The K-219 tragedy: The Politburo and its classified games

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The document itself dates back to October 6th 1986, the day the K-219—a Soviet strategic 667A project Yankee class nuclear submarine—sank. The sinking is the focus of the document, which is a shorthand transcription of a meeting of the Political Bureau, or Politburo, of the Communist Party’s Central Apparatus. It was a time of change in the Soviet Union—perestroika was just around the corner. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was working on negotiations about nuclear disarmament. Gorbachev, as chairman of that October 1986 meeting, takes the floor, with accompanying comment from other Politburo members and—several years post-factum—Bellona:

Gorbachev: "On October 6th, at 11 hours, 03 minutes, a nuclear submarine of the Soviet Navy sank after an accident at a considerable depth in the Sargasso Sea. The crew was evacuated by other vessels that had approached the submarine after the accident. The crew had suffered no casualties, with the exception of the four men whose deaths were reported earlier. The cause of the wreckage and the submarine’s subsequent submersion has still not been clarified. It could have been the crew’s incompetence or panic."

Today, the primary cause of the accident is still unknown. First, a fire broke out on board the submarine. A short circuit followed in the main power line. Then the automatic control system of the starboard side reactor jammed. The reactor had to be shut down manually, and that job fell on senior seaman Sergei Pryaminin. He never left the seventh reactor compartment. The port side reactor shut down automatically, and looming nuclear catastrophe was averted. Then, nearby vessels took the submarine to tow it to a nearby port, but the towline broke loose…

Was there a diversion?
Gorbachev: "The events unfolded in the following order: The submarine was taken in tow, but the tow rope broke loose. Again, the question is: Why? All in all, we have nothing but questions and no answers. We don’t even know if radioactivity is likely to spread and in what scope."

Next to report in the document is Admiral Vladimir Chernavin, commander-in-chief of the USSR Navy and deputy head of the Ministry of Defence: "At 11 hours 03 minutes, the submarine sank at 5,500 metres of water. By then, our rescue ships had approached the wreckage and evacuated the crew on board. The submarine was still afloat. However, the escape [or missile] tube was issuing reddish-brown smoke. A decision was made to fight for the submarine’s survival. A reconnaissance team boarded the submarine, which palpated the hull to locate where the heat was building up."

"Don’t you have any sensor devices?" Gorbachev interrupts him, not quite believing this obvious sign of how far behind the Soviet instrument-production industry is.

"No," Chernavin replies curtly and continues: "The examination of the hull showed no build-up of heat. Then a decision was made to send a team inside the submarine. These men inspected the first, the second and the third compartments, which all turned out to be dry. The accumulator battery was also in working order. However, a certain degree of gas contamination was registered in the third compartment. Apparently, the gas was coming from the fourth escape compartment through the pipes of the ventilation system, which go in a circle around the submarine."

Gorbachev asks more questions: Was there a leak? What did the air supply meters show? What is the state of the reactor? Chernavin monotonously quotes some numbers and says the reactor was shut down.

"Who is responsible for setting the length of the tow rope?" Gorbachev asks suddenly. Chernavin explains that the calculations were made by navy’s specialists. "Where exactly did the towline break?" the general secretary pressed on.

"This has not been established yet—it’s night time out there, dark, high waves," Chernavin replies, clearly unprepared to answer questions of this kind.

"Is it possible that the towline might have pulled the submarine down?" Gorbachev pushes further in the towline vein.

The answer comes now from both Chernavin and Maslyukov, deputy head of the Council of Ministers: "The weight of the tow rope is incommensurable with the weight of the submarine, it could not be the cause of its sinking."

Chernavin goes on with his report, but is quickly interrupted by Gorbachev. "Could there have been an act of diversion?"

"What an idiot," Chernavin must have thought, but his answer in the transcript is "We have no information to make such a conclusion."

Gorbachev, however, is not satisfied with that: "Why, then, was there a fire after the submarine surfaced?" Chernavin says—again—that, so far, the cause of the fire has not been established, but the circumstances suggest that there was a short circuit when the pump was turned on to drain out the water: "It could have been that, before switching it on, no power check was conducted," Chernavin says.

