As Russia begins a new season of naval drills and buzzes Norway with its biggest nuclear hardware, many of its sailors this week are remembering their colleagues who died on the Kursk, the 21st Century’s worst nuclear submarine disaster.
Seventeen years ago this week, the world was riveted by the fate of 118 Russian submariners who sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea after an explosion aboard the largest sub in the Russian fleet.
The Kursk, the pride of Russia’s Oscar Class sub line, was participating in a large-scale naval exercise when a leaky torpedo exploded in its bow.
Moscow almost immediately gave the sailors up for dead. Seismic monitoring stations as far away as England, after all, had picked up the reverberations of the blast.
But it later emerged that 23 of the crewmembers had taken refuge in the submarine’s aft section, where they survived for hours in the flickering light, writing final letters to their loved ones and hammer-tapping pleas for help on the steel of the breached hull.
It was a deeply human ending to the long-held myth of Russia’s military superiority – and a dagger to the cloak Soviet-era secrecy.
Hundreds of camera crews descended on Murmansk, just ten years before a closed port, to televise the Kremlin’s inept response to the disaster. Naval spokesmen fled questions at hastily arranged press briefings while Vladimir Putin, only a month into his first presidential term, broadcast his unwillingness to accept international help.
The Kursk sank on August 12, 2000, but Putin waited more than a week to emerge from a Sochi vacation and publicly address the accident. In the meantime, his administration took its first crack at circulating conspiracy theories: The Kursk had collided with an American sub that was spying on it; that a NATO surface ship had run into it; that it was hit by “friendly fire” from another Russian vessel.
By August 22, when Putin went before an anguished crowd of new widows and grieving relatives in the Kursk’s home port of Vidyayevo, but by then everyone had had it with the deception.
Putin’s tack, now familiar, was to blame the independent media and its owners. When one of the Kursk sailor’s mothers began screaming her scorn at him, she was silenced by a syringe full of sedatives delivered by one of Putin’s security officers. Footage of the slumping woman was beamed out across the world, but was not replayed at home.
Yet the truth was out. The day after Putin’s appearance, the Kremlin assented to assistance from a Norwegian diving crew, which accomplished in hours what the Russian Navy hadn’t been able to do for ten days: it opened the aft hatch of the vessel. They found the hatch clogged with water, and the Navy moved in to recover their dead.
In October, three months after the accident, Vice Admiral Mikhail Motsak, then head of Russia’s Northern Fleet, shocked the nation by revealing that 23 crewmembers had, in fact, survived the initial blast.
One of them, 27-year-old, Lieutenant Captain Dmitri Kolesnikov, had documented their final hours in terms at first succinct, and later less legible as darkness and hypoxia took over.
“All personnel from compartments six, seven and eight moved to the ninth. There are 23 of us here,” Kolesnikov wrote. “We have made this decision as a result of the accident. None of us can get out.”
Kolesnikov’s was the last secret to emerge from the wreckage. In the coming months, Putin would take revenge on the media that portrayed him as a bumbling clod.
By April, he’d orchestrated Gazprom’s takeover of NTV independent television, which had been ruthless in its investigations of the Kursk.
Its owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, was briefly jailed and then forced out of country. Boris Berezovsky, who owned ORT television, also fled the threat of prison, leaving his station to be gobbled up by the Kremlin. The rest of the media fell into line. Most are now reliable and uncritical Kremlin mouthpieces.
The Kursk was finally raised in 2001, and an investigation confirmed the torpedo disaster – and not any of the misinformation the Kremlin initially embraced. But neither was anyone in or near the Kremlin held responsible either. A criminal probe begun in 2000 was quietly closed in 2002.
Vladimir Kuroyedov, who at the time of the disaster was head of the Russian Navy, offered his resignation to Putin, but he didn’t accept it. The 13 senior naval officers that were removed landed in prestigious government postings or were given state-controlled businesses to run.
The dangers of Russia’s nuclear fleet, however, loom as they did before. As the Sergei Donskoi powered by two 40-year-old reactors cruised off Norway’s coast earlier this month, Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s managing director, was alarmed. He said he was “deeply concerned about the safety on board this nuclear Armageddon machine.”
And other submarine mishaps besides the Kursk have happened on Putin’s watch, though they’ve received a mor muted response. The sinking of the derelict K-159 while it was being towed to dismantlement in 2003, killed nine of the 10 sailors aboard.
And Since 2011, four nuclear submarines caught fire, one while it possibly still had nuclear weapons onboard, while under repair at shipyards owned by the state’s Unified Shipbuilding Company. The fires killed nine.
Meanwhile, Putin plans to pump billions into reviving the submarine fleet, a campaign that has been proceeding quietly as he ponders a new run for Russia’s presidency. The media, though, have learned the lessons of the Kursk, and if anything goes wrong with the new naval exercises, Russia will be among the last to know.