Sounds of Silence After Disaster Are an Echo From Soviet Times


The news in Russia on Wednesday was that the knocking sounds from the trapped Russian nuclear submarine had stopped. Irina Zhuravina had the television on loud, her eyes locked on the haggard face of the mother of one of the crew members, and 32 years of grief and anger came rushing back.

She pulled out a map and showed the place, marked in red ink, where her husband’s Golf-class submarine, K-129, sank in 1968 in 16,000 feet of water in the Pacific.

Zhuravina was told nothing for more than two months after the submarine disappeared from radio contact, and when she asked for answers, officials advised her, “Don’t place your personal interests above the interests of the state.”


The difference now is that the faces of the anxious families are being shown on Russian television screens. For the first time, a naval catastrophe is unfolding under the public spotlight.

Yet in the navy’s clear discomfort with its obligation to inform the Russian people about what is going on, the 65-year-old Zhuravina sees many disturbing parallels with Soviet times--parallels that bring tears to her eyes when she sees the faces of worried relatives. She knows what they might have to suffer in the days and months to come.

“We couldn’t even talk about it. The taboo was so strong, we couldn’t even think about it,” she said. “That is the difference between those times and now. All the rest is the same: the bureaucracy trying to push away responsibility, the commanders lying as they used to lie.

“They’re all saying they don’t need outside help, when they should have called in this help straightaway. It’s still the Soviet mentality. They have no will to save those people’s lives.”

The views of this widow were mirrored in strong words on the front pages of Russian newspapers Wednesday. “The ideology of Soviet times has grown morally decrepit yet continues to control the minds of those in charge,” said an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “A subordinate should die himself, but not allow the death of a valuable piece of military equipment.”

“If this was a NATO submarine, the crew would already have been rescued,” said a front-page headline in Noviye Izvestia.

It took at least two days for the navy to admit the accident involving the submarine Kursk and at least three days to contact families. And it took at least three days before Russia decided to send naval officials to Brussels to discuss the rescue with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and not until Wednesday did it allow a British rescue submarine to be flown in to help.

By then, the knocking on the hull had grown more faint and then stopped.

“My brain cannot comprehend it. The British and the Americans and the Norwegians are ready to help. We should seize it straightaway,” Zhuravina said. “But the Russian commanders are just thinking about the reputation and prestige of the navy.”

From a Russian media voraciously seeking information about the Kursk and a legacy of reflexive Soviet thinking in the navy, a strange hybrid emerged: Few facts were released officially, but there was a flood of chaotic, contradictory and often incorrect information from anonymous naval officials quoted on Russian news wires.

With the world’s attention captured by the unthinkable anguish of 118 men trapped 354 feet below the surface of the ocean, naval officials have begun to make the painful adjustment to the reality of massive media attention.

Yevgeny Aznabayev, a retired lieutenant captain of the Soviet navy, survived the sinking of the nuclear submarine K-219 in the Atlantic in 1986. He said he believes the crew of the Kursk would be beyond panic and perhaps beyond fear.

“The main thing is a sense of hope. Hope dies last,” he said in a phone interview from his home in St. Petersburg. But he said he is sure the men would be preparing themselves for the worst.

“Because it’s the fifth day now, no one is panicking,” he said. “They can do nothing but wait to see if they are rescued, or if they will have to wait and die.”

He remembers the minutes with a group of sailors and officers in the bow section of the K-219 before the final evacuation. He ordered the sailors to leave first and the officers to stay, but one young sailor, reluctant to abandon the officers to an uncertain fate, asked why he should leave.

“I told him: ‘We officers already have wives, children, families. We already have our legacy. You do not, so you must leave. And live on!’ ” But the rescue by a Soviet ship went well, and only four men were lost.

Aznabayev, retired since the year of that sinking, said there is a culture of secrecy in the Russian navy, even concerning health and safety matters. Yet he seems to personify that strange collision between a desire for more openness and a Soviet patriotic military heritage.

He is strongly opposed to the idea of accepting Western help in the Kursk rescue. When the K-219 got into trouble, he said, a U.S. ship offered to rescue the Soviet crew but was immediately rebuffed.

Irina Zhuravina struggled for 32 years to find out the truth behind the disaster that stole the life of her husband, Alexander, who was 33 when he died. She recalls how Soviet naval officials refused to see her as she tried to find out whether something had gone wrong aboard the submarine.

Later, news of the tragedy was confirmed. A government commission informed the relatives, and there were lots of fine words about crew members--words Zhuravina could barely listen to.

“I never got any answers,” she said.

The accident was one of the most mysterious of the long string of Soviet submarine accidents. It gave rise to a prominent instance of the American public being deceived. In 1973, the CIA covertly commissioned the construction of a special vessel, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, to raise the sunken boat for what it might yield about Soviet military secrets--an operation Zhuravina later likened to desecrating a communal grave.

Built at a cost of more than $200 million, by some estimates, the vessel was given the cover story that its purpose was to seek undersea mineral deposits. It found its quarry, but the hulk broke apart during the lifting operation in 1974. A critical portion of the submarine, its nuclear missiles and codes were lost.

It took Zhuravina 27 years to persuade the Russian navy to take her to the place where the submarine went down. It gained berths for her and one other bereaved relative on a 1995 commemorative voyage to mark the 50th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat.

There was a memorial ceremony on board the ship--the first time the navy honored the dead on K-129. The crew was finally awarded posthumous medals last year.

She keeps her own memorial to her husband: the collection of Pacific coral and coconut shells that he brought her so long ago.

Yevgeny Aznabayev said that after his own submarine sank, the government promised improvements in submarine rescue training and equipment, but nothing ever changed.

“If people think after this there will be change, like more pay for officers or construction of new ships, it won’t happen,” he said. “It’s true that it’s impossible to understand Russia. Nothing ever teaches Russia a lesson.”