The end of the ‘Kursk’

A Russian boy stands by portraits of Kursk submarine victims in theirbarracks during a memorial ceremony in the Russian Arctic port ofVidyayevo, August 12, 2001. Families of the victims gathered inVidyayevo on Sunday in memory of the 118 men who perished one year agoin the sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk.

A Russian boy stands by portraits of Kursk submarine victims in theirbarracks during a memorial ceremony in the Russian Arctic port ofVidyayevo, August 12, 2001. Families of the victims gathered inVidyayevo on Sunday in memory of the 118 men who perished one year agoin the sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk.

The most modern submarine of the Russian Northern Fleet, the Kursk, sank during a drill in the Barents Sea in a catastrophic accident 15 years ago, on August 12, 2000. Two explosions, within two minutes of each other, condemned the submarine and sent its 118-strong crew to death. Ninety-five crew members were killed right away, while the other 23 submariners managed to survive the two blasts, hide in the stern compartment and stay alive for eight agonising hours.

Russians heard about the fate of the Kursk early on August 14, 2000.

Newswires reported: “There has been an accident in the Barents Sea. The submarine is lying on the seabed.” 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 several days thereafter, rescue submersibles tried and failed to dock with the Kursk, because of a strong underwater current, poor visibility and the submarine’s tilt angle. It was only a week later, on August 21, that rescue teams, with the help of foreign experts, managed to open a hatch and gain access inside the submarine.

A 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 an explosion of a faulty peroxide torpedo, with the subsequent fire causing the detonation of a warhead.

15 years on, the families of the Kursk crew say that, for a long time, we shall not know for sure what really happened there, but the main thing is that we know they did not suffer and they were not to blame for anything.

“He simply fell asleep”

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

Andrei’s family had feared that, after his service in the army, he would end up in Chechnya, Ossetia or Abkhazia. The likelihood of such a posting was high in those troubled times. However, Andrei was lucky: he entered a military college and was sent to serve in the Northern Fleet, to Vidyaevo, where the Kursk submarine was based, and from where it left on its last voyage.

The Panarins heard of the tragedy from the news, when it was still not described as a tragedy. They did not even know that Andrei was onboard the Kursk.

“We were sure that he was on the Voronezh, a submarine similar to the Kursk, only a bit older”, said Lidiya. “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,” Olga added.

At Vidyaevo, everybody was walking around with syringes and glasses of medicine. “I was not 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,” Lidiya recalls. 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.”

Divers recovered 12 bodies from compartment nine, in the stern of the submarine on October 25, 2000. Andrei Panarin was in compartment four. His body, along with the others, was recovered a year later. The remains of three members of the crew were never found. Lidiya travelled for the body identification alone.

“We were told that they were alive”

Sofiya 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,” Sofiya says.

The walls of her bright room are full of pictures of her son Sergei, who was second in command onboard the Kursk. The centerpiece is the picture of a submarine at sea. Her yet unpacked suitcase is in the hall. Along with 17 other people, she has just returned from Vidyaevo, where they were greeted like very important visitors, with even a band present. Some of the Kursk families live in nearby apartment blocks: after the accident, on instructions from the President, all the families were given flats in newly built neighborhoods in St Petersburg. Sofya is reluctant to recall August 2000.

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

The conclusions reached by the investigation left her unconvinced. Sofiya continues to believe that the rescue operation was too slow and that foreign assistance was accepted with a delay [on the third day, after the offer was made by several countries at the same time – RIR] “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, although she had demanded it even through court? I have found out that the note was dated August 15. The guys remained alive till August 15,” says Sofiya.

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 under water, and to recover the bodies of 12 members of its crew. As part of an international task force, he also 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,” Zvyagintsev is convinced.

According to him, the fleet had the best divers in the world but did not have 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, Scotland, Ireland and the USA.

“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 110 meters deep mean? It is as if a weight of 110 kg is pressing down on every centimeter of your body,” he recalls.

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

Russia spent around $70 million to raise the submarine. That was “the most optimum” of the proposed options, Zvyagintsev is convinced. 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 no-one but us had to raise it.”

“Must live differently”

Zvyagintsev says what he saw on 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 Dmitri 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. At the time, Irina, the widow of Kursk captain Gennady Lyachin, was against the lawsuit.

“It is hard to explain”, Irina 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. Everybody’s nerves were on edge. 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, Irina replies that it is the right of those who filed it the last time round [in 2009 Kolesnikov withdrew the lawsuit without explaining why – RIR]. She does not know 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.That is why I understand full well that not even my grandchildren will be able to find out all that really happened. What matters to me most is that the guys were not guilty of anything.”

All the relatives of the Kursk crew whom RIR has been able to contact say very much the same thing: the loss of the submarine and all its crew was a turning point in the life of the country. The state has turned to face 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 Sofiya Dudko.


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