Aug. 23, 2000 -- With flags lowered to half-staff and churches packed for vigils, Russia today mourned the 118 sailors who died on the doomed nuclear submarine, the Kursk.
President Vladimir Putin, who declared it a day of mourning, returned to Moscow — after facing the wrath of sailors’ families at a marathon overnight meeting in the northern naval base of Vidyayevo, where the Kursk began its final mission.
President Vladimir Putin asked television stations to refrain from running entertainment shows, but regular programming continued during the morning, including soap operas.
Some stations changed their schedules to air classical music or war films, and others honored the dead by observing a minute’s silence or showing the names of the crew with pictures of the Kursk.
Russia’s most popular Web site, anekdot.ru, where jokes are usually posted, shut for the day and presented a black screen.
Putin had been expected to fly to the area of the Barents Sea where the Kursk sank on August 12, after still-unexplained blasts, to lay a wreath on the sea to honor the dead.
But ORT television showed wives of dead sailors late on Tuesday urging Putin not to do this.
They said such events should be postponed until the bodies were recovered, perhaps fearing any ceremony could suggest officials had given up hope even of recovering the bodies. Putin apparently agreed and mourning ceremonies at Vidyayevo, including a planned church service, were canceled.
Meets With Victims’ Relatives
Putin met relatives of the dead sailors in Murmansk on Tuesday, listening to their complaints about the botched Russian rescue operation and the generally dismal conditions in the Russian Navy.
“The grief is immeasurable, there are not enough words of comfort. My heart hurts, but yours hurt even more,” Putin told them, the Interfax news agency reported.
Criticized for what many saw as a casual approach to the disaster and a failure to prod generals into action during the week of uncertainty over whether the trapped submarine crew were still alive, Putin struggled at times to make himself heard.
“When will we get them back, dead or alive? Answer as the president,” shouted one woman in the crowd, referring to the bodies of the sailors, shown on state-owned RTR television.
“I will answer as I know it myself,” said Putin, the rest of whose remarks were lost due to the bad quality of the tape.
Independent television NTV showed a somber-looking Putin sitting and talking with Irina Lyachin, the wife of Kursk commander Gennady Lyachin, who died with the rest of the crew after the nuclear-powered vessel sank on Aug. 12.
A reporter for RTR described the meeting as a “difficult discussion.” Putin had promised to talk for as long as people wanted him to, he added.
Russian media allowed into Vidyayevo said the six-hour meeting — an unprecedented gathering of ordinary Russians with their president in a crowded room — ended long after midnight.
Putin met between 500 and 600 relatives and local residents. Interfax news agency quoted a source who was at the meeting as saying the Kremlin leader had expressed anger at the poor state of the navy’s rescue equipment.
“It is impossible to believe it is all over,” Interfax quoted Putin as saying. “The grief is immeasurable, no words can console. My heart is aching but yours much more so.”
Worries for the Future
At their meeting, sailors’ widows asked Putin whether they would receive aid for their children or help finding jobs, Interfax reported.
Russia’s military has been underfunded for years, with servicemen often taking second jobs and barely able to feed their families.
The government has promised to look after the relatives and Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying families would get average compensation worth $7,000, amounting to more than 10 years’ pay.
Matviyenko, heading a special government commission, said military insurance would pay out a total of 23 million rubles, equal to $830,000. The sum includes 120 average monthly wages for each man plus a one-off payment equal to 25 monthly wages.
Some of the families may sue Putin, the government and defense ministry for “moral damage” brought about by the disaster, Veronika Marchenko of the Mothers’ Right fund was quoted as saying by Interfax.
Putin Still Assailed
On Tuesday, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexiy II urged people not to apportion blame without good reasons and said he was impressed with Putin’s sentiments during the crisis.
Nevertheless, some Russian newspapers continued to criticize the way officials had handled the crisis, the focus shifting from Putin to the military and government.
“The military are obsessed with one desire — to shift the responsibility from their own shoulders,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily newspaper said.
The English-language Moscow Times denounced “Czar Putin” for his perceived reluctance to accept international help.
“Did official reluctance to accept international help kill anybody?” the paper asked, noting that tapping was heard inside the sub as late as last Wednesday, and that a British rescue sub could have been on the scene as early as Tuesday if help was requested immediately after the disaster.
Criticism also came from Putin’s political opponents.
“Something is really fishy about this whole story. In my opinion, such a submarine couldn’t just sink in no time. I think they have a good reason to keep something hidden from the public,” said Sergey Ivanenkov, deputy leader of the opposition Yabloko Party.
“My view is that Putin doesn’t like people. Doesn’t feel the tragedy of the people. Doesn’t feel the soul of the people,” Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader in the Russian parliament, told the British Broadcasting Corp. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.