From Chernavin’s words Gorbachev triumphantly concludes: "So they showed incompetence, then."

Will the Americans go as deep as 5,500 metres to retrieve data punch cards?
The first problem that Gorbachev addresses at the beginning of the meeting is this: "There is no information available yet about whether any control mechanisms of the submarine were destroyed after it was abandoned by the crew."

He is answered by Sokolov and Dobrynin, both members of the Politburo. Not all the control mechanisms were destroyed, they say, because at first there was the hope that the submarine could be saved—and it sank too quickly.

After Chernavin’s report, Gorbachev returns to the issue of whether the Americans can get their hands on the sub.

"The Americans were watching the course of the salvage operation. The question arises—can they raise the submarine to the surface, and what kind of information will they have in their hands if they do?" Gorbachev says in the transcript.

Navy Commander Chernavin offers reassurance. "It is possible that the Americans may be interested in the front part, the design of the reactor. But there are no new secrets there, because the submarine is of an old design. What can present an interest for the Americans is the punched cards." Chernavin says.

The K-219 belonged to the second Russian generation submarine fleet, and had been put into operation in the Northern Fleet in 1971. The punched cards, which Chernavin refers to in the transcript, could have contained the programme for missile complex control. Also, they could have been the submarine’s special communication cards. In any case, by 1986, American subs were using more advanced technology than punched cards, which could hardly make them a worth prize, especially at 5,500 metres.

In the transcript, however, Gorbachev continues to demonstrate vigilance. "Why are the punched cards not withdrawn from the submarine?"

"They are in a special safe box. There is no precise information about what happened to them," Chernavin explains.

"What is the submarine’s captain’s service record?" Gorbachev continues in his cross-examination. Chernavin answers that his records are good.

Then follows a discussion of possible measures to prevent the Americans from diving at the 5,500 metre depth to retrieve Russia’s punched cards. For instance, several vessels could be ordered to stay at the wreckage spot to guard it.

"To prevent the salvage of the submarine by the Americans, we should tell them that we are developing organisational and technical procedures connected with working out further actions in connection with the incident," Gorbachev concludes. Everyone, apparently, tries to show that they understood what the general secretary’s verbal train-wreck actually meant.

The radioactive leak "will not be of a large scope"
Let us note here, again, that all of this is happening in 1986. In April—a mere six moths earlier—the Chernobyl reactor exploded, causing catastrophic consequences across north eastern in the path of its fallout. At the time K-219 and the Chernobyl disaster occurred, perestroika is in its nascent stages, ushering in era of glasnost. In the Kremlin, at the beginning of the meeting, right before Chernavin’s report and after a talk about what to do about the malicious Americans, the Politburo begins to discuss what informational strategy to undertake.

The USSR, as noted in the transcript, has already made an official statement about the accident.

"Our swift response and the statements we made about the submarine accident have already borne their fruits," Gorbachev notes with apparent satisfaction. "Reagan appreciated that we informed them about it. The Americans have even offered us their help."

Gorbachov continues: "As far as the information issue connected to the submarine incident is concerned, it is expedient to do the same here as we did last time, that is, to put together a report for the Americans, for the IAEA the International Atomic Energy Agency and for the TASS the Telegrpaph Agency of the Soviet Union.
"Furthermore," he says in the transcript, "we have to inform the leaders of the Socialist Bloc countries."

He then voices a radical suggestion: "In our report, we have to underline again that, according to the experts’ conclusions, now that the submarine is sunk, a nuclear explosion can safely be ruled out. At the same time, we can say that specialists allow that the possibility that radioactivity may spread at great depths after a certain period of time."

Another Politburo member and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Gromyko, proposes in the transcript that they smooth the statement over a little: "But we have to add that the radiation will not be of dangerous scope."

