Europe

Kursk sinking: Russia marks 15th anniversary

Russia's Kursk submarine, which later sank, in an undated picture Image copyright AFP
Image caption A group of 23 men survived the initial explosion, but died waiting to be rescued

Russia has been marking 15 years since the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea, with the deaths of all 118 men on board.

Memorial services have been taking place, with flags lowered in ports and cities with links to the tragedy.

The sinking was a major challenge for Vladimir Putin, then the newly elected as president, who faced criticism for not calling in international help.

But a recent poll suggests increasing support for how he responded.

It was 11:28 local time when the first powerful blast ripped through the Kursk on 12 August 2000. A torpedo had exploded during an exercise.

The blast at sea was detected by international monitors. But, for two days, Russia kept silent about the disaster and President Putin stayed on holiday.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Norwegian divers were first to reach the stricken vessel, but its crew had perished

He returned to insist that Russia could manage the highly sensitive rescue operation alone: the Kursk had been the pride of the Russian fleet.

But it proved complicated. In the end, it was Norwegian divers who managed to open the submarine hatch and by then the entire crew had perished.

A note found on one of the men revealed that 23 crew members had survived the initial explosions, but died waiting for help.

At the time, media reports were highly critical of how the crisis was handled. Russians were glued to their TV screens, following every twist of the increasingly desperate rescue operation.

The coverage included footage of grieving women, screaming at a very uncomfortable-looking President Putin.

For some, that marked a turning point.

Today, television news is almost entirely under state control and reporting on the anniversary has been limited.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Russia's government at the time was criticised for not doing more to rescue the submarine

Most news reports about the disaster on Wednesday were short and low down the bulletins, and all hint of blame and criticism had vanished.

The reports primarily marked the men's passing and the fact that they received the Order of Courage posthumously.

"Fifteen years have passed, but the pain does not fade. Nothing can replace my son," Nadezhda Shalapinina told military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda.

Her son, Alexei Nekrasov, was 19 and the youngest crew member on board.

Nadezhda still keeps his bedroom as it was the day he left it.

The newspaper makes no reference to who she blames, although Alexei survived the initial explosions and flood.

He was one of 23 crew discovered in the 9th section of the Kursk where they had huddled, waiting to be rescued.

The official version says the men died that same day, poisoned by fumes. Other reports have suggested they survived for two days or more.

Meanwhile a new poll by the Levada Centre, a Russian research organisation, has revealed how the national mood has changed.

An increased number of Russians believe that Mr Putin handled the crisis correctly.

At the time of the sinking, 72% of people asked thought that Russia could have done more to save the crew of the Kursk.

Fifteen years on, just 38% are critical.

As for refusing international help - until it was too late - the number supporting that decision has almost doubled.

A full, official report into the tragedy has been classified, until 2030.

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