Submarines inspire both fear and awe. Simultaneously, they represent freedom and the lack thereof, as the ability to explore mysterious environments is curtailed by the very real potential of being trapped below the surface and slowly running out of air. Meet 40-year-old Mikhail Puchkov, who decided to design and build a personal submarine during the stifling era of Leonid Brezhnev's regime when he was barely twenty years old. He built it secretly in an attic in Ryazan, about 120 miles southeast of Moscow. According to new sources, this tiny sub, which took about three years to make, provided an escape for this man who sought his creative freedom in the dead of night as he paddled quietly down the local river.
In his own words:
“I was not satisfied with the fate that was laid out for me. I wanted to satisfy myself and to have some respect for my life. If I learned to respect myself, I felt it would be easier to find my niche in life. I didn't know it would work. I just hoped.”
His family, particularly his father, condemned him and his submarine flights of fancy, and the longer the construction took, the more he complained. The first test of the sub came in 1984 and it “sank like a stone,” in Puchkov’s own words, breaking a rudder in the process and setting a climate for the early dives, which were always a bit tense. He said of those times:
“I was so distracted watching for leaks and checking all the equipment, that I didn't have time to enjoy it. You don't remember a thing afterward.”
It took three years before he was able to get the submarine to dive and surface. In 1988, he put the reinforced plastic sub in a box on a truck and shipped it to the Tosna River about 15 miles south of St. Petersburg. There, he continued his nocturnal voyages and in 1994, he took to the open sea on a secret cruise to the island of Kronshtadt, a closed military base in the Gulf of Finland.
This Russian inventor spent twenty years of his life attempting to realize his dream of making his submarine legal. His creative drive alone sustained him all the years he plugged away at a monotonous, dream-crushing factory job. The Russians call men like Puchkov and their whimsical inventions kulibins. The name comes from an 18th century mechanical engineer named Ivan Kulibin, who designed dozens of devices, both practical and whimsical, few of which were manufactured. He died in dire poverty at the age of 83. Kulibins may be quixotic, but they represent the stuff that dreams are made of for those in the new Russia who dare to hope for a better life and a better world.
Nearly everyone in St. Petersburg has heard of Puchkov and his submarine, but few know where he lives. According to those who do know him, he can usually be found in a wooden shed along the Neva River. Five years ago, he increased the length of the craft from 10 to 16 feet and added an engine for surface operation, an electric motor for diving and two fuel tanks. In case of an emergency, he still has the pedals and carries a paddle.
Russian documentary filmmaker, Aleksandr Kiselev, is in the process of making a short movie about the life and work of inventor, Mikhail Puchkov. On a recent interview, he stated that the eccentric and very talented Puchkov is considering painting his submarine yellow and sailing it to the United Kingdom as a tribute to the enduring Beatles.
Puchkov’s very special submarine is seaworthy. The inventor made many round trips between Helsinki and St. Petersburg, 100 miles apart on the Gulf of Finland's coastline. He can sail 100 miles a day aboard the homemade fiberglass machine and submerge to 30 feet. The sub can travel as fast as four knots and can make an underwater trip from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, Finland and back without stops.
It does look to be a bit cramped from the photos but then again, one can’t have everything or can one?
Better ask Mikhail Puchov.
He seems to know.