Submarines were a mainstay of the Soviet nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. Their ability to lurk near the US coastline gave them an important psychological role in the 40-year standoff. As tensions mounted in the early 1980s and the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) seemed more real than ever, Mikhail Puchkov launched his own crazy project: he would build a secret, pedal-powered submarine 800 kilometers from the sea.
In 1980, the election of an aggressive US president heightened Soviet fears of the thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at their country. But in Ryazan, Russia, oblivious to the risk of imminent annihilation, Mikhail Puchkov, 20, was suddenly inspired.
“I hid in my parents’ attic and started to plan. I don’t know why I wanted to build a submarine. I had never seen the sea, except in films.”
The Soviet Union, of course, had its own nuclear deterrent, including over 5,000 warheads carried on 300 submarines. Weapons that could be anywhere, at any time. Perhaps, up in his attic, Puchkov was building an unconscious tribute to the subs that kept him safe.
I don’t know why I wanted to build a submarine. I had never seen the sea, except in films.
Mikhail Puchkov, 50, St. Petersburg, Russia
“I spent half a year drawing. My friends were meeting girls and going to parties; I stayed home, sketching portholes. How can I explain why? It was a man thing.”
The years drifted by. The leader of the USSR, Brezhnev died. Andropov succeeded him, died, and was succeeded by Chernenko, who died as well. Puchkov hardly noticed; he was obsessed.
“I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing. I knew the KGB would arrest me for it. My project would be seen as suspicious. I had to hide my raw materials in the garden shed.”
Puchkov found a job as a fireman, working one day on, three days off, to spend more time with the boat.
“I took a two-month holiday to glue together the plastic hull. But once it was assembled it became impossible to hide. I had to tell my family what I’d been doing.”
His parents were baffled. The Puchkovs lived over 800 kilometers from the sea. Then, in 1985, it was time for the first test run.
“I did it by night on the river Oka. The sub sank to the bottom and the rudder came off. My father said I was wasting my life.”
Another three years passed. Outside Puchkov’s attic, Gorbachev’s reforms were changing the world. The USSR produced its 1,000th submarine. Soon, Puchkov was ready to test the 1,001st.
“I hid the sub in a box and drove to Leningrad. It worked! By day, I hid it underwater. When darkness fell, I climbed in and pedaled, with only my air-pipe above the surface. Then one night, the sub stopped in the middle of the Neva river. I was caught, floating in a wire net.”
Puchkov was found by local fishermen, who called the KGB. But the feared Soviet secret police chose not to send him to prison. With perestroika in full swing, they admired his creativity and sent him to study at the Leningrad Shipbuilding Institute. He still lives in the port city today, working on his submarine and taking voyages out to sea.
This is a copy of one of Mikhail Puchkov’s original drawings for his pedal-powered submarine. After a particularly long voyage in 1994, Puchkov installed a petrol engine for surface cruising.