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Remembering the Kursk
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2010-08-16 08:13:35
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A moment to ponder: the cruel deaths of 118 men, who perished with their nuclear submarine ten years ago during naval exercises in the Barents Sea.  The tragedy was compounded by that sclerotic response typical of bureaucracies terrified of openness and manic for secrecy.  It was made all the more severe by the fact that this surely could not have happened to the technological pride and joy of the Russian navy, the famed Kursk.

Once radio contact to the nuclear submarine was lost, repeated delays ensued before a search and rescue mission was launched.  The public was kept in the dark for two days, being told about the accident on August 14.  Rescue staff were untrained and unavailable.  The necessary vessels required for the rescue mission were not commandeered.  The instinctive reaction from the Kremlin was to keep the lid on things with cold hearted fanaticism, only to succumb in humiliating fashion to allowing an international team to initiate the vain rescue. 

As Igor Kudrik, an analyst in the employ of the Bellona Foundation explained, ‘The Kursk sinking showed very strong signs of how the government wanted to control the media’ (Bellona, Aug 12).  Initial reports followed the book of secrecy and paranoia: the explosions could hardly have been the fault of dubious Russian engineering.  The pride of the Russian navy must have either collided with a foreign ship or a mine.  In time, it was revealed that the explosions were due to the fuel that had leaked from a torpedo, causing the ammunition to combust.

In a manner resembling the disaster surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown, it was left to international reports by seismologists and the efforts of NATO submarines to reveal what might have happened.  As the calamity unfolded, it was evident that there were survivors of the initial blast who had holed up in the vessel’s ninth rear compartment.  These ultimately perished to drowning, having been busy scribbling their last observations and letters to their loved ones.  Their deaths are starkly illustrated by the way those letters were written: initially, lucid, then descending into fitful, semi-legible scrawls as their lives ebbed.  When the Norwegian rescue team eventually reached the vessel, they were all dead.

The then President Vladimir Putin did not see fit to come home from his vacation, choosing to despatch Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov to the port.  Politicians in times of crisis can either seem stoic in the face of calamity or callous.  The latter was what people tend to remember in that affair, characterised by frantic members forcibly sedated by the authorities.  To this day, the battle to seek prosecutions and force new inquiries continues.

The pessimism now is that, should such an event happen again, Russia’s response would be just as woeful and inadequate.  Kurdrik again: ‘The (Russian) Northern Fleet still has the same old rescue vessels in operation as they had in 2000.’  Indeed, the sinking of the K-159 in 2003, a relative rust bucket compared to the Kursk, suggested that the navy establishment is less than concerned for their personnel’s safety and the consequences of radioactive leakage. Prepare, then, for the worst.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. 

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