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Russia: 'Kursk' Salvage Operation Raises Renewed Doubts

A joint Russian-Norwegian operation to retrieve the bodies of the crew of the sunken "Kursk" submarine has succeeded in salvaging only 12 sailors. The future of the mission is now in doubt, but the effort has raised comments pro and con. Popular doubt over how authorities handled the tragedy has resurfaced, but some also see in the effort evidence of a break from long-standing Soviet tradition. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini takes a look at how Russian are reacting to the salvage operation.

Moscow, 7 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian-Norwegian operation to retrieve the 118 bodies of the crewmen trapped in the "Kursk" submarine has reignited criticism over how authorities handled the disaster in the first place.

The salvage operation is now in doubt because of the Russian navy's concern that divers entering the mangled submarine are putting their own lives at risk. The operation has so far succeeded in recovering just 12 bodies. Reports today say the Norwegian ship has left the scene implying that the operation may be over.

Many ordinary Russians have welcomed efforts to retrieve the crewmen's bodies, but the operation itself has prolonged the agony many felt on first hearing news of the tragedy in August.

Galina Yanchuk edits the "Letters to the Editor" page of the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. She goes through 10,000 letters a week from readers dealing with all types of issues. She says that after initial reports of the accident subsided, there was a lull in interest in the "Kursk." But now with the salvage operation under way, she notices more reader concern about the sub and how authorities handled the tragedy.

She points to a letter from an old lady that she says is typical:

"The 'babushka' lives in an old peoples' home. She saved all her [extra] money to pay for her funeral. She has managed to save 400 rubles [about $15]. And today we received a letter from her asking us to give her the address of the sailor who died just shortly before his son was born. She wants to send the money to his little boy."

One of the most moving and painful elements of the operation has been a note wrapped in plastic found on sailor Dmitri Kolesnikov -- one of the first of the bodies recovered from the sub. The note was written several hours after the explosion and said, among other things, that 23 crewmen were alive and trying to escape.

The note contradicted the official version of events and prompted heavy criticism of the authorities. Official said shortly after the accident that all the men aboard had died instantly. They used this argument to justify refusing foreign assistance to launch an immediate rescue operation.

It's still not clear more than two months after the accident what crippled the sub and killed the crew. The official version of events has tended to vary, depending on the office, from blaming an explosion within the heavily armed nuclear submarine to a collision with a NATO submarine.

A report of the results of the official investigation is expected soon, possibly as early as tomorrow (Wednesday), but it's not clear how many questions it will answer.

The commander of the navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, said last week he was "80 percent certain" the "Kursk" collided with a NATO submarine, a version all but ruled out by the official commission.

Yanchuk says Kuroyedov's comments unleashed a torrent of reader exasperation:

"This is the theme of most of the letters: 'Lies, lies, we're sick of lies. [We've heard] enough lies. Tell us the truth, we're not idiots. We would understand if only you would tell us the truth.' About 50 percent of the letters say exactly this.

Some commentators, however, see positive changes in how officials have handled the aftermath of the accident and the salvage operation.

A political analyst for NTV television, Evgeny Kisilyov, points out it took courage for Kuroyedov to make public Kolesnikov's note. Kisilyov says as commander Kuroyedov had the authority to hide or destroy the note.

Some also see the heroism and money expended to retrieve the bodies as an act of contrition on the part of the authorities. The weekly Dengi reports that retrieving the bodies and lifting the wreck could cost up to $100 million.

Military commentator Aleksandr Golts says President Vladimir Putin's decision to proceed with the salvage operation means that at least the political authorities have learned a lesson from the disaster.

Writing in the weekly English language "Russia Journal," Golts says the very fact the bodies of the crew are being brought to the surface is something new in Russian military history. He writes that it never occurred to anyone that a commander's duties also included giving subordinates a decent burial.

But he writes that to make this departure from Soviet tradition complete, Putin will have to fire some of his top officers. This is a step Putin has so far avoided taking.