Kursk disaster 22 years later: writing on the wall

Vladimir Putin, Russian dictator, on board of the "Vladimir Velikiy" cruiser, 2005. (Russian) Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office

The life of Russian servicemen seems to have value for the rulers of the Kremlin only insofar as they make for warm bodies to be hurled at the enemy. The meat grinder that is the Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven this beyond any doubt. And this is not by any means a recent development: this was the case in Afghanistan, both World Wars, and even earlier. If the sinking of the Kursk submarine 22 years ago has taught us anything, it is that it should have been seen as the writing on the wall, that nothing has changed and foreboding what was to come.

Today, the entire world can see Vladimir Putin for what he is: a bloodthirsty dictator. For many, it took the brutal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine to open their eyes to this reality. The war in the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea, the 2008 invasion of Georgia, and the many, many years of increasingly aggressive rhetoric, iron-grip control over the media, and the persecution of dissidents, including murder, were not enough, apparently.

Putin’s road to power

But 2000 was the first year of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. And the new ruler of the Kremlin seemed full of promises. He replaced Boris Yeltsin, who during his eight years in office as the President of Russia mainly presided over the country’s economic collapse, the increasing rule of oligarchs, and a spike in crime. Not to mention that his public image was tarnished by his penchant for alcohol and accusations of corruption.

The young and dynamic Putin, who served as Prime Minister under Yeltsin, assumed the role of acting President. By the time Yeltsin resigned on New Year’s Eve of 1999, Prime Minister Putin showed himself as a tough leader and man of action. He was behind sending the military to Chechenya and Dagestan to crack down on Chechen separatists, who were accused of launching a terror bombing campaign against civilian targets in Russia, which claimed the lives of some 350 people.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB agent who defected to the West would later accuse Putin of instigating the bombing campaign in order to give him an excuse for the crackdown. Several years after his defection, Litvinenko paid with his life for the accusations, after being poisoned with radioactive polonium. Poisoning of inconvenient individuals such as Litvinenko, Ukrainian politician and later president Viktor Yushchenko, and Russian dissident Alexei Navalny (the two latter were fortunate enough to survive the attempts on their lives) became a trademark of Putin’s regime.

Russian Federal forces' incursion into Dagestan and Chechnya became what is now known as the Second Chechen War.

Although the insurgency phase of the war would drag on until 2009 and continue to claim the lives of Russian soldiers and Chechen freedom fighters, Russia formally re-established federal authority over Chechnya in May 2000, soon after Putin won the presidential election held on April 23 with 53 percent in the first round.

Putin’s ‘splendid little war’ in Chechnya, the first one in a whole series of military excursions, had achieved its goal. Putin had a chance to show himself as a strong leader.

And with Russia back on track to restore its former glory, it was time to display the might of the Russian Navy.


The “Summer-X” naval exercises conducted in the Barents Sea in mid-August 2020, off the north coast of the Kola Peninsula and close to the northeastern tip of Norway, were the first large-scale naval manoeuvres to be conducted in ten years, and the first of such massive exercises since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And the Kursk nuclear submarine was to be the star of the show.

K-141 Kursk was a veritable Behemoth - or perhaps more appropriately - Leviathan.

Kursk K-141. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, fair use

The exact dimension and technical characteristics would cause any submarine buff to break into a sweat, salivate, and bite their lips in arousal. For the benefit of the lay people, suffice it to say that the pride and joy of the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet was 154 metres long and had a beam (width) of 18 metres. That made for a lot of real estate.

Kursk belonged to the family of Oscar-class (NATO designation) submarines. Its construction began in 1990, back when the whole world could hear the good ole’ USSR’s death rattle, and its construction was finally completed and the ship was commissioned in 1994. It was one of a large number of ships in its class, but it had an almost legendary status. Just prior to the “Summer-X” exercises its crew won a citation for its excellent performance and was recognised as the best submarine crew in the Northern Fleet.

Pride always comes before a fall.

On the morning of August 12, Kursk received a go-ahead from the command to launch dummy torpedoes at one of the cruisers that simulated an enemy vessel. At 11:29 am local time, the crew loaded the dummy torpedo into the torpedo tube.

