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Saturday, 26 August, 2000, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Tremors of the Kursk tragedy
Kursk archive picture
The Kursk tragedy has led to widespread anger among Russians
By Rob Parsons

One truth is unavoidable. Throughout these days of unmitigated grief in Russia, the Kremlin has wriggled and lied.

When the bereaved needed comfort and truth, the government could only offer evasion and the weasel words of those who have been found wanting.

Old habits die hard, particularly in a Russian military establishment nurtured on secrecy and the ways of the Cold War.

Old habits die hard but they are not immutable. This last week, the government has been exposed - in spite of all its miserable efforts to cloud the loss of the Kursk in a fug of obfuscation and media control.

One moment encapsulated this more than any other. Almost certainly, it was never meant to be seen.


Deputy prime minister Ilya Klebanov, the man chosen by the Kremlin to lead the investigation into the loss of the Kursk, sat at a desk in a dingy hall in Vidyaevo and surveyed his audience with a deepening sense of panic.

Kursk crew relatives
Bereaved relatives want to know what caused the disaster
He was out of his depth - well out of it. The hall was seething with the barely contained rage of relatives whose children, husbands and lovers were snatched away in an inferno of flame and thundering water hundreds of feet beneath the waves.

Luckily for Mr Klebanov, the hall in Vidyaevo, the delapidated home port of the Kursk, was also packed with naval officers. Their task was to contain the boiling emotions of the relatives.

But luck that evening wasn't all on the side of the hapless minister. Television cameras had penetrated the cordon of secrecy cast around the base.


Mr Klebanov had nothing to offer - not even contrition. The hall erupted. One woman, driven to despair by the loss of her son, would not be restrained. "You're swine," she screamed. "They're dying down there in a tin can for $50 a month and you don't care."

While she screamed the invective of despair and hands tugged at her sleeves to pull her away, a woman in a beige coat sidled up behind her and plunged a needle into her side.

It was an educative moment. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 but attitudes ingrained over seven decades have been slower to disappear. This is still a period of great tectonic shifts.

A grief-stricken relative is restrained by navy staff
A grief-stricken relative is restrained by navy staff
But there are signs that the tragedy of the Kursk may mark a turning point.

Many saw the pictures of the woman being injected and were shocked. Russia in 2000 is not what it was in 1991. The events of the last few days will accelerate the pace of change.

The blinds are coming off. The Kremlin and the military tried to conceal the truth and failed - little by little the Russian media have chipped away at their defences and forced the truth into the open.

Foreign journalists were kept at bay . One British camera crew was called in for questioning by the security services after daring to film outside the city limits of Murmansk.


Certain towns were off limits. But the Russian media penetrated the morass of lies with devastating effect.

All week, television and the newpapers homed in on the sequence of official lies, all week they highlighted and ridiculed the government's attempts to conceal the truth, all week they questioned why more was not done to accept foreign offers of help sooner.

On the street, ordinary people shared the despair of the relatives. If, at the beginning most seemed ready to give the government the benefit of the doubt, by the end there was only anger.

Russian papers
Russian media joined the scathing attacks on the authorities
They had seen the lies exposed, they had seen their president, flounder out of his depth, they had seen the military refuse foreign help rather than lose face - even if it meant saving the lives of 118 men.

And critically, they had seen that there was another way. After the Norwegians and British arrived, the trickle of information turned into a flood.

The gloss has been taken off Vladimir Putin's presidency but he does not appear to have suffered critical damage.


A poll carried out after the deaths of the crew were announced shows that he still has the approval of the vast majority of Russians.

But Mr Putin must sense a shift has taken place in society. Tough decisions lie ahead. One of the most critical will be reform of the military.

When the Soviet Union broke up, Russia inherited the armed forces of a super power while its GDP shrunk to the size of Belgium's.

It is a reality the Kremlin has been slow to accept - until it does disasters will be waiting to happen.

But Mr Putin knows he cannot afford another tragedy like the Kursk.

The Kursk submarine accident

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See also:

25 Aug 00 | Scotland
24 Aug 00 | Europe
25 Aug 00 | Media reports
24 Aug 00 | Europe
22 Aug 00 | Scotland
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