Anticipating a new dawn of freedom after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russians could hardly have foreseen the reality of their future a decade later: A country impoverished and controlled at every level by organized crime. This riveting book views the 1990s reform period through the experiences of individual citizens, revealing the changes that have swept Russia and their effect on Russia’s age-old ways of thinking.
“With a reporter’s eye for vivid detail and a novelist’s ability to capture emotion, he conveys the drama of Russia’s rocky road for the average victimized Russian . . . This is only half the story of what is happening in Russia these days, but it is the shattering half, and Satter renders it all the more poignant by making it so human.” —Foreign Affairs
“[Satter] tells engrossing tales of brazen chicanery, official greed and unbearable suffering . . . Satter manages to bring the events to life with excruciating accounts of real Russians whose lives were shattered.” —The Baltimore Sun
“Satter must be commended for saying what a great many people only dare to think.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“Humane and articulate.” —The Spectator
“Vivid, impeccably researched and truly frightening . . . Western policy-makers would do well to study these pages.” —National Post
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SATURDAY, AUGUST 12, 2000
In the dim afternoon light of the Arctic summer, with pennants flying and amid the deafening roar of exploding missiles and torpedoes, the nuclear submarine Kursk moved into position to take part in the largest naval exercises in the history of the Russian Northern Fleet. The area where the exercises were taking place, 130 miles northeast of Murmansk in the Barents Sea, was a region of immense strategic significance for Russia. The Northern Fleet, the most battle-ready section of Russia's armed forces, operated in the Barents Sea and was the key to Russia's ability to challenge the West and to Russia's status as a great power.
The Kursk, one of eight active Oscar II class submarines, was the pride of Russia's Northern Fleet. In the event of war, its task was to cut NATO in half by severing the transatlantic sea link. Its Shipwreck missiles were capable of destroying an entire U.S. carrier group or transport convoy or, according to Russian naval sources, of being armed with nuclear warheads with a yield equivalent to that of 500,000 tons of TNT, sufficient to level Los Angeles or New York. The mission of the Kursk was to demonstrate its two principal capabilities, destroying both aircraft carriers and submarines. First the Kursk fired its main weapon, the Chelomey Granit missile, codenamed "Shipwreck," which contained a 1,600pound conventional warhead. It scored a direct hit against a Russian hulk target more than 200 miles away.
The Kursk then prepared to fire the 100 RU Veder torpedo, codenamed "Stallion," at a simulated submarine. The Stallion, a top-secret weapon, was powered by a rocket booster that ignited underwater. Once the weapon was clear of the submarine, the booster sent it to the surface, and it homed in on its target like a missile. The Stallion to be fired by the Kursk was armed with a 220-pound warhead.
As the Stallion was fired, however, something went disastrously wrong. The torpedo's rocket motor exploded inside the torpedo tube, melting its metal walls in seconds and filling the forward weapon bay with flames. The warhead then detonated, blowing a hole in the Kursk's reinforced hull. Icy water rushed into the ship but did not extinguish the fire, since the rocket booster was designed to burn without air. Flaming chunks of the booster were thrown into the forward weapons control room.
The submarine was pulled sharply downward, and in a little more than two minutes there was a second, gigantic explosion of the Kursk's reserve torpedoes and torpedo-sized cruise missiles inside the torpedo compartment. The explosion ripped open the starboard side of the submarine back to the sail, an area the length of a school gymnasium. The force of the blast and a wall of seawater tore through the control room, destroying the switches, computers, and video screens that constituted the brain of the huge submarine. The living quarters forward of the reactor compartment were instantly flooded, leaving the sailors no chance to escape.
At first Russian naval officers assumed that the explosions, which measured 1.5 and 3.5, respectively, on the Richter scale, came from the missile and torpedo that had been fired by the Kursk, but when attempts to establish radio contact with the submarine failed, an alarm was sounded and a massive search began. Finally, at 4:35 A.M. on Sunday, August 13, the Kursk was discovered on the sea bottom at a depth of 330 feet. At 7:00 A.M. President Vladimir Putin, who was vacationing in Sochi, was informed, and the navy began organizing an effort to rescue the crew.
Throughout Sunday the Russian authorities said nothing about the missing submarine. On Monday, August 14, Russian officials released the first information about the disaster. They said that problems had occurred on the submarine on Sunday and the Kursk had been forced "to lie on the sea bottom." A short time later they announced that communication had been established with the crew, that the Kursk was being supplied with electricity and fresh air, and that all of the crew were alive. All these statements, as events were to show, were untrue.
During the Cold War the Soviet Union had a rescue service that was considered to be as well equipped as that of NATO. In 1991 Russian deep-sea divers performed a rescue at a depth of 985 feet for which they received Star of the Hero of Russia awards. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the rescue unit was disbanded. By 2000 the Russian navy was without deep-sea divers, and its minisubmarines, long used mainly for intelligence gathering, lacked trained rescue personnel. In the case of the Kursk, Russian officials justified the decision to dispense with a functioning rescue service by arguing that the submarine was unsinkable.
