16 Apr 20
Posted by: Kevin Rowlands

Sergei Gorshkov was a giant of twentieth century sea power. Born before the Bolshevik Revolution, he joined the navy in the 1920s, rose quickly, became something of a hero in the Great Patriotic / Second World War, and was politically shrewd enough to climb the greasy pole to become Commander in Chief of the Soviet Navy in 1955.  He was still in his mid-40s at the time. He held on to that post for three decades, turning his navy from coastal defence to an ocean-going, blue-water force to be reckoned with. He survived Krushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko, only to be retired by Gorbachev when the latter came to power. However, it was not simply his war record, his construction of a navy, or his longevity in post which secured Gorshkov a place in the annals of history, he will also be remembered for his writing. He captured his thoughts in numerous articles and in books which were pored over in the West.  He offered a perspective on sea power which was different from the received wisdom of the Anglo-American school, and which still resonates today, particularly amongst navies being built by traditionally continental powers.

This work by Polmar (a prolific naval author), Thomas (a retired USN Rear Admiral), and Fedoroff (an intelligence officer specialising in the Soviet / Russian Navy) is the first book-length treatment of its subject for a number of years, and it is a welcome addition to the literature. Here, though, your reviewer must declare an interest, having published a slim edited volume of Gorshkov’s writing in 2017. However, this trio of writers add much more colour and take the reader literally from the cradle to the grave of the great man, setting his life in the context of the development of the Soviet Navy.

Gorshkov deserves to be studied. In the words of others Mahan is not enough, and if we are serious about our profession, we must study those from a different background, a different tradition, who may shake us from our complacency. This book is a good place to start. It is readily digestible and every reader will come away knowing more.  However, it is not perfect and is perhaps more a readable historiography of the Soviet Navy than it is a biography of Gorshkov.  There are whole pages and, almost, chapters in which he doesn’t feature; the narrative instead tends to concentrate on the ups, downs and political positioning of the navy within Soviet power structures.  The early chapters are dedicated to the Great Patriotic War and though he served admirably (indeed, he was awarded the honour of Hero of the Soviet Union for his exploits), Gorshkov was still just a tactical player in a secondary theatre.  If one was looking to understand more of the character of the man, this book doesn’t quite hit the mark.  There are also editing gremlins: I don’t mind if his forename is translated as Sergei or Sergey, but it should be consistent and isn’t.

That said, there is much more that is positive to Polmar et al’s book than is negative. The use of Russian language source material provides a much greater depth than would be available to most western readers, and the rise, fall, and rise again of Admiral Kuznetsov is a fascinating backstory. The authors do levy a charge at Gorshkov, that the navy he built did not stand the test of time and crumbled as quickly as the Soviet Union itself when the time came.  However, they do acknowledge that his contribution to naval theory and practice, from the construction of a balanced fleet to the effective use of the navy in peacetime, was second to none in his lifetime.  Paraphrasing again, to those of us wanting more than Mahan and Corbett in our naval diet Gorshkov is not enough, but he is a very good start, and this book is not a bad place to begin.