Kursk submarine tragedy: 15 years on, families no closer to truth

A Russian boy stands by portraits of Kursk submarine victims in their barracks during a memorial ceremony in the Russian Arctic port of Vidyayevo, August 12, 2001. Source: Reuters

A Russian boy stands by portraits of Kursk submarine victims in their barracks during a memorial ceremony in the Russian Arctic port of Vidyayevo, August 12, 2001. Source: Reuters

On Aug. 12, 2000, the Russian submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea after being rocked by two explosions. Most of the crew of 118 died instantly, but 23 survived for several hours. However, questions continue to surround the disaster – was Russia too slow in accepting international help and could the lives of some of those trapped on the stricken sub have been saved with more decisive action? RBTH spoke to the families of several of the dead and one of the rescue divers about their experiences.

Fifteen years ago, on August 12, 2000, the most modern of the Russian Northern Fleet’s nuclear submarines, the Kursk, was struck by disaster during a routine military exercise. Two explosions, within two minutes of each other, condemned the submarine and its entire 118-strong crew to a grave at the bottom of the Barents Sea.

The blasts killed 95 crew members right away, while the remaining 23 submariners managed to survive the two explosions and take shelter in the stern compartment, where they managed to stay alive for eight more hours. 

The country only heard about the Kursk two days later, early on Aug. 14, when newswires reported: “There has been an accident in the Barents Sea. A submarine is lying on the seabed.”

On the same day, the Northern Fleet command announced that contact with the crew had been established and that, according to preliminary findings, there had been a malfunction onboard.

For the next several days, rescue submersibles tried and failed to dock with the Kursk, blaming a strong underwater current, poor visibility and the angle at which the submarine was tilted. It was only on August 21 that, with the help of foreign experts, rescue teams managed to open a hatch and gain access to the submarine.

The criminal case into the loss of the Kursk submarine and the death of its 118 crew members was closed in 2002 due to the absence of corpus delicti. The investigation concluded that the accident was caused by the explosion of a faulty peroxide torpedo, with the subsequent fire causing the detonation of a warhead.

Today, 15 years on, the families of the Kursk crew say that it will be a long time yet before the truth about what really happened is known. 

View the timeline: The Kursk submarine, chronicles of a tragedy


‘We believed to the very last moment that it was not true’

“If you want to know what he looked like, here is his exact copy,” says Lidia Panarina, mother of senior lieutenant Andrei Panarin, pointing at her daughter Olga.

Panarin’s family feared that right after his service in the army he would end up in Chechnya, Ossetia or Abkhazia – a likely prospect in those troubled times. However, Panarin was lucky: He entered a military college and then was sent to serve in the Northern Fleet, to Vidyayevo, where the Kursk submarine was based and from where it left on its last voyage.

The family heard of the tragedy from the news, when it was not yet described as a tragedy. They did not even know that their son was on board the Kursk.

“We were sure that he was on the Voronezh, a submarine similar to the Kursk, only a bit older,” says Panarin’s mother. “We called there, but were told that Andrei was not there. When we found out that he was on the Kursk, we dropped everything and came to Vidyaevo on August 19.”

“In fact, we were going there in the hope that all of them were indeed alive. We just wanted to take him home, to support him,” says Olga.

At Vidyayevo, everybody was walking around with syringes and glasses of medicine.

“I wasn’t feeling ill, but Olga kept telling me: ‘Take it.’ I was hoping that Andrei will turn up. I didn’t want to be weak in front of him, didn’t want him to see that I wasn’t well,” says Panarin’s mother.

Her daughter continues: “You know, he was a very cheerful person. He always managed to get out of tricky situations unscathed. We believed to the very last moment that it was not true and that he would manage to get out of there.”

On October 25, 2000, divers recovered 12 bodies from compartment nine, in the stern of the submarine. Andrei Panarin was in compartment four. His body, together with the others, was recovered a year later. The remains of three members of the crew were never found. His mother made the journey to identify her son’s body alone.


‘We were told that they were alive’

Sofya Dudko is sitting in her St. Petersburg apartment, holding a book called We Remember Them All by Name. She spent several years collecting money to publish the book. In the end, it was a donation from veteran submariners that made the publication possible. “Memory is the most important thing. I for one am in a hurry to do as much as I can so that they are remembered,” says Dudko.

The walls of her bright room are full of pictures of her son Sergei, who was second in command on board the Kursk. The centerpiece is the picture of a submarine at sea. Her still unpacked suitcase is in the hall. She, together with 17 other people, has just returned from Vidyayevo, where they were greeted like very important visitors, with even a band arranged for the occasion.

Some of the Kursk families live in nearby apartment blocks: After the accident, all the families were given flats in newly built neighborhoods in St. Petersburg by order of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Dudko is reluctant to recall August 2000.

“We were constantly gathered at the Officers’ Hall and constantly told that contact with the submarine had been established, that they were alive and that they were being given oxygen…” she says.

