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And Horror Cuts Our Souls in Two

One year ago, on Sunday, Aug. 13, 26-year-old Natasha Loginova walked out to the town square in the northern garrison town of Vidyayevo with a bunch of wild flowers she had picked along the way. She was going to meet the bus that would be bringing her fianc?, Lieutenant Commander Sergei Loginov, and the rest of the Kursk nuclear submarine crew back from the dock. No bus came. She went out again on Monday morning, thinking the boat must have been delayed, and waited all day. While Natasha was sitting quietly on the square, the rest of the world was listening in stunned horror to the news that the Kursk, the pride of the Russian navy's Northern Fleet, was lying crippled at the bottom of the Barents Sea.

Though she lived on the little naval base that housed the entire Kursk crew, Natasha was among the last to know that Sergei's boat had been ripped open by an explosion on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 12. The Russian authorities finally admitted the incident on Monday at noon and only then after repeated Western reports of two underwater blasts. "The other women [on the base] had heard the news," Natasha said. "But since I was six months pregnant, no one could bring themselves to tell me. They thought everything would be alright."

They were wrong. Russian officials turned down offers of help from Britain and the United States, claiming their own rescue effort was well under way, but repeatedly failed to attach a rescue bell to the Kursk's escape hatch. On Tuesday they reported that at least some of the 118 crew members were alive and communicating in code by tapping on the hull ?€” yet they only accepted help from Norway and Britain on Thursday. "The women were out on the street in Vidyayevo and you could tell who had husbands on board because they were weeping," Natasha said.

Click here to read our special report on the Kursk Tragedy.

While the 10-day rescue operation held the entire world in thrall, the wives and mothers watching the news bulletins every half hour were being slowly driven out of their minds with anxiety. "They tore our hearts apart piece by piece with their news reports," said Lyudmila Safonova, mother of Lieutenant Commander Maxim Safonov, who served in the second compartment. "They made a daily soap opera out of our pain." At a meeting with navy officials on the Saturday, women were shrieking, fainting and weeping. One mother tried to strangle the deputy prime minister and another screamed that the navy brass should all shoot themselves. She was forcibly sedated.

On Monday, Aug. 21, Norwegian divers finally managed to open the rear hatch only to find the entire submarine flooded and no signs of life. The majority of the crew had probably been killed instantly ?€” either by the blast, flooding or fire ?€” and the remaining 23, who were trapped in the eighth and ninth compartments, could only have survived until Saturday afternoon.

The tragedy has affected the Kursk women in different ways, and now one year on, on Aug. 12, the relatives of the submariners are converging on the Arctic garrison for what is being called a memorial. But the families are unlikely to forgive and forget both the tragedy and the way it was handled by the authorities. Twelve months later, the true cause of the accident has still to be made public, though a long-awaited effort to raise the submarine is now under way.

Natasha, who still lives in Vidyayevo with her baby daughter, was a victim of the lies and has since met with cold bureaucratic indifference in the face of her sorrow. The closest relatives to the Kursk sailors received $20,000 in compensation (a previously unheard-of sum in a country where the average monthly wage is $120), but Natasha was refused even the smallest widow's pension despite having lived with Sergei for two years as his fianc?e. The money all went to his parents. Some relatives, such as Lyudmila Safonova, refuse to touch the compensation, calling it dirty money, while others have gladly accepted the offers of apartments and financial aid, believing that it is the least the navy can do. Natasha, however, is now fighting a court battle to receive

a $15-a-month grant for her baby daughter as the child of one of the Kursk sailors. Tears welled up in her eyes as she recalled their parting.

"He came home for lunch that Friday and then he lay down for a nap. When I woke him to tell him it was time to go to sea for the 3-day training mission, he said: 'Natasha! I had such a terrible nightmare about the boat.' He didn't want to describe it to me, he just said that he'd seen me running and crying in the streets looking for him and not being able to find him. And that's exactly what happened," Natasha said.

Nadezhda Tylik, mother of 24-year-old Sergei Tylik, a senior lieutenant in the control room, has also taken to the courts in her fight for justice: She is suing Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov for what she considers to be the murder of her son. "He knew it was a dangerous mission but he sent them out. Then when Captain [Gennady] Lyachin [of the Kursk] radioed to say the torpedo was about to explode and had to be fired, the top brass never responded. [Kuroyedov] killed my son, he killed him."

This radio transmission was never officially reported or confirmed, but it was considered a matter of fact by the families of the Kursk sailors. Many of the fathers are themselves former submariners who still have contacts in the active forces, perhaps allowing them to glean information, then pass it along through the network of Kursk relatives.

Seven days after the boat went down the spiky blonde-haired Nadezhda made worldwide headlines when she stood up at a press conference in Vidyayevo and screamed abuse at navy commanders. She called them bastards and said that they should take off their epaulets and shoot themselves, then she was forcibly sedated by a doctor and carried away. "I don't know what that jab contained but my legs buckled and I only came to at home," Nadezhda said. "Then I had such hysterics I had to be taken to a local hospital and put on a drip. I know I shouldn't have screamed at them like that, but losing my son in that way was terrible. I was in the hospital for a month. I lost 20 kilos and threw up every time I tried to eat."

