Here's What You Need to Remember: Today, it rests on the banks of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, where it is a museum, a floating testament to the achievements, and accidents, of the Soviet Union.
The November-class (November is a NATO reporting name, native Russian designation is “Keet” or “whale”) was the Soviet Union’s first nuclear-powered class of submarine, and the K-3 was the first of its class.
Originally commissioned in 1958, the K-3 would serve the Soviet Union for 30 years until it was decommissioned in 1988. During those thirty years, the K-3 sub achieved a number of firsts for the Soviet Union.
Breaking the Ice
In 1962, the K-3 shot up through ice in the arctic. It was June, but well below freezing. The floating nuclear reactor had surfaced at the North Pole, a first for the Soviet Union.
The Capitan of K-3, Lev Mikhailovich Zhiltsov, would later be awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union for the mission, the highest distinction in the USSR, awarded for feats of heroism on behalf of the Soviet Union or the Soviet people.
While impressive, K-3 was late to the show. The USS Nautilus, an American submarine, and the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine had already reached the North Pole in 1958, as had the USS Skate, another nuclear-powered American submarine, which also managed to surface at the North Pole in 1959.
Still, better late than never. For her North Pole exploit, K-3 was given the honorific “Leninsky Komsomol,” retained throughout her service.
1967 was a bad year for Leninsky Komsomol. While on routine patrol through the Norwegian Sea, a fire erupted in compartments one and two.
The November-class was equipped with an automatic fire-extinguishing system that, rather than spraying water, which could short-circuit electronics, or flame-retardant, instead filled chambers where fire had been detected with a carbon dioxide-type gas. This would retard the flame’s progress, as a lack of oxygen would rapidly extinguish the flames.
Unfortunately for those unfortunate sailors in compartments one and two, it also extinguished their lives. They died of asphyxiation.
Sailors in compartment three, unsure of the fate of their comrades sealed off in compartments one and two, inadvertently nearly killed themselves as well, when they opened compartment three’s bulkhead door and filled the rest of the submarine with the poisonous gas.
Luckily, Leninsky Komsomol was able to surface and supply the submarine with fresh air. Sadly, 39 sailors perished.
An official Soviet Naval investigation would reveal that the fire was caused by an explosion, likely of pressurized hydraulic fluid catching fire. Subsequent research has questioned if mechanical or human error were to blame, as it was rumored a lighter was found in the compartment where the flames originated, a possible indication of smoking onboard the submarine.
Despite K-3’s less-than-stellar track record, it served mostly event-free for nearly a third of a century. Today, it rests on the banks of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, where it is a museum, a floating testament to the achievements, and accidents, of the Soviet Union.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.