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15 Years After Kursk Disaster, Fewer Russians Critical Of State Response

  • Tom Balmforth

A woman mourns during memorial ceremonies to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Kursk disaster in the submarine’s home base of Vidyayevo on August 12, 2010.

A woman mourns during memorial ceremonies to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Kursk disaster in the submarine’s home base of Vidyayevo on August 12, 2010.

MOSCOW -- The sinking of the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk had all the makings of a political disaster for President Vladimir Putin: Just months into his first term, he emerged belatedly from holiday to address the bereaved relatives of 118 dead seamen, only for them to furiously berate him.

Russia was slow to accept Western offers of help when the Kursk went down in the Barents Sea on August 12, 2000, and the nation agonized as it became clear that all 118 seamen aboard were dead.

At the time, some 72 percent of Russians surveyed by pollster Levada Center said the authorities had failed to do everything in their power to save the crew from death in the deep.

Fifteen years later, a new Levada poll shows that for most Russians, a big blot on Putin's record has become a little blip: This time around, only 35 percent said they believe the authorities failed to do everything in their power.

What's more, 40 percent actively approve of the state response, widely seen as botched at the time, compared to just 23 percent in 2000.

Lockstep Media

Lev Gudkov, a prominent sociologist and director of Levada Center, says the gradual change in the responses reflects the impact of televised state propaganda, which in this case functions on two levels.

The first, Gudkov says, is a kind of propaganda by inertia. "There are no [state media] structures that constantly remind people and spur discussion about the responsibility of the authorities -- not only in the case of the sinking of the Kursk, but also in other tragic and catastrophic events."

In other words: Out of sight, out of mind.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the monument to the sailors who died in the disaster in the city of Kursk in August 2003.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the monument to the sailors who died in the disaster in the city of Kursk in August 2003.

Gudkov says that this is evident in polls from the increase in the number of people -- particularly among the younger generations -- who told Levada that they have "difficulty answering the question." Twenty-six percent gave that response this year, compared with just 6 percent in 2000.

Today, the main Russian TV channels are lockstep followers of the Kremlin line. In 2000 the broadcast media landscape was considerably more boisterous, featuring powerful TV stations such as NTV -- then owned by tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky -- that had an appetite for attacking the Kremlin.

One of Putin's first major moves as president, in fact, was to regain control of the airwaves by reining in stations like NTV. But much of that process, which produced the propaganda machines that now feed the country a steady diet of anti-Western rhetoric, came after the Kursk disaster.

Acting Too Late

The nuclear-powered submarine left its dock on the Barents Sea to perform a drill when a torpedo onboard malfunctioned and exploded on August 12. The Russian Navy declared it lost after 11 hours, when it did not send out a routine signal.

Moscow eventually accepted help from Britain and Norway, whose divers were dispatched to the stricken Kursk together with Russians, but only days after the vessel had sunk. No one on board was rescued.

At the time, Russian media zeroed in on the procrastination over accepting assistance.

In August 2000, Putin himself was slow to emerge from holiday when news of the crisis broke. Ten days after the Kursk sank, he traveled to Vidyayevo, a naval post north of the Arctic Circle where he addressed mourning widows and other relatives of the dead.

Footage from the scene shows a security guard trying to force a shouting, grief-stricken woman in a head scarf to be seated in an auditorium in front of a tanned Putin, who looks out of place in a black suit and black shirt.

Patriotic Myopia

Fifteen years later, Russian state television often plays down national crises, including those that continue to plague the military.

When a barracks collapsed in the Siberian city of Omsk in July, crushing and killing 24 cadets as they slept, national TV stations glossed over the tragedy by failing to name any of the two dozen soldiers who had died or interview their loved ones. A Facebook post in which RFE/RL's Russian Service journalist Yelena Rykovsteva mentioned this omission was reposted 12,500 times.

In 2010, on the 10th anniversary of the sinking of the Kursk, neither Putin, then prime minister, nor President Dmitry Medvedev made public comment on modern Russia's worst naval disaster.

Gudkov says the second explanation for the change in public opinion is the patriotic boom unleashed by Russia's takeover of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, an operation conducted amid a fierce campaign of anti-Western propaganda that is still going strong.

"The authorities have flattered the public conscience by taking away its inferiority complexes and defeatism," Gudkov says. "Although the authorities continue to be considered mafia-like, incompetent, and working against the interests of normal people, nevertheless the explosion of patriotism and propaganda that has been going on for a year and a half already forces a significant portion of conformist people to refrain from negative assessments of events."

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