Why you should care
Because this disaster helped make Putin’s Russia what it is today.
In a seismic reading station in Alaska, needles jumped unexpectedly. At first glance, researchers thought they were looking at a natural seismic event. It was clearly somewhere far away, but it was significant — 4.2 on the Richter scale, the kind of earthquake that knocks picture frames off walls.
The truth was far more violent.
Thousands of miles away, two massive explosions had just ripped through a vessel the size of two 747s. Amid a giant Russian naval exercise, a submarine called the Kursk had been cruising through the Barents Sea, off the coast of Russia and Finland. Within seconds, it had gone from being the pride of the navy to a death trap, sinking with 118 souls aboard.
There are 23 of us here.… None of us can get out.
Exactly what happened on Aug. 12, 2000, remains unknown because the submarine sank with live warheads aboard, spawning plenty of conspiracy theories. But much of the Kursk’s dark mystery relates to Russia massively mishandling all rescue attempts — and then trying to cover up the disaster. At the time, Russian authorities accused U.S. and British submarines of spying on their naval exercises — so closely, they insisted, that one collided with the Kursk. Americans, meanwhile, muttered that the Russians must have had some kind of new, deadly weapon on board to produce such a giant explosion.
Sixteen years later, the best guess is that the Kursk was carrying the exact opposite of a high-tech weapon. It had been equipped with aging torpedoes fueled by HTP, or high-test peroxide, a substance banned by other major naval powers in the 1950s. If HTP leaks onto other parts of a torpedo’s highly volatile engine, it quickly expands in a chemical reaction that can cause a deadly explosion. That, according to a 2002 official government investigation, was what caused the first explosion on the Kursk, which sent it careening toward the ocean floor. The next explosion — the one that registered in Alaska — came when the sub hit the seafloor, triggering other torpedoes.
Most of the Kursk’s sailors died within minutes. Twenty-three, though, survived for nearly four hours, trapped in a compartment with no way out. One officer, Dimitri Kolesnikov, managed to scrawl a handwritten log as the lights slowly dimmed. Divers who pulled Kolesnikov’s body from the wreckage weeks later discovered the log — including a note to his family — in his pocket. “All personnel from compartments six, seven and eight moved to the ninth,” he wrote. “There are 23 of us here.… None of us can get out.”
The sinking of the Kursk was like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, and yet it came at a moment when we appeared to be leaving the Cold War behind. The U.S. was well into a heated election season, and the outgoing Bill Clinton, who had overseen significant cuts to U.S. military spending — especially to America’s naval fleet — had just heralded Russia’s eight-months-in president as the beginning of a new era. “Under President Putin,” Clinton had said two months earlier, “Russia has the chance to build prosperity and strength while safeguarding the rule of law.” Indeed, the Kursk disaster presented Putin with the opportunity to reach out for international assistance, but he decided against it, setting precedent for the rest of his tenure.
Though known as a former KGB agent, Putin didn’t yet have the fearsome reputation he does today. In 2000, Russia was a different place — as evidenced by the fact that the media could still make Putin squirm. “Russia was still getting used to a post–Cold War media culture,” says historian George May. “The idea that you could call the government out on national television was still very new. The Kursk disaster was a real turning point for how Russians thought of themselves as global citizens.”
And they had plenty of fodder. As family and friends of Kursk sailors waited for news, it became clear that the government — which had refused offers of aid from other countries to recover the sub — had known from the beginning there was no hope of finding survivors. The submarine had gone down too quickly, and the Russian navy had taken too long organizing outdated diving bells and divers to find the Kursk. As well, Putin had waited five days to accept offers of foreign assistance. Some still argue that the British or Norwegians, with their more advanced rescue equipment, could have rescued the trapped sailors.
Things came to a head when Putin gave a press conference 10 days after the accident. A woman in a traditional Russian headscarf stood up, shaking her fists and berating Putin, her voice trembling with rage. The Russian president himself was completely unlike the shark-eyed, thin-lipped man of steel we know today. Crouching defensively at the podium, Putin spoke softly and hesitantly. He looked pale and diminutive and very much not in charge as he tried to defend the government’s shaky relationship with the truth. Lawyer Boris Kuznetsov, who represented 55 families of Kursk sailors and later sought political asylum in the U.S., would write that it was Putin’s “worst moment.”
And indeed it was a moment Putin was determined not to repeat. He accused the media of “exploiting” the Kursk disaster for political purposes — and tipped Russia toward its present-day media repression. The Kursk could have been a moment when the world came together over a horrific tragedy. But the Cold War was not as over as it seemed.