In the quiet provincial city of Kursk on Monday, August 14, people were caught up in the lazy rhythms of summer. There were few strollers on the street, and many of the factories were half empty.
The city, the scene of the battle of the Kursk Salient, which marked a turning point of the Second World War, is set in rolling hills and surrounded by fields of wheat, rye, and sunflowers. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, it lay only sixty miles from the independent country of Ukraine, but it remained a patriotic community that took pride in having given its name to Russia's most advanced nuclear submarine.
Valentina Staroselteva, whose son, Dmitri, was a sailor on the Kursk, was sitting at her desk in the medical unit of a ball-bearing factory where she worked as a physiotherapist. Instead of seeing patients, however, she occupied herself packing a parcel for her son. It included cookies, candies, pens, disposable razors, paper, and notebooks, all of which were in short supply in Vidyaevo, where Dima was based.
At 3:00 P.M. a news broadcast came on the television. Valentina paid no attention to it. Suddenly, however, she realized that the announcer was describing an accident aboard the Kursk. Valentina put down what she was doing and began listening more closely. Dima had written to her that he was leaving for three days of maneuvers. She realized that a disaster had befallen the Kursk and that her son was on the ship.
That evening the fate of the Kursk dominated the Russian television news programs. With each hour the information released by the navy press service changed. Quite soon the press service reported that radio contact had been lost and that the only communication consisted of tapping coming from the ship's interior. The figures for the number of people on board also changed, from 107, to 130, to "116 or 117," and finally to 118. Such shifts led to speculation that officials were trying to conceal the presence of civilian specialists on board.
As an armada of Russian ships gathered at the accident site in the Barents Sea, two rescue bells submerged repeatedly but were unable to latch on to the Kursk. Navy officials reported severe storms in the region and said that the rescue work was being hampered by the sharp angle at which the submarine was lying, strong underwater currents, poor visibility (about six feet), and silt that was being lifted from the bottom.
Britain, Norway, and the United States offered to assist in rescuing the trapped sailors. Both Britain and Norway had skilled deep-sea divers, and Britain offered to deploy its LR-5 minisubmarine, which is capable of resisting underwater currents and is equipped with a special joining hitch that allows it to attach to the hatch of a submarine regardless of the list. The Russian government, however, refused the offers. A spokesman for the Defense Ministry said that Russia had everything that was necessary to rescue the men, that the presence of foreign ships would only cause confusion in the zone of operations, and that the technical parameters of the NATO rescue vessels might not coincide with those of the Russian submarine.
Navy officials also began to suggest that the most likely cause of the accident was a collision with a foreign submarine. This possibility was rejected by the United States and Britain, the only powers with submarines in the area, but it was to be repeated continually by the Russian high command, deflecting attention, to a degree, from questions about incompetence in the handling of torpedoes aboard the Kursk.
Staroseltseva sat at home with friends. She found it impossible to eat or to sleep. The official information made no sense. What did it mean for a submarine to "lie on the bottom"? Had it sunk, or was it just resting there? If the rescue effort was proceeding "satisfactorily," why were the men still trapped? And why were the authorities refusing to accept foreign help?
The telephone rang constantly. The mother and stepfather of Alexei Nekrasov, a friend of Dima's who served with him on the Kursk, called from the village where they lived, twenty-seven miles outside Kursk. Alexei's step-father, Vladimir Shalapin, a former submariner, told Valentina that on the basis of the existing information, there was reason to believe that their sons were alive. Staroseltseva also received a call from Valentina Budikina, chairman of the local Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. She said that she was in touch with the navy high command and that a trip to Vidyaevo was being organized for the relatives of the Kursk crew.
By Tuesday afternoon, August 15, the number of ships at the accident scene had increased from fifteen to twenty-two. They included the Mikhail Rudnitsky, which brought two minisubmarines, the Priz and the Bester. It was rapidly becoming clear, however, that the rescue effort was fundamentally flawed. The minisubmarines submerged repeatedly but failed to attach to the submarine's hatch. Navy officials said that the rescue vessels were having trouble attaching because the docking ring around the hatch had been severely damaged but that they continued to hear tapping coming from inside the submarine. At the same time, a diving bell took the first photographs of the Kursk. These showed that the entire nose section was gone, as if it had been cut off by a guillotine.
It was now clear that if there were survivors among the crew of the Kursk, they were in the rear compartments of the submarine, which were farthest from the explosion. But even there the sailors were threatened by the buildup of icy water and the rapidly diminishing supply of air.
The full horror of the situation of the trapped sailors was described in the evaluations of military doctors that were published in the press. Valery Matlin, a military doctor in Vladivostok who had participated in many rescue operations, said:
The basic problems are cold, the absence of light, possibly of food and surplus air pressure, as a result of which the extremities become numb ... with such low temperatures, this is practically not noticed and attributed to the cold. If the system of cleaning the air does not work, there will be a surplus of carbon dioxide and with this, there is a lowering of the motor functions and sleepiness and sweatiness, as a result of which the sailors are thrown from heat to cold. Besides, the metabolism slows disturbing the function of the intestines. As a result, there is constipation and sharp pain in the stomach.
