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Cry from the DeepThe Sinking of the Kursk, the Submarine Disaster That Riveted the World and Put the New Russia to the Ultimate Test
By Ramsey Flynn
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Ramsey Flynn
All right reserved.
Vidyayevo Naval Garrison, Pier Eight
Sunday Afternoon, July 9, 2000
The wives hush when they first spot the giant black hulk. It's more squat than in the photographs they've seen, yet somehow more imposing. It looks like a capsized ocean liner draped in a shroud. The three couples murmur as they file out of the shuttle bus past the armed guards and hear the popping of bay water slapping the submarine's hull. The dark colossus dwarfs them as they draw closer, and the collars of the wives' coats flap in the diesel-scented breeze. Dmitry Kolesnikov, or "Dima," guides his wife Olga up the steel gangway to the sub's broad deck. He wants to make sure she feels comfortable meeting his beloved metal mistress. He wants his new bride to love her, too.
Olga is mystified. Why does her husband love this thing? Why do he and his friends speak of it with a reverence that makes the wives jealous? Why have they all staked their futures on $100-a-month salaries in a remote little fjord in the Arctic Circle? For this?
Standing in front of the Kursk's imposing conning tower, Olga shields her eyes from a sky brightly veiled with high sweeps of ice-crystal clouds. At fifty-two degrees, the weather feels oddly autumnal, even though it's a Sunday afternoon in July. "Olechka!" says Dima, using her pet name while boyishly tugging her aside to proudly describe the Kursk's topside fittings, quickly losing her in the inevitable jargon. She regards the vessel's great red crest emblazoned at the front of the central tower. The crest -- a golden double-headed eagle that evokes Russia's wariness about foreign invaders from all directions -- is already bleached from its few storied voyages.
The couples have been bonding into a submariners' "family," a very useful thing in Vidyayevo, the spartan garrison town on the Kola Peninsula where they all must live. Vidyayevo's cinder-block apartment buildings are rudimentary, riddled with peeling paint, power outages, heating problems, leaky plumbing, and water shortages. It is the kind of place where people wake up on dark winter mornings to find their teapots filled with ice. Life in Vidyayevo is all about making do. When the few shops close in the evenings, a spontaneous marketplace emerges in the treeless spaces between the apartment buildings, with a few entrepreneurial men selling sodas, beer, and cigarettes out of their jacket pockets, supplementing the handful of small kiosks that keep later hours.
So these loose-knit "families" share cars and sometimes apartments and often foodstuffs and tools and videos. For many of the town's nine thousand people, such communal habits make Vidyayevo a socially intimate place. The younger wives pride themselves on their collective culinary ventures, especially when making a group stew -- one contributing, say, beets or ham; another cabbage, or perhaps the prized mushrooms that appear after the late-summer rains, like manna springing from beneath the dwarf conifers and wild berry bushes that hug the rocky hillsides in a Darwinian struggle for Arctic sunlight.
Such routines have forged a stubborn indomitability in Russia's submarine community here, which clings proudly to a few terrifying prowlers of the deep that help assure their motherland's increasingly tenuous claim to world power. The Kursk is a potent leftover from the vast Soviet empire that stood toe-to-toe against an imperialist West for seventy years, and senior state officials believe the giant submarine still has an important future in helping to preserve Russia's place in the international pecking order. The six-year-old Kursk is among a shrinking handful of supersubs that can silently traverse the ocean depths and unleash a nuclear strike against an enemy navy's carrier battle group any time the Kremlin gives the orders. The young men posted to the Kursk guarantee that such orders will be carried out.
"This hull will be my blanket while I am away," says Dima as he leads Olga through an interior passageway on one of the Kursk's upper decks. "It will keep me warm and safe while I dream of you." The two take turns with the video camera they've brought along to record the day's visit. With the other two couples wandering off to their husbands' assigned compartments, Dima shows Olga the mysterious workings of his cloistered world. Olga is already getting accustomed to the strange scents -- a subtle blend of solvents and mechanical lubricants -- as Dima beckons her forward. She pans the camera across a cul-de-sac of control panels.
"Ty zdyes komanduyesh?" Olga asks. You are in charge here? It is a claustrophobic space, painted a wan yellow-green, crammed with pipes, wires, switches, meters, and gauges. Dima carefully ducks his head around a low-hanging piece of overhead equipment as he describes the console from which he oversees the eight-man turbine crew that runs the Kursk's forward turbine compartment. He explains broadly how the console tracks the performance of his section of the propulsion system, including the giant turbines that dominate the decks below him. Sensing her bewilderment, Dima suddenly becomes animated, showing Olga how he can recline on a rise in the floor and nap with his legs braced against the wall. Olga gasps at the contorted arrangement, but Dima boasts about his clever adaptation. "And if there is an emergency," he begins, then abruptly leaps from the floor and, darting his head left and right, hissing as if he's spitting bullets for punctuation -- "fut! fut! fut!" -- shows Olga how he can snap into action with the shrill call of a "battle alarm."
Moments later, Dima takes the camera and zooms in on Olga dancing toward him, Broadway-style, clicking her fingers as she performs a series of half pirouettes. "Take me with you to the sea," she pleads playfully.
"I can't," Dima says. "It's a bad omen to have a woman on the sub."
Excerpted from Cry from the Deep by Ramsey Flynn Copyright © 2005 by Ramsey Flynn. Excerpted by permission.
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