Within the same minute, seismic detectors in Norway and elsewhere around the world wherever the shockwave reached, recorded a seismic event of 1.5 Richter scale, followed by a 4.5 Richter scale event exactly 2 minutes and 14 seconds later.

In terms of earthquakes, these are not particularly high figures. Most people would barely register them. But the fact that seismographs would record a man-made explosion is something that usually indicates that something truly off just happened…

The (lack of) reaction

Other ships participating in the exercises have recorded the explosion, in some cases, the crews of nearby ships even felt the shockwave. But everyone assumed that the explosion was a part of the exercises.

But after the firing practice, Kursk was supposed to resurface. It never did.

Commanders of other vessels participating in the drills began to get concerned about Kursk’s failure to resurface. Not only could other vessels and the aeroplanes dispatched to search for Kursk locate it on the surface, but they also could not locate the rescue buoy that would in normal circumstances be released in order to facilitate the location of the submarine.

It was later revealed that the buoy had been disabled a year earlier when Kursk was in the Mediterranean, where it was sent in an act of a display of force during the Kosovo War in the Balkans. It was feared that the malfunction-prone device could accidentally reveal the submarine's location. And no one had re-activated it since.

It was not until the evening that Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, the commander of the Northern Fleet, called a search-and-rescue operation, and not until 12 hours after the initial explosion that Admiral Popov notified the Kremlin of what occurred. And even then, the Russian Minister of Defence Igor Sergeyev decided to not inform Putin (who was then vacationing in Sochi, the southern part of European Russia) of what had happened.

Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, Russian Navy's North Fleet commander in 2000. Photo: council.gov.ru, CC BY 4.0

Once he was told that Kursk was missing, Putin was advised that the situation was under control and that there was no need for him to arrive on the scene. The North Fleet command also reportedly told him that the incident was caused by a collision with another vessel, implying that the western militaries were spying on the naval exercises and that foreign help that would be offered should be refused.

And on the morning of the next day, Sunday, Admiral Popov nonetheless told the reporters that the naval exercises had been a success.

By that time, the US and Norway already figured out what had happened and offered their assistance in rescuing survivors from the wreck, as did the British, French, German, Israeli, and Italian governments. As per previous advice from the Navy, these offers were rebuffed. Most likely it was too late to save anyone by that time anyway. But that was only established later and at that time no one could know that such an effort would have been in vain.

Ultimately, Russia’s refusal to accept help was doubtlessly motivated by either or both of the following factors:

1. trying to save face by refusing to acknowledge that they needed help;

2. trying to keep the western countries as far away from the wreck for fear of them learning something, anything, of the Oscar-class submarines.

In keeping with the best traditions of the Soviet Union, the Navy tried to cover their behinds, just as kolkhozes and other state-run enterprises would fail to report problems, low outputs or technical difficulties, creating a virtual reality. And then everyone would wonder, how come in the Soviet Workers’ Paradise, there was always a shortage of everything…

This has not changed since, and the intelligence reports and experts occasionally mention how the Russian Federation’s Security Services and Armed Forces continue lying to Putin about their capabilities and pull wool over the Kremlin dictator’s eyes as to the real situation (i.e.: utter failure) in Ukraine. Hence, the “three-day special military operation to denazify Ukraine” is now in its 170th day.

The notion that the Russian Navy or the Kremlin would have been concerned about the fate of the sailors is the stuff of fairy tales.

It was not until Monday, August 14, two days after the incident, that the first official announcement of it was made by the Russian authorities.

Reportedly. Kursk had had “minor technical difficulties” and the submarine had “descended to the ocean floor” but contact had been established with the crew and air and power were being pumped to the boat. Also “everyone on board is alive.”

If these statements ring a bell, then it is because a similar narrative was peddled after Ukrainians successfully struck at and sunk the Moskva cruiser.

Most likely by that time, no one on board was alive and the following section of the article describes what happened to the crew of the Kursk on that fateful day. And be advised, that it is not something the faint of heart should read.

The horror

When the dummy torpedoes were loaded and launched, a faulty weld in the casing of one of them leaked high-test peroxide. It came into contact with the torpedo’s fuel, causing a massive explosion.

