The discovery was as poignant as it was horrifying. When divers brought up the body of Lieut. Captain Dmitri Kolesnikov from the sunken Russian submarine Kursk, Navy pathologists discovered a note the doomed sailor had written as he waited to die in the shattered hulk on the bottom of the Barents Sea, just two days after his 27th birthday. "There are 23 men here ... None of us can reach the surface." The note also included a personal farewell to Kolesnikov's widow, Olga, whom he married just three months before the disaster. It ended with the nearly illegible words: "I'm writing this in darkness."
The note was the first concrete evidence that some of the 118 crewmen of the Kursk lived at least a few hours after a devastating explosion tore through the forward part of the nuclear-powered submarine on Aug. 12. Written from 1.15 p.m. through about 1.50 p.m., it tragically refutes the official version of the disaster — that the Kursk sank late at night on Aug. 12, and that the crew died instantly, or nearly so, justifying the Russian government's early unwillingness to accept foreign help in a rescue effort.
In the end, the Russians asked foreigners to help in the gruesome task of recovering bodies. A team of Norwegian and Russian divers cut a meter-wide hole in the boat's double hull, through which they recovered four bodies, including Kolesnikov's, last Wednesday. Over the next 18 to 20 days they plan to attempt several more such penetrations in other parts of the damaged hull.
Although foreign divers helped cut through the 10 cm of reinforced metal in murky conditions 108 m below the surface, only Russians actually entered. The official reason was to minimize risk to the foreigners. But off the record, military sources cited a more realistic reason: they wanted to remove classified documents, codes and secret weaponry before nato spies could get hold of them inside the Kursk, which was one of the most sophisticated weapons systems in the Russian arsenal.
But the gruesome find might be more damaging to the Kremlin than NATO espionage. The mission is cutting gaping holes in what little was left of public confidence in the Russian military, in their President and the state.
The recovery mission was ordered after President Vladimir Putin in August faced the fury of some 500 outraged and grieving relatives of the Kursk crew. With his prestige and that of the military's on the line, he promised that the bodies would be retrieved. But two months later, at least 70 families voiced opposition to the mission. They instead called for a delay until next year when the entire submarine might be raised with all the bodies inside. Nor, they said, should "other families suffer the same grief" should any of the divers die in the dangerous salvage effort.
The decision to cut into the hull, experts say, could jeopardize chances of raising the boat, which is already weakened by the double explosion that ripped open its forward sections in the morning of Aug. 12. If it should break apart during a salvage operation, pipes that carried coolant water to its twin reactors could rupture, allowing highly radioactive material to spill into the open sea.
Experts, politicians and the top navy brass were divided on the advisability of raising the Kursk or probing for bodies. Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, head of a state commission appointed to deal with the disaster, insisted that the operation should go ahead while Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, the navy commander, declared that the mission's chances were "extremely slim." But the final word came from the top. "The President said that we would do this," Kuroyedov declared last week, though he added: "Should the situation prove too risky for the divers, I'll be forced to abort."
Political ambition played a role in the decision. "Klebanov covets the premiership," commented Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. But should the Kursk salvage prove less politically advantageous than he led the President to believe, says Ryabov, Klebanov might instead lose his present job as a Deputy Prime Minister.
The admirals of the navy high command, too, have much to lose in the salvage operation. Before the sinking of the Kursk Putin had promised to restore the might and prestige of a navy that has dwindled to less than 20% of the 900-ship fleet that flew the hammer-and-sickle flag at the height of Soviet military power in 1987. Putin stepped up military spending and planned to send the Russian fleet on a Mediterranean show-the-flag cruise later this year. The operation in which the Kursk sank, in fact, was planned as a full-dress rehearsal for that deployment.
But the entire Northern Fleet has been diverted to participate in the Kursk operation and has been patrolling the scene of the tragedy since, using up fuel and other resources that had been reserved for the Mediterranean task force.The current salvage mission has cost at least $3 million and raising the Kursk next year could run into some $30 to $40 million more, funds the navy can ill afford.
So instead of a proud show of force, the navy canceled the Mediterranean cruise and will now confine most of its fuelless fleet to port, a prospect that angers military leaders. "As always, the President says all the right words, as always they have not been followed by right deeds," fumed a commentary in the Independent Military Review Weekly.
But the politics of power hardly mattered to the grieving families of Kolesnikov and his comrades. All they could think of was the sadness and suffering of their men as they died in the Kursk's freezing blackness, knowing that they had no way out and that nobody was coming to save them.