The same accident occurred with the British submarine
"Sidon" in 1955, after which the Royal Navy stopped using HTP
Johnson's Russia List
25 June 2002
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A CDI Project
Los Angeles Times
June 24, 2002
Kursk's Tragedy--and Hope
After nearly two years, the mystery of the deep is solved on the surface
and the men and boys who suffocated on the sunken Russian submarine Kursk
in August 2000 are home for burial. The official verdict: One of the
submerged Kursk's own torpedoes, powered by volatile hydrogen peroxide,
exploded, igniting others, shattering the bow and sending the 14,000-ton
sub and 118 crewmen to drift helplessly 350 feet down to the Barents Sea's
muddy bottom off Norway. Another maritime tragedy that makes people
everywhere wince in sympathy for families they don't know.
But even in the chilled murk of those hostile waters, the Kursk calamity
revealed much--about the unpreparedness, poor maintenance and morale and
rigid mind-set of the underfunded Russian military and about the inertia
and arrogance of a totalitarian bureaucracy being forced into the daylight
by developing democracy. As President Mikhail S. Gorbachev used the 1986
Chernobyl disaster to force reforms, there's hope that President Vladimir
V. Putin, after an initial misstep, is using the Kursk similarly. The
sinking was secret for one costly day, then fudged for another. Rescue
equipment had been mothballed for budget reasons. Military big hats,
dodging responsibility, suggested that an aged mine caused the disaster or,
better yet, a foreign vessel. Only after four days of saturation media
coverage did Putin interrupt a beach vacation to visit the scene--a PR
lesson in humanity long learned by officials elsewhere but something
Russian leaders from the czar on had ignored.
Russia's military was loath to seek help from foreigners, who
routinely--and unashamedly--swap assistance for emergencies such as vast
forest fires. Help was too late; all probably died within hours, some after
penning farewells. Putin held a town meeting and vowed to investigate and
to recover remains of the crew and ship, a $130-million gesture that has
fueled his domestic popularity.
It will take much more than PR gestures and torpedo-fuel changes before
Russia's authoritarian society creaks haltingly into an openly responsive
civil society for the 21st century. The fundamental modernization of Russia
will take patience, persistence, cleverness, time and probably a healthy
dose of luck.
If this sad loss and aftermath provide needed impetus for ongoing reforms,
then the Kursk lives were not wasted. Little solace for those 118 families.
But moderate encouragement for their countrymen and many millions of others
who share this Earth with, and hopes for, that vast land.