Of the 118 sailors on board, bodies of all but three were recovered during the subsequent salvage operation. The three missing sailors were the ones in the torpedo room. It was established that their bodies were vaporised in the explosion.

Lucky devils, they were not the only lucky ones to be killed immediately. The power of the explosion was so great, that as the shockwave rippled through the vessel, it killed everyone in its way practically instantly. The power of the blast was so great that one member of the crew was, upon recovery, found EMBEDDED in the ceiling.

23 members of the crew, many of them badly injured, survived the initial blast and found their way to the rear of the submarine, where there was still an air pocket. The senior ranking officer was Captain Lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov, who wrote on a piece of paper that:

“It's 1:15 pm [1 hour and 45 minutes after the blast]. All personnel from sections six, seven, and eight have moved to section nine, 23 people are here.”

He also wrote that the survivors refused to use the escape hatch for fear of succumbing to decompression sickness and decided to wait for rescue.

That message was written in normal handwriting, indicating that Cpt. Lt. Kolesnikov had some source of light. A note made two hours later was written in almost indecipherable handwriting and said:

“It's dark here to write, but I'll try my best. It seems like there are no chances, 10–20%. Let's hope that at least someone will read this. Here's the list of personnel from the other sections, who are now in the ninth and will attempt to get out. Regards to everybody, no need to despair. Kolesnikov”

After the section in which the survivors sought refuge was salvaged, it was established that they had a large number of potassium superoxide chemical cartridges. These could be used to absorb CO2 and chemically release oxygen to keep the survivors alive, but the chemical burns on some of the bodies, including Cpt. Lt. Kolesnikov suggested that one of the said cartridges dropped into the water, which was mixed with other chemicals (e.g. fuel), and caused a flash fire that killed the survivors.

So by the time anyone on the surface took notice, the crew of the Kursk were probably all dead.

But that is not what the families of the sailors were told at the time.

The families and the media

As the Kursk failed to return to its home base in Vidyayevo and there was no information as to where the submarine was, the wives of the crewmembers became concerned and rumours started to spread. Initially, the families would tell themselves that it was probably just malfunctioning communication systems. Nonetheless, the phone operator at the base noted that an extraordinary number of phone calls inquiring about the ship’s return were made.

The truth inevitably came out, although many families of the deceased sailors would not learn the truth from the authorities, but from the media. The Russian media landscape in 2000 was not what it is now. Roskomnadzor, the agency tasked with “supervising” the media, would not be established until May 2008. Several months before the Russian invasion of Georgia, which can hardly be considered coincidental.

On August 16, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, in charge of the entire Russian Navy, said that foreign offers of assistance were accepted immediately. He made the mistake of saying it during a meeting with the crewmen’s families. They shouted him down.

The families have also been offered compensation of RUB 1,000 (USD 37 in 2000 money). Putin would later raise the compensation to an equivalent of a 10-years-worth salary: RUB 350,000 (USD 7,000 at the time).

On August 22, ten days after the sinking, Putin appeared at the Vidayevo naval base to meet with the families of the sailors. By that time, the families of the crew were in a frenzy, furious after being lied to for so long.

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“Do you believe our men are still alive?”

“Why have you murdered our boys?”

“When will their bodies be brought home?”

“When will we get them back, dead or alive?”

“Who are you going to punish for their deaths, and how?”

All these were questions the families wanted to be answered.

One of the mothers, Nadezhda Tylik, was particularly persistent. She accused Putin and the naval command of lying to the families, and even shouted at them “Better shoot yourselves now! We won't let you live, you bastards!”

Eventually, a nurse appeared behind Tylik and forcibly injected her with a sedative. She was subsequently carried away.

The television crews present at the scene captured everything that happened. But almost none of it made it to the Russian media, it was only broadcast in the west.

President Putin was quick to identify those that were at fault for the disaster. The oligarchs. And the media that they controlled. The media that were not under Kremlin’s control.

“There are people on television today who [...] over the last 10 years destroyed the very army and fleet where people are dying now [...] They stole money, they bought the media, and they're manipulating public opinion.”

Vladimir Putin meeting the relatives of the Kursk crew, August 22, 2000. Photo: (Russian) Presidential Press and Information Office

As previously mentioned, many of the families of the dead sailors learned the truth about the fate of their loved ones from the media. That is also from where they learned about the government’s refusal to accept foreign assistance, in contradiction to what they were told by the likes of Admiral Kuroyedov.

