Russia commemorates 10th anniversary of Kursk disaster


Publish date: August 11, 2010

Ceremonies are being held in Russia and on board its naval vessels to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the disaster of the Oscar Class II cruise missile Kursk nuclear submarine, which sank on August 12th 2000 during naval exercises in the Barents Sea, killing 118 sailors in one of the Russian nuclear navy’s biggest calamities.

Russian navy ships are flying flags at half-mast and memorial ceremonies are being held across the nation to commemorate the disaster. Prosecutors blamed the catastrophe on an explosive propellant that leaked from a faulty torpedo.

Moscow’s response to one of the greatest disasters in Russian naval history was widely criticised. Relatives and members of Russia’s northern fleet have cast wreaths into the sea today in memory of the crew.

In the near media blackout in the initial days following the sinking, Bellona was a major source in publicising the catastrophe.

The initial Russian response to the disaster in 2000 was shambolic. After radio contact was lost with the Kursk, there was a still unexplained delay before a search and rescue mission was launched.

“The accident occurred on Saturday, August 12, but the public received no knowledge of it until Monday August 14. The Kursk sinking showed very strong signs of how the government wanted to control the media,” said Igor Kudrik, a Bellona expert on nuclear submarines.

The Russian government was eventually forced to out with the information that the Kursk had sunk as international seismology reports and reports from NATO submarines began to surface.
[picture1 left]Although the Kursk was lying just 100m below the surface of the sea, attempts to locate it and reach it repeatedly failed. It was days before the authorities informed relatives that something was wrong and the then President, Vladimir Putin, initially remained on holiday.

Russia eventually accepted international assistance, but when Norwegian divers opened the Kursk’s hatch in 50 minutes – something the Russian navy had not been able to accomplish during 10 days, it was found that all crewmembers who had not perished in the initial blast were found dead. The entire submarine had flooded.

“It was extremely arrogant Russian admirals who rejected foreign help for days. Only direct orders from the Kremlin got them to accept help,” said Kudrik.

Death Diaries

Those other 23 who survived the explosion that was registered by seismologists as far away as England and the US Atlantic Coast lived for several hours, an official report found, but evidence at the accident site suggested they actually lived days. Some of these sailors, who had holed up in the Kursk’s rear ninth compartment were found to have been writing notes to their wives and girlfriends.

The letters themselves started out lucid and legible. But as these diarists of the final hours of their lives began to lose oxygen and electricity, their handwriting became scrawl, as viewed by reporter Charles Digges, who reported from the site of the accident.

Russian officials originally suggested the submarine may have collided with a foreign ship or with a stray mine.

But it emerged that an explosion was caused by fuel that had leaked from a torpedo, which subsequently caused all ammunition on board to detonate.
[picture2 left]

The world was watching – whether Russia wanted it or not

The Russian Navy was unable to deal with the deluge of some 2000 Russian and international reporters that converged on Murmansk upon hearing of the sinking.

At first, Naval Press Spokesman Igor Dygalo tried to hold daily briefings. His underlings would call reporters at 4 am local time to notify them of the time of any day’s press conferences.

But the information coming to Dygalo from rescue ships at sea and from the Kremlin was too contradictory to sum up. During Dygalo’s final press conference, five days into the disaster, he stood up, slammed down his notebook and left the press gallery, saying nearly on the verge of tears that he did not have the information reporters needed.

“There was a lack of everything,” said Kudrik. “There were no rescue boats that could be used for anything sensible, there was untrained staff, and so on,” he said.

Meanwhle, Putin feebly dispatched then Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov to the Vidyayevo, the Kursk’s home port near Murmansk, to try to calm down family members and friends of the sailors aboard the vessel. His attempt failed.

One woman, a mother of one of the sailors aboard the Kursk, began to shout sobbingly at Klebanov to help the sailors, but this was more than the Kremlin media was willing to take. During the televised briefing on Russia’s state ORT television network, a doctor with a syringe slipped up behind her and injected her with a tranquillizer, and another man accompanying the doctor broke her fall and dragged her from the room.

The official version was that she was overcome with grief and passed out, but reporters, including Charles Digges who attended the briefing, and other witnesses say they clearly saw the syringe. Vidyayevo was officially closed to the international media for the duration of the catastrophe, but Digges and other reporters managed to sneak into the port village in the trunks of cars owned by sympathetic naval officials.

Bellona was an important source of information for anyone who wanted to know more about the tragic accident.

“Because the public information was equal to zero, Bellona experienced demand from a large number of media,” said Kudrk. “We had over 500 inquiries from journalists around the world, and our web site collapsed due to the large influx in the days after the accident.”

Could it happen again?

The official investigation launched afterward concluded that the survivors in the ninth compartment died 8 hours after the explosion, or at around 8 p.m. on August 12th. But this data is not verifiable as the bulk of the investigation documents are classified.

Reports from many of the rescue vessels also attested to the fact that hammering from inside the Kursk continued for several days after the August 12 explosion – evidence of surviving crewmembers.

Yet the conclusion that everyone had died the same day was convenient for the Russian Navy, as it spread the notion that any rescue attempt was in vain. Russian authorities needed to fabricate such conclusions to cover up both the rescue failures and the PR disaster for then-President Putin.

Kudrik asserts that conditions have not improved much over the last decade, and if a similar catastrophe were to occur today, the response would be basically the same.

“Russia today has more money to spend, but rescue equipment has still not been significantly upgraded,” said Kudrik.

“The (Russian) Northern Fleet still has the same old rescue vessels in operation as they had in 2000. And there are still older submarines with old weapons systems in operation,” he added, continuing, “We fear that similar accidents can happen again – and Russia is just as unprepared as it was 10 years ago.”  

Digges agreed, saying that Russia has still not learned from the mistakes of Chernobyl.

“Calamities of international magnitude continue to be elephants in the room that Russia refuses to acknowledge until objective sources force it out,” he said. “Chernobyl was kept under wraps for more than a week until radiation spread was confirmed as far away as the UK,” he said, adding that even accurate information about radiation caused by Russia’s current heat wave and wildfires is nearly impossible to obtain.

“I’ve reported from and marvelled at the ever-changing Russia for two decades, said Digges. “But the one constant in Moscow that will never go away is denial.”

This report was prepared by Igor Kurdrik, Ruth Astrid Saeter, and Charles Digges. It was written by Charles Digges who reported from the Kursk disaster a decade ago while writing for The Moscow Times and the International Herald Tribune.