The conclusions reached by the investigation left her unconvinced. Dudko continues to believe that the rescue operation was too slow and that Russia took too long to accept foreign assistance [Moscow agreed only on the third day after the offer was made by several countries at the same time – RBTH] “because the norm here is to save secrecy, not people”.

As far as she is concerned, the question of whether it was possible to save at least somebody from the Kursk in the first couple of days is long closed.

“Why else then was Andrei Borisov’s note not given to his widow, even though she had demanded it even through the courts? I have found out that the note was dated August 15. The lads remained alive till August 15,” says Dudko.


Rescue response

In the fall of 2000, Andrei Zvyagintsev, who led a team of divers from the 328th Expeditionary Rescue Squad of the Russian Navy, was the first to enter the Kursk, which was lying 110 meters underwater, and recover the bodies of 12 members of its crew. He too, as part of an international taskforce, took part in the operation to raise the Kursk submarine into a dry dock.

“The Kursk was found in due course. It is another thing that what was found was an already dead submarine. But that had nothing to do with the speed of the search operation,” says Zvyagintsev.

According to him, the fleet had the best divers in the world but did not have the technical means to take them to the depth required. In the end, the operation to open the hatch was conducted with the help of foreign vehicles and by Norwegian divers. In the fall, the team was joined by experts from Russia, the UK, Ireland and the U.S.

“We went down all together, in one decompression chamber, 110 meters underwater and lived there for 28 days, without going up. Those were extremely harsh conditions. What does a depth of 110 meters mean? It is as if a weight of 110 kg is pressing down on every centimeter of your body,” he says.

Before the start of the operation, the divers trained on another submarine. They studied it in great detail, to be able to operate from memory and blindfolded: They knew that at the depth that the Kursk was lying they would be operating in complete darkness.

Russia spent some $70 million to raise the submarine. That was “the most optimum” of the proposed options, according to Zvyagintsev, who points out that the operation was unique. “No-one in the world had done anything like it,” he repeats several times.

“In fact, we showed the might of the Russian Federation. We showed that we were true to our word. That was our submarine and nobody but we should have raised it,” he said.


A shift in mentality

Zvyagintsev says that what he saw onboard the Kursk 110 meters underwater was in line with the conclusions reached by the investigation: “For me that theory – of a torpedo explosion – makes the most sense. I believe it to be true because I saw the situation inside, I filmed everything. We can spend as much time as we want speaking of all the other theories, including a collision with another submarine.”

In 2005, Roman Kolesnikov, the father of lieutenant commander Dmitry Kolesnikov who died in compartment nine, filed a collective suit with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, demanding a full investigation into the loss of the submarine. However, in 2009 he withdrew his lawsuit without explaining why.

At the time, the widow of Kursk commander Gennady Lyachin, Irina Lyachina, was against the lawsuit. “It is hard to explain,” Lyachina recalls today. “It should not have been done then, when everything was still so close, when everything was hurting and bleeding. I could not even see how to go on living. Back then people needed time to recover. That’s why I was against it.”

Asked whether now is the right time to file a complaint with an international court, Lyachina replies that those who want to do so have the right. She does not know, she adds, whether it would make them feel better, asking: “What is the point? To understand the truth? To punish somebody? To change something?”

She has no illusions as far as the truth is concerned: “To make it easier for you to understand, my father was in the military, my husband was in the military, my son is in the military, so I understand full well that not even my grandchildren will be able to find out the truth about their deaths. What matters to me most is that the lads were not guilty of anything.”

All the relatives of the Kursk crew whom RBTH has been able to contact say very much the same thing: The loss of the submarine and all its crew became a turning point in the life of the country, the state has begun paying more attention to its armed forces, while people have become slightly different, even those people who have never had anything to do with the military.

“It’s just that there came some shift in mentality. In our government’s mentality too. That it was impossible to go on living like before, that we must live differently,” says Sofya Dudko. 

In addition to new apartments, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered that the family of each of the crew members of the Kursk receive a compensation of 720,000 rubles ($24,000 at the exchange rate at the time).

The total amount of compensation paid was 84,960,000 rubles, or $2.8 million. The military insurance company paid 19,628,505 rubles (about $650,000) in compensation, with the amounts depending on the rank of the victims. Some 18 million rubles ($600,000) was donated to a dedicated charity foundation; together with some $267,000 and 2,000 Finnish marks.

The donations were partly distributed among the families and partly were used to fund various memorial events. Another charity foundation, which was set up by the Northern Fleet command, received donations totaling 100.7 million rubles (about $3.3 million), $23,169, and 1,250 Deutschmarks.

In addition, donations were made by regional administrations (from 30,000 to 165,000 rubles ($1,000-5,500) per family, depending on the region), while other countries invited the Kursk submariners’ widows and children for holidays. The German Red Cross and the Berlin maritime museum collected 50,000 Deutschmarks for the widows, while the Chinese embassy donated $20,000.

* At the 2001 exchange rate: 30 rubles to the dollar

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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