Why Did Our Boys Have to Die?

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Dismal gray skies hang over this drab city so low that leaden clouds nearly touch the surrounding green hills. By week's end the mood in the city was as dismal. One thought was hanging over the daily chores of some half a million people in this northern Russian port and at the top-secret naval bases along the coast north and northwest of Murmansk: the fate of the 118 sailors either dead or dying slowly inside the steel hull of the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk lying on the bottom of the Barents sea 150 km to the northwest.

Murmansk the only city in Russia where street-corner displays indicate radiation levels along with air temperature is on edge. The thought of fellow countrymen dying so close is bad enough; worse is the general belief in Murmansk that the men were abandoned. The feeling that Russia's top military and political brass have been busy looking for the most plausible lie to explain the disaster is so depressing that it is almost physically unbearable. Says Sergei Kozlov, 55, a mechanical engineer: "The boys on Kursk are dying through neglect, incompetence and indifference on the part of the bosses. Later, they will tell us that the sailors have died heroically. In reality, they have been heroically killed."

The waves of pain spread far from Murmansk across the giant span of Russia, ranging from the city of Archangelsk, 1,200 km north of Moscow, to the city of Kursk, 400 km south of the capital, whose name the ill-fated submarine carries, and on to Yaroslavl, to Mineralniye Vody, to so many cities, towns and villages, where the Kursk sailors' families have been desperately trying to put together disjointed bits of information about their sons, husbands and brothers. Natalya Rvanina, a proofreader for an Archangelsk newspaper, had to wait until Wednesday night the Kursk had sunk the previous Saturday to learn whether her son, First Lieut. Maxim Rvanin, 24, an electrical engineer, was aboard the submarine. "On Monday, my father called with the news of the crash. I tried all official numbers I could find, nobody would say anything. Only on Wednesday they said they installed their hotline to tell us whether our children were aboard. By the end of Wednesday, they called me from our district military board to confirm that Maxim was indeed there. I don't want them any more. I switched off my TV. I just sit and wait."

Emma Yevdokimova in Kursk suffers the same anguish over her son Oleg, a cook on the submarine, who started his service as a conscript in May 1999. Oleg's 13-year-old sister Veronica made a clay angel and she has been praying to it for the life of her brother and his fellow sailors.

"We all know each other. It's our neighbors and friends who are on the bed of the Barents Sea. You can't begin to imagine our pain."

Nadezhda, 31, is a waitress at the officers' mess on the base. She served the Kursk officers their last breakfast before they sailed. "People gather at street corners in Vidyaevo. They're crying over our men," she says. "As far as we're concerned, we are already in mourning." Nadezhda said rumor hit the base Wednesday that the Navy had already ordered coffins to be made.

For much of the week, such rumors were the only source of information. Neither the Navy nor the government released any meaningful information. They invited officers' wives to a meeting, but, says Nadezhda, did not offer anything more than was said on TV. People could only ask indignantly why the government took so long to accept help offered by Britain and Norway.

The Vidyaevo people can't understand how the Kursk, the pride and beauty of the Russian navy became a grave in a matter of minutes. But many of them spoke of neglect. Nikolai, 37, a retired navy officer asks: "Don't you know the state of our armed forces? Sailors are supposed to go to sea, pilots are supposed to fly, but they don't. There is no money. People lose skills. The Kursk crew is made up of high-class professionals. Still, if the captain of a boat like Kursk, who commands the capacity to send the world to hell, is paid just 5,000 rubles ($180) a month, what do you expect?"

Says another naval officer, who lives in Severomorsk, the main northern fleet base: "Our ships, anchored by the shore, have not had maintenance for years. There are no spares. Anything that contains precious metals gets stolen and sold." He also had little faith in the rescue effort. "The equipment is in the same sorry condition," he says. Other officers, however, are skeptical of foreign assistance: "We are not all that great friends with nato, are we?" says one, Nikolai. "I'm also doubtful of the compatibility of their devices with ours."

Mikhail, a senior warrant officer from Severomorsk with 22 years of navy service, disagrees. "It was a terrible mistake that they did not accept foreign help right away," he says. "Anything should have been tried to save the boys." Asked why Moscow dragged its feet on this, Mikhail shrugs: "Isn't it obvious?'"

Finally, late on Thursday evening, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov faced the press in Murmansk. Asked why the government still had not released the names of those aboard the Kursk to relieve those families whose husbands and sons had stayed ashore, Klebanov, the head of the Kursk rescue commission, answered in surprise that he thought the list had already been published. It was difficult to hear what he was saying because Klebanov had no microphone for his briefing.

That fact seemed to sum up the official attitude to the sinking of the Kursk: when dealing with a disaster in Russia's nuclear Silent Service, the official policy is just that silence.