Ill-fated Russian nuclear submarine.

Kursk specs:
Commissioned in January, 1995
24 vertical launch tubes
8 torpedo tubes
2.1 tons Plutonium fuel

Suffered one, maybe two, cataclysmic internal explosions on 12 August 2000. All 118 crew members were killed. Hull damage extends from the forward compartment to the conning tower.

The Russian rescue efforts were highly ineffective until western divers entered the operation. President Vladimir Putin is taking most of the heat for this disaster.

(Information courtesy

Last night, I watched a documentary about the Mary Rose. The Mary Rose sank in the Solent off Portsmouth late in the reign of Henry VIII. She was executing a manoeuvre which proved fatal in combination with the new high-tech weaponry which the king had ordered fitted to the somewhat out-of-date vessel. The documentary showed that the ship had been carrying more men than it was designed to hold, and that many had perished because there were nets stretched across the decks to prevent hostile boarding. I thought at the time that there were certain parallels with the Kursk tragedy. This morning, it was reported that there were more men on the Kursk than it had been designed to hold. Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

One theory for the sinking of the Kursk is that a torpedo exploded inside its launch tube. I did not realise that highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide can be used as a propellant. The Kursk was carrying torpedoes powered by it (which, by the way, most other navies do not use because they do not consider it suffieciently safe).

The Russian navy webpages contain information about their hydrogen peroxide-propelled torpedoes at

The whole affair is very sad, and the Russian people are understandably pissed at their leader, Vladimir Putin, and their Navy. The percieved problem being that Western help was not requested for many days after the event. Norway especially - who are very close to the accident - were frustrated that they had not been asked to help in the rescue sooner.

Tragedies such as that of the Kursk submarine which sunk to the bottom of the Barents Sea on August 12, 2000, grip the attention of the international community, but are forgotten by most as soon as the next horrific occurrence hits the headlines.

Today, however, it was confirmed that 23 members of the crew survived the blast, which Russian authorities maintained had killed the entire crew. The survivors sat for hours in a dark compartment at the rear of the sub hoping to be rescued. Divers have found a letter, on the body of one of the men, recovered on Wednesday. Part of it has been put into the public domain, and it draws renewed attention to the grave and unforgivable mistake which the Russians made in refusing international help before it was too late. The note makes chilling and humbling reading.

Lieutenant-Captain Dmitry Kolesnikov wrote:

"All the crew from the sixth, seventh and eighth compartments went over to the ninth. There are 23 people here. We made the decision because of the accident. None of us can get to the surface...I am writing blindly.”

A total of 118 men died on board the Kursk.

For more information on the note, click here.

From a November interview in Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow weekly, with an anonymous Russian who claimed to have been a sailor aboard the warship Peter the Great, the first vessel to reach the Kursk submarine's position after it sank on August 12. Russian officials insist that the accident was caused by a collision with a foriegn vessel; Western authorities believe it resulted from a failed onboard weapons test. Translated by Marina Makanova.

- - - - -

He called the editorial office and asked for a meeting. Mention of the Kursk was as good as a password.

So we met. He spoke falteringly into the tape recorder. We know it may pain some people to read it. We crave their indulgence. But it is even more painful to remain ignorant.

The Peter the Great fired torpedoes and missiles at the Kursk. There is no doubt about it. It is strictly forbidden to test new weapons in a military exercise. But if you want to save money, then this is the thing to do.

That wonderful new weapon was tested.

A missile falls in the water, opens its sting, and releases a smart torpedo that searches out submarines.

We happened to be in the same area with the Kursk. The firings were organized by civilian specialists.

So we fired and fired, and suddenly a pillar rose from under the water that looked a little bit like a nuclear blast, then another one. Everyone was dumbfounded.

When we spoke, it was, "We hit somebody." We thought it was an American sub.

The Peter the Great immediately left the area. We could think of nothing better than leaving. As we left, a radio message was picked up -- "Communication lost with Kursk" -- and the area indicated was precisely the one where the firings took place. It then dawned on us whom we had hit. We turned back and began the search. We were sure we would go to jail.

Back in Severomorsk, we bought up all the vodka in town. The civilian experts drank pure alcohol. It didn't make them drunk. Later it turned out that nobody was going to look for the real culprits.

We were ordered to promote the theory of an "encounter with the enemies." The admirals were covering their asses. Nobody was thinking about the crew. Eyewitnesses were not needed.

They stayed alive for three days, as we learned from the note by the late commander of the turbine crew. In the beginning the hand is confident. The experts were weeping. It read: "We were murdered." It has the date, August 12, just after midnight. Later the batteries in their flashlights died. The last date in the note is August 15. The orders were for everyone to say that they had died within two hours of the accident.

P.S. As this issue was going to press, he called me again: "Are you printing it?"

When I said yes, he paused. "Silence lasts a minute. After that you have to say something."

He hung up.

We are printing it. And we understand it pains all the submariners.

Everyone who can still drink -- let us drink to their memory.

- - - - -

From the February 2001 issue of Harper's Magazine.

At one point during the tragic episode of the sinking of Kursk, a norwegian tabloid newspaper (Dagbladet) reported that the submaring held 6 civilian scientists in addition to the 118 military crewmembers. The story was confirmed by another norwgian newspaper (Aftenposten), this time not a tabloid. This piece of information was never mentioned again by any media, for confirmation or otherwise. However, in Russia, rumors abound that there was six civilian scientists present that were performing experiments of an unknown nature.

Other rumors had it that the captain of the Kursk was violently drunk during the whole of the excercise. A notion that, according to russian civilians, holds true for most of the russian higher officers.

The idea that the Kursk had collided with an american sub; the Missisippi, seemed to be popular for a while. It was particularly supported by a sattelite photography of a norwegian naval base where the american submarine could be made out, dokking for what was assumed to be repairs. American officials claimed the photograph was old and had nothing to do with the present excercice. Unfortunatly, the picture also depicted several items that had been built only shortly before the Kursk-incident, disproving the 'western explanation'. This story was also discontinued by norwegian media.

A relativly unpopular theory incriminated another russian ship, name unknown. According to a variety of norwegian newspapers, there was a surface ship involved in the exercice, just above where the Kursk was sunk. This ship was supposed to launch anti-sub weaponry agains Kursk. These weapons were not supposed to hit or explode. Regardless, a norwegian listening-station (a civilian station listening for seismic activity, a hopeless job as Norway doesn't have any) picked up one faint explosion followed by a very large explosion around the time of the sinking. The surface ship could not account for all it's weapons during debriefing.

Still, the most popular theory, and the one that'll go down in history as the Truth, is the one about the exploding torpedoes. Which seems the most likely. Which has the least implications. Let's leave it at that.

Twenty-six steel cables attached from a 18,000-ton Dutch-owned Giant 4 barge hauled up the sunken nuclear submarine from it's seabed grave Monday October 8, 2001.

The submarine will now be latched to the bottom of the barge for transport to a dry dock near Murmansk, Russia, where it will be examined.

The Russian navy will also remove the remains of the crew and 22 Granit supersonic cruise missiles once the submarine is brought into dock.

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