A chronicle of dignity and despair


Two years ago, the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk exploded and sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea killing 118 sailors. Events before and after the disaster read like a cross between a thriller and a litany of cover-ups, writes Arminta Wallace

It was a story straight out of a Cold War spy thriller. A missing submarine; a massive underwater explosion; rumours of a collision - or worse, the malfunction of some sinister and immensely powerful new weapon; international accusations and counter-accusations; the threat of ecological disaster in the Arctic. But when the Russian guided-missile nuclear submarine Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea during a routine training exercise on August 12th 2000, the Cold War was supposed to have long since melted under the sunny skies of the New World Order. Gripped by the idea of the crew of 118 trapped in their tin can 300 feet below the icy surface of a sullen ocean, the international media turned its gaze to the sprightly new head of state who had replaced an enfeebled Boris Yeltsin on New Year's Eve 1999, Vladimir Putin, and waited for information.

None was forthcoming. As the days passed and the Russian authorities remained tightlipped, the questions multiplied. Why weren't the Russians racing to the rescue of possible survivors? Why were they brushing aside offers of divers and equipment from Norway, Britain and the US? How could Putin, the nominal head of the Russian navy, remain happily ensconced at his villa on the Black Sea coast while desperate knocking noises were said to be emanating from the stern of the submarine? Above all, who - or what - had managed to sink the unsinkable Kursk?

Commissioned in 1994 at a cost of $1 billion and described - as the former Labour MEP and Foreign Affairs spokesman Peter Truscott puts it in a new book published to coincide with the second anniversary of the tragedy - as "the most effective multi-purpose submarine in the world", the state-of-the-art Kursk was the pride of Russia's Northern Fleet. Five storeys high and the length of two jumbo jets laid end to end, the sub was an impressive sight; inside, it was not only fitted with the latest hi-tech gadgetry, it boasted a sauna, a solarium and a six-metre swimming pool. Yet, in the middle of what should have been a routine training exercise, it simply vanished.

At 11 a.m. Moscow time the Kursk made contact with the Commander of the Northern Fleet, Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, confirming its readiness to fire a test torpedo. At 11.28 a.m. there was an explosion, followed by a fireball which swept through the Central Command Post, killing its 36 occupants. Two and a quarter minutes later a second, catastrophic explosion - Norwegian seismologists registered it at 3.5 on the Richter scale - blew the bow section into 15 fragments and threw out a flash-fire which extended one-third the length of the boat and destroyed all in its path. Four minutes later, the Kursk "struck the bottom of the Barents Sea with a reverberating thud".

Here the Kursk story degenerates into farce as Truscott embarks on an almost comic litany of procedural cock-ups and official cover-ups. The cock-ups - internal doors which were casually left open, an emergency buoy whose restraints had not been removed when it left the factory, rendering it inoperable, "escape" hatches which could not be opened from inside - make for sobering reading; but it is the behaviour of the Russian authorities in the days following the sinking of the Kursk which is truly shocking.

First in Truscott's line of fire is Admiral Popov; "confronted with what seemed like evidence of a huge disaster, Popov did what a long line of senior officers and politicians had done before and after him. He did nothing". Not that he could do anything anyhow; the Russian navy "no longer had a deep-sea rescue capability to speak of". But by Wednesday, August 16th, Russia was still rejecting offers of international help, claiming that the weather conditions in the Barents Sea were too severe to effect a rescue. In the early hours of Thursday a British rescue team was given the go-ahead to head for the Kursk disaster site - but refused permission to fly direct to the Arctic city of Murmansk, forcing them to make a 60-hour trek from Trondheim on a Norwegian vessel, the Normand Pioneer. When the team finally arrived, on Sunday August 20th, they were told to stay four miles away from the accident site. During a routine equipment test they saw a Russian anti-submarine warship which was "shadowing" the Normand Pioneer slowly turn its radar and guns in their direction. Apparently they had strayed outside their "designated zone". The trial run was hastily abandoned: but not before the British divers had noted that the sea was "calm and as flat as a pancake".

Could a prompt rescue mission have retrieved anyone from the Kursk alive? Probably not. Some 22 submariners - urged on by their de facto leader, the courageous Dmitri Kolesnikov -sealed themselves into a safe compartment. When the men tried to change the plates on the sub's oxygen regeneration unit it sparked a flash-fire which reached about 300° Centigrade. Eight hours after the first explosion, everyone on the Kursk was dead.

Meanwhile some of the relatives did not even know their loved ones were on board the submarine. As was common practice during naval exercises the Kursk had poached crew members from other subs before heading out to sea, and the navy - citing "national security" - refused to publish a list of serving crew members. But the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda got hold of the list for a paltry $600 and published it on August 18th. The shock to those who opened the paper that day can be only dimly imagined.

Kursk: Russia's Lost Pride is very far from being an anti-Russian tirade from start to finish. It contains a vivid and sympathetic portrait of life in the submarine's "home" town of Viyayevo, and a dramatic account of Vladimir Putin's battle with the media barons who controlled Russia's supposedly "free" post-perestroika press. The chapter on post-Cold War espionage suggests the Russians were correct to suspect the West of ulterior motives in making a bee-line for the stricken Kursk, while some of the officials who threw themselves into the disaster inquiry - notably the Prosecutor-General, Vladimir Ustinov - come out with considerable credit.

To the question "what sank the Kursk?" Truscott's answer echoes that of the BBC Horizon documentary which put the blame firmly on the Russian navy's use of hydrogen peroxide as a torpedo propellant, half a century after it had been abandoned by Western navies following an explosion on a British submarine. Truscott widens his net to include the budget cutbacks which affected Russian naval maintenance and rescue services, design failures and the blinkered attitude of the naval authorities.

But the overwhelming impression left on the reader is that though Vladimir Putin eventually took the initiative, organising generous compensation for the bereaved families and an exemplary salvage operation which was regarded worldwide as a technological triumph, his actions were motivated more by political expediency than by human decency. Set beside the courage and simple dignity shown by the hapless crew of the Kursk, it amounts to a damning indictment. As they emerge from Truscott's crisp, no-nonsense prose, the letters written home by some of the men before the accident are heart-rendingly eloquent.

Meanwhile, from inside the Kursk itself, the last word came from Dmitri Kolesnikov. When his body was eventually removed it was clear that he had died trying to shield his crewmates from the final, devastating fire. His right hand was still covering the pocket above his heart, protecting a note he had written to his wife of four months, Olga. The note ends with the words: 15.15 "It's too dark to write here, but I'll try [to write] blind! It looks like we have no chance, 10-20 per cent. Will hope, that someone will read this. Here is the list ofthose present from the compartments who are now in the 9th and will try to escape. Hello to everybody, don't despair, Kolesnikov."

Kursk: Russia's Lost Pride by Peter Truscott is published by Simon & Schuster (£16.99 sterling)