The United States bestows the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the United Kingdom has the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire—but no nation loved medals more than the Soviet Union.
In its continual drive to rouse patriot spirit, the U.S.S.R. bestowed a glut of medals, both military and civilian, to its citizens. It was so generous with honorifics that The Comprehensive Guide to Soviet Orders and Medals, a reference for collectors, is 408 pages long and includes 630 color photographs.
Some Soviet decorations were highly specific: There was a medal “for the development of virgin lands,” and one “for the restoration of the black metallurgy enterprises of the south.” There was the first-class Order of Maternal Glory, for women who birthed nine children, or the second-class version for women who bore eight. There were also medals “for courage in a fire” and “for the salvation of the drowning.”
Of the 24,000 recipients of that last honor, one truly stands out.
Shavarsh Karapetyan is an Armenian athlete who, from 1972 to 1975, earned eight gold medals and broke several world records at European championships for finswimming, a sport in which competitors propel themselves using a whale's-tail-shaped monofin worn over the feet. He was uncannily good at two things: holding his breath and thrusting forward underwater.
He used these two aptitudes for a deed that made him more famous and respected than any competition could. On September 16, 1976, Karapetyan risked his own life to save over two dozen people from drowning when a trolleybus went off the rails and sank into a reservoir in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
Right Place, Right Time
Karapetyan, born in 1953, was pushed into athletics by his father. According to Grantland, he didn't have the early training to excel in gymnastics or the dexterity for traditional competitive swimming. He fell under the tutelage of Liparit Almasakyan, a swimming pool lifeguard with the unenviable goal of kickstarting Armenia’s presence in international water sports.
Almasakyan suggested Karapetyan switch to finswimming, for which he would only need strength and stamina. In addition to training in the pool, Karapetyan jogged several miles a day carrying bags of sand on his back.
Despite his streak of wins, the Soviet sports federation dropped him from the team bound for the inaugural finswimming world championship in 1976; they may have thought a recent illness had reduced his ability. To save his sports career, the then-23-year-old Karapetyan began an intense workout regimen.
To that end, he was jogging with his brother, Kamo, when the trolleybus, with about 90 passengers on board, derailed into the water.
According to a 1984 article in the English-language Soviet propaganda magazine Soviet Life, “In a few seconds, only the poles of the bus could be seen from above. The chilly September waters closed over and swallowed up the doomed vehicle and its passengers.”
Without a second thought, Karapetyan dove in. The bus had kicked up a layer of sediment when it went in the water, clouding his view. About 15 feet down, Karapetyan felt around for a door. Instead, he found the back window of the bus and dislodged it with what he described to Grantland as a “karate kick.” This created a 6-foot opening from which he could pull out survivors.
Using the routine he had developed from his swimming training, Karapetyan fell into a rhythm. He took five breaths, dove down for two passengers, and kicked against the top of the bus for momentum as he returned to the surface with the people in both arms. He had instructed Kamo to stay at the surface and ferry passengers to the bank of the reservoir, as he dove again and again. Karapetyan’s own legs were bleeding, sliced open by broken glass, but that did not deter him.
The two-man lifesaving effort lasted about 20 minutes, before a rescue crew arrived, some of whom moved in on kayaks.
Because of the flurry of action and lack of clear government records, it’s unknown how many people the Karapetyan brothers saved; they estimate about 30. Some survivors freed themselves. Forty-six people died.
Karapetyan’s body was devastated by his injuries, the stress of the work, and the exposure to cold water. He was hospitalized with an 104°F fever. Over the coming months, he trained to return to competitive shape, and a year later, in 1977, he was a contender in the U.S.S.R. finswimming competition and in the European championship, earning three silver and one gold medal in the latter.
Heroic Deed? That's Classified
No one at the competitions had any idea about Karapetyan’s heroic actions—the rescue wasn't a news event. Instead, the Soviets classified the accident, which was standard procedure. The local communist newspaper simply printed a notice that there had been a fatal trolley accident. The people whose lives Karapetyan had saved didn't even know their rescuer’s name.
Six years after the trolleybus rescue, a writer for the Soviet newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda learned of the event from one of Karapetyan’s coaches and, surprisingly, local authorities provided documentation when asked. His article, “A Champion’s Underwater Battle,” published in 1982, first informed the Soviet public of the event—and also informed Karapetyan’s wife. They had never talked about it, though they'd been married for a year.
The story was then picked up by an array of Soviet publications, each one more prominent and well-read, turning Karapetyan into a folk hero. The Kremlin awarded him the Order of the Badge of Honor and the medal for the salvation of the drowning.
Three years later, Karapetyan was in Yerevan and happened to be walking by the Sports and Concert Arena when he witnessed a fire break out. Of course, he ran in.