Putin lost his cool. He shouted:

“They're lying! They're lying! They're lying!”

He did not mean the military. He meant the independent media. And he promised that he would ensure the people would be given access to “honest and objective” media.

Putin delivered on his promise. In a fashion. And 22 years after the tragedy that was the sinking of the Kursk, we can see the outcome. The independent media landscape in Russia is a desolate wasteland, with media outlets that fail to toe the line of the state-sanctioned narrative being branded as “foreign agents”, slapped with fines, or just downright getting shut down. With journalists being jailed, if they are lucky, and found dead, killed by “unknown perpetrators”, if they are not.

The latter was the fate of Anna Politkovskaya, who was found murdered in front of the apartment building in 2006. Politkovskaya reported on the war in Chechnya. The same war Putin “won” back in 2000.

The aftermath

The salvage operation was conducted in 2021. Most of the submarine's hull and all of the 118 crew members’ bodies, save for the three that were obliterated in the initial blast, were recovered. The fallen were laid to rest.

Salvaged wreck of K-141 Kursk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, fair use

In 2022, Russia’s Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov prepared a 133-page report on the causes of the disaster. The entirety of the report was confidential, but the government released a four-page summary of it via a state-controlled “Rossiyskaya Gazeta” daily. The summary mentioned “stunning breaches of discipline, shoddy, obsolete, and poorly maintained equipment” and "negligence, incompetence, and mismanagement” as the reasons behind the tragedy. The report also said that the rescue operation was unjustifiably delayed.

This was probably the swan song of the truth when it comes to Russian state media.

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In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia under the pretence of assisting South Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists.

In 2014, “Zyelonye Chelovechki” (Little Green Men) occupied the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and started a war in the eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas. They were equipped with Russian-made weapons and Russian uniforms (save for distinctions identifying their affiliation), which, according to Putin, could be obtained “at any [demob] store”.

And on February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion… sorry, a full-scale “special military operation” to “de-nazify” Ukraine.

Russian invaders have committed an incalculable number of despicable crimes in Ukraine. In spite of what some people are saying, the blame for them does not lie with Putin or his Kremlin cronies alone, nor on the actual perpetrators of murder, rape, and torture, who committed these atrocities against the Ukrainian civilians in places like Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, and elsewhere. The blame also lies with the Russian people, who support the regime, themselves.

But although the Russian people themselves are not in any way absolved from blame, it would be wrong not to recognise that the war takes its toll on them. They have been brainwashed by Putin’s “honest and objective” Kremlin-controlled media. Sons, brothers, and fathers of Russian families are used by the regime as cannon fodder, while the media force-feeds the populace a skewed narrative about not only what is the role of the Russian soldiers in Ukraine, but also about what they are dying for.

The Russian government is lying to its own people not only about the invasion of Ukraine but also about the casualties the Russian armed forces are sustaining. Conscripts doing their compulsory military service are being sent to a war zone in violation of Russia’s own law.

And after 22 years of Putinist propaganda poisoning the minds of the Russian people, it is hard to expect them to be able to think for themselves. But just imagine what a Russian soldier’s mother must feel or think when she is constantly bombarded with Kremlin propaganda, and at the same time, she mourns a son who has been killed while “on an assignment” to a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

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For over 70 years the Russian people lived under a communist regime, which has made them passive. Make no mistake: such were the foundations that were laid uponthe previous centuries of tsarist oppression, under which the common people were treated as little more than dirt. And the democratic experiment of the 1990s, which imminently devolved into a kleptocratic dystopia, did not encourage the Russians towards taking on western values. Because just as with “Vkusno i tochka” which recently replaced McDonald’s, they were sold a cheap imitation of true democracy and western values. A mouldy bun, and to that, with bugs in it.

The current state of Russia is what it is for a number of reasons. But the sinking of the Kursk, and the death of its 118 crewmen, and the lies the authorities attempted to feed families of the dead sailors as well as the general populace, and Putin’s crackdown on independent media… all those factor into what we are seeing right now in Ukraine.