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Remembering the Kursk in Murmansk

4 minute read
Peter Savodnik

The Russian government has said little about the Kursk nuclear submarine since it sank in the Barents Sea on Aug. 12, 2000, leaving 118 sailors and officers dead. Then President Vladimir Putin waited five days while vacationing on the Black Sea to comment; when friends and relatives of the dead unfurled a memorial in Moscow on the second anniversary of the disaster, not a single senior government official attended. This is not surprising. The Kursk went down when one of its torpedoes blew up. Remembering this sort of self-inflicted tragedy would conflict with Soviet — and post-Soviet — myth-making about the power and glory of the Russian military.

(See pictures from the mission to recover victims from the Kursk.)

But on Mar. 17, after months of searching, Tatyana Abramova, a reporter at the newspaper Murmanskiy Vestnik, happened upon the deck cabin of the Kursk in a dump outside Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, and a few miles from the headquarters of the Northern Fleet. “It was like seeing people who had died,” Abramova says, of finding the hulking section that once wrapped around the central nervous system of the 154-ft. (47 m) sub. Abramova’s father and uncle, like so many men in this city pockmarked with Khrushchev-era apartment blocks and cell-phone billboards, were once submariners.

(Read: “The Second Revolution.”)

The discovery of the cabin, which is painted black and stands about 10 ft. tall, sparked a furor in Murmansk; at an Apr. 29 town-hall meeting, locals said they wanted it turned into a memorial. Regional governor Dmitry Dmitriyenko pledged his support and the city has set aside a small plot overlooking the harbor and next to another memorial, a lighthouse dedicated to sailors who died in peacetime. (This memorial also mentions the Kursk sailors, but Vitaly Poborchiy, a local businessman and ranking member of the regional branch of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, says townsfolk want a monument dedicated solely to the Kursk.)

There is a contradiction here: The people spearheading the memorial are Kremlin loyalists who do whatever Moscow tells them to do, while the memorial they are building appears to conflict with Kremlin interests. Poborchiy nicely captures this incongruity. At 51, he admires Putin, who may no longer officially run the Kremlin but is assumed to orchestrate the every move of his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Indeed, Poborchiy seems self-consciously Putinesque, sporting a tracksuit with the Russian tricolor and leading a men’s team 
 of ice swimmers who converge on a lake for morning races every winter, when Murmansk descends into darkness for nearly two months.

(See pictures of Russia celebrating Victory Day.)

But Poborchiy is also convinced that Putin is lying. “I want the truth known. I don’t believe the official version of events,” he says, adding that he believes the thesis advanced by a 2004 French documentary that contended a U.S. submarine torpedoed the Kursk. The new memorial, he says, will ensure that the men who died will never be forgotten.

This is the kind of remembering the Kremlin has yet to embrace. Memorials in Soviet times were monuments to national greatness: towering monoliths like Lyosha, the 115-ft. (35 m) statue of a soldier down the road from the future Kursk memorial. These Soviet-era monuments were designed to inculcate belief in (and fear of) the regime. Like his Soviet predecessors, Putin has shown a distaste for acknowledging weakness or tragedy. “In the Russian mentality,” says Anna Kireeva of the environmental group Bellona, which investigated the Kursk sinking out of concern that nuclear waste might seep from the submarine, “there is a joke: Rule 1 is the boss is always right. Rule 2 is, if the boss is wrong, see Rule 1.”

Kireeva suggests a possible explanation for local apparatchiks rallying around the kind of memorial that Moscow rejects: political expediency. “Medvedev and Putin have the least support in the whole country in Murmansk,” she says. “United Russia knows this.” A little remembering might be the price the regime has to pay to keep the peace.

Read “The Kursk: Accidents Can Happen.”

See pictures of Obama in Russia.

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