Gorbachev gives in—the period of glasnost has not yet begun, after all. "But maybe, we should phrase it more vaguely: ‘Experts are investigating possible consequences of the sinking of the submarine,’" he says.

"This is much better," another Politburo member, Nikolai Ryzhkov, is quickly and dutifully agrees with the general secretary.

Gromyko adds: "And we absolutely have to release information about it through the TASS so that our own people know about the accident." At that time in the Soviet Union something was being born that we now understand as the concepts of "PR" and "spin"—concepts that Gromyko, as former Ambassador to the United States during the Kennedy years, had a firm grasp of.

"Yes, we have to pass such a report on the radio and on television, and quickly, too, without waiting until night," Gorbachev says on the transcript, summing up the meeting.

History repeats itself
After Navy Commander Chernavin presents his report of the accident, the Politburo adopts a resolution and adjourns. Of course, we did not cite the whole record of the meeting in this article. We decided to omit certain fragments, like the figures from Chernavin’s report, oblique phrases like "we have to impartially, objectively, fully clarify the cause" of the accident, and the like. We also got rid of endless repetitions, changed the order of certain fragments in a couple of places. But as far as the gist of that meeting goes, we did not cut a word. The story of the K-219 became the subject of numerous books and was the inspiration another Russian submarine disaster Hollywood movie.

The only thing that still presents a mystery to this date is the actual cause of the accident.

But this document is curious for a different reason—namely, because the title page of this record might as well have read ‘Sochi, the Krasnodar region, 2000: The sinking of the Kursk,’ or ‘Porto Rotondo, Sardinia, 2003: The sinking of the K-159."’

When the Kursk went down in the Barents Sea, President Putin decided not to break off his vacation in Sochi. The decision to accept American assistance was only made by him after he spoke on the telephone with President Clinton, late at night on August 16th. Let’s not forget that the submarine sank on August 12th and, according to some reports, the sailors trapped in its hull were banging out SOS signals until August 14th.

When the K-159 went down in the Barents Sea, Putin was meeting with Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi in Porto Rotondo, on board of the guard missile cruiser Moscow. It was on that cruiser that a meeting analogous to the one that is the centre of the K-219 story took place.

The people who gather for these meetings are obviously different one each occasion. The case always changes, but the conclusions they come to is always the same: The cause of the accident is unknown, take all measures to close access to the vessel to the Americans—just as they did in the case of the Kursk—calm the Russian population.

Especially significant progress has been achieved in that latter area. For those several tragic days during and after the sinking of the Kursk in 2000, the authorities lost all control over information and the media. But soon, everything returned to the usual routine. The total informational control during the Kursk salvage operation in 2001 is notable proof to the success of this policy.

One episode that occurred in the autumn of 2001 is coming to mind. It was the peak time of the Kursk salvage operation. A state press centre quickly sprang up in Murmansk, with Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s assistant, coordinating its activities. At the very same time, Bellona was planning to hold a press conference in Murmansk dedicated to the publication of the foundation’s new report, The Arctic Nuclear Challenge. Take this message from our hearts: there was nothing "seditious" in what we were going to say at the press conference. Apparently, Yastrzhembsky was informed otherwise.

Urgently preparing his action for exactly the same day and time of Bellona’s event, Yastrzhembsky found and summoned some local environmentalists and biologists who were commissioned to give statements at his press centre on how safe the nuclear installations of the Kola Peninsula really are. But that was not all: A ship was promptly offered to deliver a group of reporters to the site of the Kursk disaster—as far away from Bellona and its press event as possible.

We have to admit we were truly amused by the authorities’ arduous efforts—all the more so because our press conference had a great success.

Back in 1980s—could the Politburo even have dreamed of such sophisticated stratagems? No, there was hardly any need for such ploys 20 years ago. Glasnost—the time when it was suddenly possible to speak one’s mind and tell the truth—was just dawning on the horizon.

Today, it’s different.

But is it? Decisions are made—what to say and what not to say. Documents are produced and classified. And behind all this fuss—submarines continue to sink as before.

Igor Kudrik

igor@bellona.no