first wife and his brother Mikhail, and was inspired, in part, from his reading about the French murder trial of the sociopath Pierre-Francois Lacenaire. In July 1865, he was in Wiesbaden on his third trip abroad. He had gambled away what savings he had and was asking acquaintances, including the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, to loan him money. At some point that summer he abandoned work on The Drunks (the story of the Marmeladov family was ultimately incorporated into Crime and Punishment) and began work on what he had indicated to Mikhail as early as 1859 would be a “confession” novel, one he had first thought of while in prison when “lying on a bed of wooden planks, in an oppressing moment of melancholy and self-dissolution.”11

In September, Dostoyevsky wrote a letter to the prominent editor Mikhail Katkov in which he pitched the novel as a “psychological account of a crime,” going into great detail about how most of the dramatic action would not be about the crime itself, but how the protagonist navigates the aftermath of the crime morally and spiritually.12 He had finished a draft of the novel by late November when back in St. Petersburg, but was not happy with the outcome, and began rewriting it. The first part of what became a six-part novel was published in January 1866 in The Russian Messenger. Parts two and three followed in the ensuing months, and the entire novel was published by the end of the year.

Dostoyevsky’s characters are strange, outlandish, and even grotesque. In Crime and Punishment, we are not on lavish estates, in drawing rooms, or at grand balls—we are in the gutter, at the edge of civilized society, in a gloomy atmosphere of torment, sickness, and despair. Many characters are given to exaggerated emotional outbursts and behaviors. As William Hubben wrote, “All of Dostoyevsky’s stories belong to the literature of extreme situations. An ominous restlessness broods over the men and women in his novels. Frequently their reaction to seemingly small incidents is excessive, and events take a most unexpected turn.”13 

Dostoyevsky is often accused of being an overbearing writer who preached that the path to salvation was through hardship and suffering. In Russian, this outlook is known as dostoyevshchina, or as Y. Karyakin explains, “a masochistic wallowing in suffering, a pathological acceptance of the ugly in the world … a sick conscience which derives comfort from the belief that there can be no easy conscience…”14

Dostoyevsky’s protagonist Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is perhaps an embodiment of dostoyevshchina—at once intelligent and aloof, easily irritable, with a disdain for people in general. He is tormented, suffering from some inner turmoil. He is “functionally insane,” according to Parker. But even when we learn he intends to commit cold-blooded murder, he is not wholly unlikeable. He has genuine empathy—for the Marmeladovs, for example, especially the oldest daughter, the prostitute Sonya—and a deep love for his mother and sister, one that is ostensibly the motive for the crime. He has dropped out of school and needs money to take care of his mother (Pulkheria Alexandrovna) and liberate his sister (Avdotya Romanovna, or Dunya) from marrying the corrupt businessman Pyotr Luzhin, which he believes she is only doing to help him return to school.

At the novel’s outset, Raskolnikov is already in the throes of crisis. Although his struggle is not unique, it is universal. He is Dostoyevsky’s example of the new idealists who suffer an “infirmity of notions, having come under the influence of some of those strange, ‘incomplete’ ideas which go floating about in the air…”15 The only way out of his predicament is to murder the old money lender Alonya Ivanovna, a despicable, vile woman he believes the world will be better off without. He commits a gruesome ax murder and, when walked in on by Alonya’s younger sister Lizaveta, he kills her too.

The novel’s remaining five parts deal with Raskolnikov’s anguish and looming fate. The police investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, suspects Raskolnikov not only has committed the crime, but that his conscience would eventually get the better of him and lead to a confession. What primarily holds readers’ interest is that they want to know what Petrovich wants to know—why did he do it.

An illustration to Crime and Punishment by Nikolay Karazin, showing the moment Raskolnikov is forced to kill the pawnbroker’s sister to defend himself from capture. (Wikimedia Commons)

The answer flows from Raskolnikov’s own philosophical quest. Can an evil act be justified if it produces good consequences? Are some people, by virtue of their greatness, permitted to transgress the moral law that bounds everyone else? He thought so, and the act was meant to prove it. According to Karyakin, “Dostoyevsky’s hero is a man obsessed by an idea, a man in whom Dostoyevsky looks for and finds a human being wounded by an idea, killed by an idea or resurrected by it.”16

Mochulsky claims that Crime and Punishment would have been more accurately titled Crime and Expiation: “Raskolnikov is not only the compositional, but the spiritual center of the novel … the tragedy springs up in his soul and the external action only serves to reveal his moral conflicts.”17 Raskolnikov tries to put himself above the moral law. But he cannot, just as his actions cannot be explained as reflexes in his brain.

A Lesson on Mystery and Fantastical Predictions

Why did my sailor commit a double homicide? Was he perhaps driven by something more than passion and rage at a perceived slight? Was his crime an act against his own self-interest? An illustration of man’s simultaneously rational and irrational mind in action? Much to that young, optimistic technologist’s dismay, we will likely never know. Human behavior is complex and irreducible to data and formulas, something human resources professionals and data scientists rarely want to hear. If anything, Dostoyevsky’s work and life are a testament to the inherent mystery of human behavior, the irreducible complexity of actually knowing someone well.

Recent progress in artificial intelligence has spawned, again, some fantastical predictions of data-driven talent management processes that will categorize subordinates (workers) to such a fine degree that near-total behavioral predictability will be possible. Human performance data will be continuously collected in the workplace, categorized and collated, populating digital profiles and giving future leaders a “game-changing” technological toolset to know their people. But before young leaders believe that will happen, they should read Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky may give them cause for skepticism. And that could be a good thing.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.


1. Kostantin Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), xix.
2. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 85–88.
3. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
4. Mochulsky, 17.
5. Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, 51.
6. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
7. William Hubben, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka: Four Prophets of Our Destiny (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1952), 68.
 8. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
9. Richard Pevear, Forward to Notes from Underground (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), xiii-xiv.
10. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 20–21.
11. Mochulsky, 271.
12. Mochulsky, 272.
13. Hubben, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka, 64.
14. Karyakin, Re-reading Dostoyevsky (Moscow: Novosti Press, 1971), 7.
15. Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Mikhail Katkov, as quoted in Mochulsky, 272.
16. Karyakin, Re-reading Dostoyevsky, 124.
17. Mochulsky, 299.

Featured Image: “Illuminations in St. Petersburg,” by Fedor Aleksandrovich Vasiliev/Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow Russia,/ Bridgeman Images.