On Kursk, a new caring Kremlin
As the recovery effort proceeds, Russians wonder if Moscow's solicitude is real change.
It is an operation unique in Russian military history: At great expense and amid the glare of TV cameras, the remains of sailors who perished in the Kursk disaster last August are being carefully retrieved from the frigid depths of the Barents Sea and returned to their families.Skip to next paragraph
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This is definitely not the norm in Russia.
Typically, the rulers of this land of soaring war memorials, with its calendar full of glorious military holidays, have left Russian dead where they lay, failed to inform anguished relatives, and discharged wounded soldiers to fend largely for themselves.
The wave of official solicitude and extra cash compensation for bereaved relatives may signal a fundamental change in the state's traditional indifference toward those who make the ultimate sacrifice for the motherland. At the very least, it sets a hopeful precedent.
"We see all this effort to do right by those who died and their families, and we hope it is not just a political ploy," says Valeria Pantukhina, spokesperson for the Mother's Rights Foundation, a grass-roots organization of bereaved parents of servicemen. "We think it is a great victory for the public, and the media, that the sailors of the Kursk are receiving proper attention. But we don't see it extending to those who fell in Chechnya, or other places."
The Kursk took 118 crew members to the bottom after a pair of unexplained explosions shattered Russia's most modern nuclear sub during war games on Aug. 12. Russian officials maintain there was a collision with another, possibly foreign, vessel, a theory dismissed by US and Norwegian experts who studied recordings of the disaster. There followed intense public criticism of the botched naval rescue mission, including the delay in accepting foreign assistance, and of President Vladimir Putin's decision to spend the first week of the crisis at a Black Sea vacation resort.
Perhaps moving to limit the political fallout, Mr. Putin later met with sailors' kin and pledged to retrieve the remains of all crew members.
Despite harsh weather conditions, Norwegian and Russian divers have recovered 12 bodies from the submarine's rear compartments and yesterday breached the outer hull in a second spot. Last week's discovery of a note on one of the victims, Lt.-Capt. Dmitri Kolesnikov, raised public outcry by disproving official claims that all of the crew had died immediately.
Four of the sailors were given lavish memorial services on Sunday, with high-ranking government and military officials in attendance. In addition, the Kremlin has decreed financial compensation of 720,000 rubles (about $26,000) to each bereaved family, plus a free apartment in the Russian city of their choice.
By contrast, the parents of a soldier who dies in the grinding, 14-month-old war in Chechnya receive just 6,000 rubles (about $215).
"The [Russian military] tradition is certainly different than what we are seeing in the Kursk episode: more money, assistance to families, respect, and official attention," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert in Moscow. "The reasons for it are certainly political. The government and president are trying to counter criticism of their earlier behavior and have decided to buy their way out."