But the most terrible is the reduction in the resistance of the organism and complete unawareness of actions. The lads absolutely do not understand their condition. They experience euphoria. They leave this life without understanding this.
Oktai Ibragimov, chief psychiatrist of the Pacific Fleet, said: "The situation is exacerbated by the low temperature at which the process of destruction of the psyche is accelerated ... Of course, they are affected by the absence of light; people don't know how many hours in the day were passed in underwater captivity. Judging by everything, the sailors on the Kursk are completely disoriented. But nonetheless, I doubt that on board there is mass psychosis: there are probably very strong personalities."
On Tuesday night the navy acknowledged for the first time the likelihood of fatalities. Vladimir Kuroyedov, the commander-in-chief, said that in light of the catastrophic damage to the nose portion of the submarine, some sailors had undoubtedly died. He said that an effort would be made to save the survivors, but, in sharp contrast to earlier, optimistic statements, he admitted, "I'm afraid the hope for rescuing the sailors is not great." In answer to reporters' questions, he said that much depended on the situation inside the submarine, but that he would preserve hope until August 18.
The news of the accident stunned ordinary Russians, who identified with the sailors trapped in an iron coffin at the bottom of the sea. Thousands went to churches to light candles and pray for the rescue of the men. Donations poured in from all over the country to a fund to aid the families of the crew. There were even donations from impoverished pensioners, some of whom could contribute no more than five rubles.
At the office of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers in Kursk, relatives of the sailors gathered, with suitcases and bags of food, for the trip north. There were scenes of anguish and confusion. During the first few days of the crisis, many of the relatives had put their faith in the reassurances of the authorities, but as precious hours passed and the extent of the official misrepresentations became obvious, the level of fear steadily increased.
In an atmosphere of growing desperation, family members became openly suspicious of the authorities. Many could not understand why Putin was continuing his vacation in Sochi instead of flying to Vidyaevo. They also became suspicious of the continued refusal to accept foreign help. Some began to say openly that the real reason the authorities were refusing foreign assistance was that they were afraid of divulging military secrets even if it cost the sailors their lives.
At the accident scene, the rescue bells and minisubmarines were submerging continually but could not attach to the Kursk. Navy officials, however, reported that there was "contact" with the submarine and that the rescue operation was proceeding "according to plan."
As Valentina helped Budikina organize the trip in the office of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, she listened to the radio and television. From the almost continuous reports it was clear that the whole world was riveted by the drama of the trapped sailors. In the United States, where news of the Kursk competed with the Democratic national convention, a State Department spokesman said, "We are very concerned about the fate of the crew of the submarine and hope that the operation to rescue them will be a success." Throughout Western Europe, broadcasts on all television channels began and ended with reports about the Kursk. The Times of London wrote: "Horrible — this is the best word to describe the condition of the sailors now on board the submarine Kursk. Accident lights are burning in the darkness, the air is difficult to breathe, and there is deepening cold and soul chilling fear. The sailors are sustained only by the hope that rescue is possible and the conviction that they must, at all costs, hold on and wait for it."
Finally, on the night of Wednesday, August 16, there were signs that the international reaction to the disaster was having an effect. The television news reported that after a call from President Clinton, Putin had ordered the navy to accept help from any source. When she heard this, Valentina felt a wave of relief. She was convinced that her son's fate depended not on the Russians but on the British and Norwegians.
At 4:30 on the afternoon of Thursday, August 17, Valentina, her daughter, Ina, and fourteen other relatives of the crew of the Kursk boarded the Simferopol-to-Murmansk train in Kursk. The family members wanted to travel together, and an extra car without compartments was attached to the train. The relatives were seen off by a large group of reporters and friends. As the train moved north across the heart of Russia, however, the passengers retreated into themselves, barely speaking to each other. Night fell, and the lights of rural stations flashed by in the darkness. Valentina asked Shalapin what he thought the chances were that their children would be saved. He hesitated for a moment and then said, "Fifty-fifty."
At 12:30 A.M. the train pulled into Moscow, but no one went outside to buy mineral water or to smoke on the platform. The last car of the train was now completely dark. The next morning the train stopped at Petrozavodsk, where a crowd of sympathizers was waiting on the platform. They brought food — including a bucket of steaming boiled potatoes — and shouted words of encouragement.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Darkness at Dawn"
Copyright © 2003 David Satter.
Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations and Administrative Delineations,
1 The Kursk,
3 The Young Reformers,
4 The History of Reform,
5 The Gold Seekers,
6 The Workers,
7 Law Enforcement,
8 Organized Crime,
12 The Value of Human Life,
13 The Criminalization of Consciousness,
Conclusion: Does Russia Have a Future?,
Illustrations follow page 126,