MOSCOW -- In August 2000, the nuclear submarine Kursk left a port above Russia’s Arctic Circle for naval exercises on the Barents Sea. Not long after departure, one of the torpedoes on board the vessel exploded in its hatch, killing most of the 118 crew members and sending the wreck, along with 23 survivors, hurtling to the seafloor.
The blast was picked up on seismographs across Europe, but the Russian Navy made no public acknowledgement of the catastrophe. President Vladimir Putin, then just over three months into his first Kremlin term, continued vacationing on the Black Sea and made no statement about the Kursk for more than a week until his reluctant return to Moscow.
In the submarine wreck, the 23 men barricaded themselves in a flooded rear compartment and awaited a rescue that never came. It wasn’t until nine days after the incident, on August 21, that a team of British and Norwegian divers accessed the vessel and found its entire crew dead. Two decades on, a catastrophe that reshaped Russia’s political system remains shrouded in mystery, compounded by the effects of the cover-up that followed it.
On August 12, Russia is marking the 20th anniversary of the Kursk’s sinking with low-key ceremonies. In St. Petersburg, the names of all 118 crew members will be recited at a church service before a flower-laying ceremony at a local cemetery where 23 of them lie buried.
“Our main task today is to remember our heroes, remember the commander, and remember the crew. We want all our residents, and all Russians, to once again return to those events,” St. Petersburg official Aleksandr Rzhanenkov told a press conference on August 10.
At least six other cities announced commemorative events.
But despite its role as a defining moment for Russia’s political trajectory under Putin, the episode that marked the first major challenge of his presidency has in some ways faded from collective memory amid its continued exclusion from state TV reports and official statements.
A survey conducted by the Levada Center pollster in 2015 -- to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the catastrophe -- found that the proportion of Russians who believed the authorities had failed in their response had more than halved, a phenomenon that Levada’s Director Lev Gudkov attributed at the time to a lack of official coverage of this and other tragedies in which authorities are seen as complicit.
Putin acted "dishonorably" after news of the tragedy emerged, Gudkov said, and subsequently has sought to ensure that the episode, and its fallout, gradually slip from people’s minds.
“Silence about this catastrophe has led to a situation where a very large proportion of people has simply forgotten about it,” Gudkov told RFE/RL by phone. “Censorship in the media has blocked information about it, and only on social networks has discussion continued.”
However, Gudkov speculated that if Levada had repeated its survey this year, the percentage of responses critical of the official response in 2000 would have risen from the findings of 2015, somewhat reversing the trend the previous survey exposed. Putin’s approval rating has been steadily falling over the past two years, ushering in a political mood that inspires fewer favorable assessments of his two-decade rule.
But the silence on government-funded TV, which despite the rise of social media still serves as the primary source of news for the population at large, highlights in itself the extent to which the political landscape in Russia has changed in the 20 years since the Kursk catastrophe.
In August 2000, the channels that laud Putin today were owned by private individuals and often scathing in their portrayal of his government. Channel One, owned at the time by the late tycoon Boris Berezovsky, broadcast relentless reports about the authorities’ bungled response and compared its handling of the Kursk disaster to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident of 1986.
In Putin’s People, a new book investigating Putin’s rise by journalist Catherine Belton, a person once close to the Russian president says the newly minted leader was paralyzed by fear when the Kursk disaster struck, and livid over the ways TV amplified his desultory response.
“He didn’t know how to deal with it, and therefore he tried to avoid dealing with it,” Belton quotes the former Putin ally as saying. “The Norwegians and others were calling in with offers of help. But he did not want them to uncover that everyone was dead, and so he just refused the help -- which, of course, made everything worse.”
When Putin finally visited the closed military city that served as the Kursk’s home port and spoke to a hall packed with bereaved relatives a full 10 days after the catastrophe, he put the blame on Russia’s economic and military decline over the previous decade – before he came to power -- and denounced the TV channels that had slammed his fumbled response.
“They bought the media and now they’re manipulating public opinion,” he said of Berezovsky and other powerful media magnates.
In the months that followed, Putin’s government would bring Channel One under the control of the state, forcing Berezovsky to sell his stake under duress and eventually flee Russia, and seized the NTV channel from another business titan, Vladimir Gusinsky.
His government would also launch a major program to revive Russia’s military, ratcheting up defense spending and drawing accusations of backtracking on democracy as he moved to institute a centralized political system that the country retains to this day.
But the Kursk tragedy has remained an unsightly scar on Putin’s record. In 2010, on its 10th anniversary, neither he, as prime minister at the time, nor then-President Dmitry Medvedev made any public comments on modern Russia's worst naval disaster.