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Russia: Country Marks Second Anniversary Of 'Kursk' Sinking

  • Gregory Feifer

Russia today marked two years since the "Kursk" nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 men on board. Officials appeared eager to put the controversial incident to rest, organizing numerous commemoration ceremonies and unveiling a monument in Moscow. But many people continue to denounce what they see as the government's mishandling of the tragedy. They say an official report on the matter issued last month fails to reveal the entire truth behind the sinking of the "Kursk."

Moscow, 12 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russians today marked the second anniversary of the sinking of the "Kursk" nuclear submarine by attending church services and military ceremonies.

During commemorations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the port town of Vidyaevo on the northern Barents Sea, tearful family members and fellow sailors and officers praised the bravery of the "Kursk's" crew of 118 who perished on 12 August 2000 when the nuclear submarine -- one of the navy's largest and most advanced -- sank after fuel in one of the sub's torpedoes leaked and ignited during naval exercises in the Barents Sea.

In the capital today, officials unveiled a bronze monument depicting a sailor standing with his head bowed next to a ruined, listing submarine.

Andrei Shatorenko, a Northern Fleet captain who knew many of the men who died on the "Kursk," remembered the crew in a speech at the monument's unveiling. "The tragedy took away one of the best crews of Russia's missile-submarine fleet. Loyal to their military oath, the sailors fulfilled their duty to the end. Their courage and heroism is a vivid example of self-sacrifice and unselfish service to the motherland," Shatorenko said.

The accident shed unwelcome light on the plight of the once-mighty Soviet military, which has decayed dramatically due to lack of funds and discipline in post-Soviet Russia.

According to an official report published last month, the tragedy began with an explosion that sparked a fire, setting off the submarine's ammunition. A second blast ripped through the vessel's forward sections, killing most of the crew. A handful of survivors gathered in the submarine's ninth compartment to wait for a rescue attempt that came too late.

The government and President Vladimir Putin came under severe criticism for their response to the crisis. Putin continued a vacation on the Black Sea and did not return to Moscow, while officials initially turned down help from abroad even as Russian rescue efforts failed.

Top-ranking naval officers came out with different versions of events, at first claiming that the crew was still alive, and later blaming the incident on a collision with a foreign sub. The press was kept at arm's length.

A chastised Putin later promised to raise the submarine, a dangerous and expensive effort completed last October after the vessel's ruined nose was cut off underwater. Parts of the front were later raised, and officials say they plan to blow up what remains on the seabed.

In its final report, the Prosecutor-General's Office blamed the tragedy on a torpedo that leaked highly explosive hydrogen peroxide propellant.

Pavel Felgenhauer is a Moscow-based independent defense analyst. He sees the publication of the report as a positive move. "This cleared the situation up a bit. It at last officially laid to rest all this talk about foreign submarines attacking the 'Kursk' or ramming the 'Kursk' or mines from the Second World War and things like that. And now the Russian authorities officially say that all those reports were all baloney, which is, of course, a step in the right direction," Felgenhauer said.

Questions, however, remain. Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov said last month that no one was to blame for the explosion. But news agencies reported naval officers and relatives of the "Kursk" crew as criticizing the government for failing to apportion blame for the accident and covering up possible wrongdoing.

Reports have claimed the faulty torpedo was mishandled before the "Kursk's" final voyage. The navy has also been criticized for continuing to use dangerous hydrogen peroxide fuel, which Western countries have long since abandoned.

Felgenhauer said the government, which is still under fire for its slow response to the "Kursk" sinking, is looking to put the matter behind it as quickly as possible. "Well, of course the 'Kursk' is an issue that has been embarrassing Putin and the Russian authorities already for two years. So they can't just simply pretend that it didn't happen, but of course they would like to leave the thing to rest. They'll say it's all over and that, well, they'll open a monument and so on. But, of course, they don't want to emphasize it, or they want to emphasize it as little as possible," Felgenhauer said.

Some relatives of the "Kursk" victims said last week they had not been invited to attend the unveiling of the "Kursk" monument in Moscow. Top officials themselves appeared to steer clear of today's commemorative events. Neither Putin nor Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov showed up for the monument's unveiling. Most other top officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, also stayed away.

During the event, the navy chief of staff, Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, said one of the Northern Fleet's best submarine crews went down with the "Kursk." Interfax news agency cited Kravchenko as saying, "This is a monument to bravery, heroism, and tragedy."