Helping hands buoy widow of Russian sub disaster

When the Kursk sub sank in 2000, families of the 118 sailors who died expected little government assistance. But President Putin and the city of Kursk have surprised them.

When Russia's Kursk submarine sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea on August 12, 2000, sailors' wives like Lyubov Kalinina had only the lowest expectations from their government.

And sure enough, as anguished days of waiting ticked by, hope that the 118 sailors on board might still be rescued alive began turning to despair. The tragedy took on some of the hallmarks of a Soviet-era disaster.

"The [authorities] were lying for a week that they were alive, and that they were doing everything they could," says Mrs. Kalinina, the widow of senior midshipman Sergei Kalinin, who handled secret communications on the nuclear sub.

"As it turned out, Russia had no device to save them, and when we finally accepted foreign help, it was too late," she says, as her two daughters shout playfully in the next room. "If it were not for glasnost or journalists, we probably wouldn't know anything at all. Nothing is known of the Komsolets," she notes, referring to the sinking of that Soviet sub in 1989. The loss of its 42 crew members remains shrouded in secrecy.

But Kalinina says she is not bitter, and that she has been buoyed by the compassion shown to survivors' families by the city of Kursk - the submarine's landlocked namesake, 300 miles south of Moscow, to which she and 12 other sailors' families have relocated.

She adds that President Vladimir Putin - who chose not to interrupt his summer vacation to handle the crisis or console distraught families - has now made good on "every promise" since the disaster's tragic ending.

The Kursk regional government also stepped in to help, reassuring widows and their families that if they moved from the headquarters of Russia's northern fleet, they would be welcome, housed and cared for in Kursk.

Today, Kalinina lives in a spacious apartment provided by the state. And, in keeping with Mr. Putin's promise of compensation, she received a single payment from the federal government worth 10 years of her husband's salary.

Kalinina works in the local administration in Kursk. Her two daughters, Galina, 10, and Svetlana, 6, keep up a happy patter in the apartment and play with friends who also moved here after the submarine tragedy.

The generosity of Kursk citizens to those who manned "their" submarine deeply touched the navy families. "Every year they kept coming with gifts," says Kalinina. "They brought honey, apples, potatoes."

Kursk governor Alexander Rutskoi - a notorious figure in post-Soviet politics who led an antireform uprising against President Boris Yeltsin in 1993 - delivered eight refrigerators full of food to the Navy families as they waited for news of their loved ones, and made the relocation offer.

"We thought: 'If the attitude is that good, we will come,'" Kalinina says.

"The decision was good," she adds. "I think they paid all tributes and all honors to our husbands. We live well, some time has passed, and we have calmed down a lot."

Her husband is among 12 crewmen buried at the Kursk cemetery, their gravestones etched with portraits of strong young men in uniform, grouped together around a large bronze memorial. Putin had promised that the submarine would be raised, and that all remains would be identified and then buried.

"What the president promised, he did," says Kalinina, plainly impressed. "He fulfilled every promise."

Kalinina keeps a small plastic vial full of water that was taken by divers from the Kursk site. It is marked with the coordinates of the spot and her husband's name.

"He was so proud of his team," Kalinina says, taking down a scale model of the sleek black sub from a shelf above the television set. She visited the submarine twice during the young family's decade with the northern fleet.

There are few other mementos, however, in an apartment too large to be filled by the family furniture. The bulk of the one-time payment has gone to the bank to educate the girls, but the money is "not enough," she says. "Now we have to count on ourselves only - we have no other aid," Kalinina says.

The Kursk widows here have formed an informal support group to bolster each other.

"It was a tragedy, but it united us," Kalinina says. She takes another look at the vial of water, which sits near a portrait of her beloved young sailor. "I thought of putting it in another place, but I can't bring myself to do it."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.