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Russia: Families Of 'Kursk' Victims Question Raising Of Sub (Part 1)

When the "Kursk" submarine sank a year ago (12 August 2000), it took Russian President Vladimir Putin days to issue a public statement (16 August) and over a week to return to Moscow from his Black Sea vacation retreat (20 August). Following criticism in the press that he was out of touch with the feelings of ordinary Russians, Putin ordered that the sub be recovered and the crewmen be given a proper burial. He also ordered surviving family members be given relatively generous death-benefit payments. Both measures have proved controversial. As RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu reports in the first of a two-part series, some family members do not want to relive the trauma of the tragedy as salvage operations near completion. Part 2 looks at complaints that the death benefits -- while adequate -- discriminate against victims of other tragedies, including the war in Chechnya.

Moscow, 27 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When the "Kursk" submarine sank in the Barents Sea a year ago, killing all 118 crew members on board, Russian President Vladimir Putin was on holiday at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Only belatedly -- and it appeared to the Russian press and public only reluctantly -- did he fly to the "Kursk's" base in Murmansk (on 22 August) to offer condolences to the families.

The slow response was widely criticized by the media, who said it was evidence that Putin was unfeeling and out of touch with Russian citizens.

Putin, reacting to the criticism, promised to raise the sub to find out what caused it to sink and to give the dead crewmen inside a decent burial.

In November, a preliminary salvage operation was begun and 12 bodies were recovered. Now, a more advanced operation involving the Dutch company Mammoet is under way. Divers are cutting holes in the hull so that the sub -- except for the damaged front section -- can be lifted to the surface by cables next month. Salvage teams say they also hope to recover the bodies of at least one-third of the crew.

The effort is not without its critics. Many point to the high cost of the operation -- an estimated $70 million -- and the risks to the divers involved. The "Kursk" still houses live torpedoes, cruise missiles, and a nuclear reactor. While experts say the risk of an explosion is small, no one knows for sure.

Critics also say that -- even if more bodies are recovered -- the process of salvaging the sub will only prolong the tragedy for the families' victims.

Svetlana Baigarina from St. Petersburg is the wife of Captain Murat Baigarin, one of the victims. She says the salvage effort only means more stress. Not only will relatives have to identify bodies, they are also concerned for the safety of the divers.

She points out that, last year, the families asked authorities to stop the salvage effort:

"[When] we understood that for our men nothing would have changed [if they were brought to the surface], we didn't want any of the divers to die. Most of the families signed a letter -- [and we sent it to the government] -- to stop the raising [operation]. But in November, [the operation] was started anyway."

But she concedes it would be nice to have a grave where she could visit her dead husband:

"There is a tradition that when a sailor dies, he should be left to the sea. But on the other hand, I'd like to have a grave where I can go and visit [my husband]."

Roman Kolesnikov is the chairman of the Saint Petersburg Foundation for Relatives of the Kursk. His son, Lieutenant Captain Dmitry Kolesnikov, went down with the "Kursk" and was one of the 12 bodies recovered last November.

Kolesnikov says many families are tired of the controversy surrounding whether the sub should be raised and would be content to see the issue dropped.

"[The endless debates about the 'Kursk' salvage operation] made the families so tired that now they say they don't know what to do. They don't say they are against [raising the 'Kursk']; they say they simply don't know whether it should be raised or not."

But Nadezhda Tylik from the southern city of Anape sees the issue differently. She lost her son Sergei in the tragedy and says that after a year, she is glad to see authorities finally making good on their promise to raise the "Kursk."

"It was what [the families] demanded one year ago from Putin. [Authorities] are doing what they promised us. At the time, Putin said that the submarine would be raised."

The cause of the accident remains a mystery. Most people now believe that a torpedo exploded in the front of the ship, sending it to the bottom of the sea.

Officials say they expect to recover just one-third of the crew because most of the sailors were probably in the front of the sub when the accident occurred.

Captain Igor Kurdin, the head of the St. Petersburg Submariners Club, says his organization is working with families to prepare them for the likelihood that their relatives may never be found.

He says that in cases where the bodies of victims cannot be found, the Russian Orthodox Church has approved a unique alternative:

"[The families] should be ready for the fact that inside the coffin there will be a capsule -- made from the metal of the submarine -- full of seawater. Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church approves of this solution."

Navy officials say that if weather conditions are good, the salvage operation could be finished sometime next month. The "Kursk" then will be towed into the port of Roslyakovo, in the Murmansk region, for inspection and dismantling.

For the time being, the victims' families are waiting and are ready to fly to Roslyakovo to identify the bodies.