On 8 September, four weeks after the Kursk sank, the Berliner Zeitung published a story claiming that the submarine was accidentally hit by a smart torpedo fired during a naval exercise by Peter the Great, the Russian warship that was also the first vessel to reach the Kursk’s last reported position. The article was incendiary enough to elicit immediate denials from the Navy, the FSB – Russia’s FBI – and Igor Klebanov, the Deputy Prime Minister, who chairs the Government committee of inquiry. It’s not clear, to me at least, where the story came from, but it must be out there, living its own life amid all the rumours and accusations. On 2 November, the reasonably respected tabloid-format Novaya Gazeta printed what purports to be a transcript of an interview with an anonymous sailor, apparently from the crew of Peter the Great, though this is nowhere specified. ‘We were in the same area as the Kursk,’ he says – presumably it’s ‘we’: in Russian this is ambiguous – and goes on:
The test-firing was organised by civilian specialists. So we fired, and then suddenly out of the water there’s this explosion, like an atomic bomb, and then another. Everyone went pale. The first thing that was said: ‘We’ve . . . we’ve hit someone.’ We thought it was an American . . . The Peter immediately tore out of the area. Nobody could think of anything other than getting away. When we’d left, we heard on our radio: ‘We’ve lost radio contact with the vessel,’ and the area of the test-firing was indicated. Then we understood who we’d buried. We turned round and went to search, preparing ourselves for prison.
This time, the story made no waves, but in Russia there are now so many theories about the Kursk, each one clung to with such conviction by its supporters, that no one seems to listen to alternatives to their own point of view. The Novaya Gazeta interview wasn’t covered in the foreign press for the simple reason that we think we know what happened: there was an internal explosion in the torpedo compartment of the Kursk, caused by malfunction or mishandling. In Russia there are no simple reasons.
The events immediately following the disaster, with the two-day delay before it was even announced, were read as revealing a return to the old style of leadership. Story in the can. But if you want revelation, or revealing levels of confusion, you only have to look at how the story has evolved. The Russian papers show marked differences within the inquiry committee between Navy and Government, and they say something interesting about themselves, with their mixture of melodrama, doggedness and gradually increasing cynicism and exasperation. The salvage operation, which removed 12 bodies, the ship’s log and the notes written by two of the 23 crew members who briefly survived the explosions, has been called off. (One of the ships assigned to patrol the area is Peter the Great, which would seem very brazen if the torpedo theory were true.) No further attempt will be made to reach the Kursk until next summer, and perhaps not even then: the plan is to raise it, at an estimated cost of £35 million, although no wrecked submarine has been successfully lifted to the surface since 1938 – and that one was only 30 metres down. The papers don’t hold out much hope either: one suggestion has been that the real intention of the invasive surgery carried out to enter the submarine was to make raising it impossible. Meanwhile, no further evidence will reach the inquiry: all that remains is for what has been discovered to be released, which isn’t happening fast. The pattern so far has been for a member of the committee to step forward and announce some new detail, adding that all scenarios are still being considered, but that he personally favours the theory that the Kursk collided with an underwater object – by implication a foreign submarine.
This is a theory that isn’t going away. In the days immediately following the disaster, Pravda reported an alleged telephone conversation between Clinton and Putin agreeing to cover up the evidence. The paper believes it was vindicated when the weekly Versiya (literally ‘Version’, implying ‘our side of the story’) printed a satellite photo flagged as a Los Angeles-class submarine, with a dent in its bow, limping to a Norwegian base. A second photo apparently showed the same submarine undergoing emergency repairs in Bergen. A Nato spokesman said that the submarine in the picture was moored next to a frigate that sank in 1994 – the suggestion being that the photos were a clever piece of montage. Taking the lead from Reuters, the foreign media dismissed the pictures. But this is less easily done in Russia, largely because (unless you follow Zavtra’s line that there was an accident on board which was ultimately the result of reductions in military spending) 118 sailors have died, and it’s hard to persuade yourself that it was their own fault. The Government has a difficult task (and Putin is now – after his shaky start – nicely distanced from the fall-out by judicious delegating): how to tread the line between foreign relations imperatives, on the one hand, and, on the other, offending domestic public opinion with the implication that the sailors, or their equipment, were responsible? It seems that the second consideration is, for the moment, uppermost, though a conclusion to the inquiry either way has to be ruinous. Meanwhile, those of a paranoid disposition will have noticed that, since the disaster, what the people want to hear coincides with what the military want to show, so it may not, after all, be a simple matter of the people’s view prevailing.
Paranoia, incidentally, afflicts a large part of the Russian press, even under normal circumstances. In the tabloids this provides entertainment: one widely available paper, Sovershenno Sekretno (‘Top Secret’), is the weekly delight of conspiracy theorists across the country. There’s a tradition of public dressing down – or kompromat – which easily shades into the witch-hunt. Sometimes, of course, it’s made impossible. Pravda reported, with a mixture of excitement and sobriety, that after it published the second satellite photo, Versiya’s offices received a visit from the FSB. While reminding their readers that this wasn’t the KGB, they allowed the intrusion to fuel their own speculation that there’s something in the story of the cover-up after all.
There’s a postscript. On 16 November, the Interfax news agency reported an anonymous source in the military as saying: ‘All the evidence which might have thrown light on the reasons for the sinking of the Kursk was destroyed by the powerful explosion on board.’ Video footage has, he says, revealed ‘the most serious destruction of the bow compartments, including the central command post, where all the records of the day to day procedures of the submarine were kept.’ It sounds rather as if the newspaper-reading public is being let down gently: there may be no final answer, or at least not one we’ll be privy to.