According to Nadezhda, the sedative was not unusual. Immediately following the disaster, all the female relatives were regularly rounded up by doctors and given obligatory "heart" injections. "What they were injecting into us, God knows ?€” one can only guess," Nadezhda said. She was the only woman to mention these injections, and no official confirmation has been offered. "They did it so there would be no uprising, so that we'd all restrain ourselves, weep quietly and keep our mouths shut. They didn't want an international scandal. But it didn't work. After I was taken out, one mother ran up and tried to strangle [Deputy Prime Minister] Ilya Klebanov. It was a natural maternal reaction, because her boy was killed and no one was admitting to the murder."

For the first few days following the accident the panic and desperation of family members were compounded when their telephone lines went dead, said Nadezhda, whose husband is a retired submarine commander. Then they were restored but tapped. Their letters were opened and vetted, she said. No journalists were permitted into Vidyayevo, and Western journalists were falsely told that Nadezhda was in a psychiatric hospital in St. Petersburg. "The silence from our own officers was deafening," she said, her eyes burning angrily as she paced about her home in Anapa, a sleepy Black Sea coastal town. The Tyliks live on a quiet street lined with plane trees. They share half a house with another family. Their quarters are sparsely decorated, but in typical navy fashion, they are spick and span.

"They were scared," she said. "If any one of them opened their mouths to talk they were fired. The authorities don't value people, they don't value life. All they were worried about was covering their own backs and averting a scandal. It's been like that since time immemorial in Russia. The people are the masses. Cattle. So what if our sons died yesterday? So what? The Russian woman is strong, she'll produce more sons to serve the motherland."

Like Natasha Loginova, Nadezhda Tylik also received no compensation, but she doesn't want hush money ?€” she wants revenge. Six days before he left on that fatal mission, her son Sergei told her, "We are carrying death on board." She wants to know why. She is now spearheading a movement to allow relatives access to military information regarding the cause of the accident, and she blames navy chief Kuroyedov. "He was tearing our hearts apart with his tales of a two week oxygen supply. American analysts said straight away that the crew must have died in the first day or so. It was never a rescue operation. And he knew the torpedo had misfired because the captain [Lyachin] radioed to headquarters reporting a problem. Kuroyedov is responsible for the murder of our children and he must be brought to justice."

Another militant woman ?€” she is fighting the Russian tabloid press that ran spurious stories about the Kursk crew ?€” is Olga Kolesnikova, who was married to Lieutenant Commander Dmitry Kolesnikov, in charge of the Kursk's engine room. As her husband (nicknamed Mitya) sat awaiting death in the dark, cold depths of the Barents Sea he penned her a note. It begins in even, firm handwriting across the top of a page torn out of the log book.

"Little Olga! I love you. Don't be too upset. Say hello to G.N. (Olga's mother) and to mine. Mitya. 12th August, 2001, 15.15."

The rest is scrawled and uneven, running off the burnt page.

"It's dark in here, but I'll try to write blind. Seems there's no chance ?€” 10-20%. We hope that at least someone will read this. I've written here a list of the crew members who are in the ninth compartment and who will try to get out. Say hello to everyone. There's no need to despair. Kolesnikov."

Another letter, which was apparently written by Lieutenant Commander Rashid Aryapov ?€” Dmitry's friend who served in the sixth compartment ?€” has not been made public or given to Rashid's young wife despite her pleas to see his last words. A navy spokesman paraphrased the contents: "Feel bad. The air pressure is rising. We couldn't survive the decompression if we did get out. We're weakened by the carbon monoxide. Won't last more than a day. There are 23 people here and we're trying to get out through the emergency hatch in the ninth compartment but so far we can't. Perhaps it's full of water."

Olga, sitting in her apartment in a bleak new development in the St. Petersburg suburbs, shook her head in disbelief. "I sometimes try to imagine what those last hours were like and I can't. I can't think about it. I'm amazed when I read Dmitry's letter. Amazed that he had the courage, knowing that he was dying, to calmly write and tell me: 'there's no need to despair.'"

Twenty-nine-year-old Olga, a schoolteacher, had a whirlwind romance with the big, red-haired officer who was three years her junior, and married him just three months before the tragedy. "He would meet me by the school gates every day and we drowned in our love for each other. We had a greedy desire for one another and didn't want to be apart for one minute. Perhaps we realized it was fated to be short ?€” it was a mad, bright flare," she said.

Dmitry took Olga on board his beloved Kursk and she was staggered at how they could live in such cramped quarters for three months at a time and still love their work ?€” and the boat. "The word boat [lodka] is feminine and he would say: 'Look at her, look how beautiful she is, look how she moves!' At home he'd watch videos of her and make me watch and talked about her as if she were a real living, breathing being. I was madly jealous and when he went to sea, I reacted to the Kursk as if it were a woman taking him away from me. The last time I saw him he hugged me tightly and burst into tears. That wasn't like him at all. He was a very strong, brave man. But he had a premonition."

The men were sworn to secrecy regarding their work on the nuclear submarine, but rumor had it on the women's grapevine that tests were to be carried out on the torpedoes. This theory appeared to be confirmed when it was found that the boat was carrying civilian representatives from Dagestan's Dagdizel plant when it went down. Dagdizel designed and manufactured the propulsion system for the Shkval class torpedoes that were to have been test fired from the Kursk.

A few weeks before the tragedy, Dmitry wrote Olga a poem. The last line reads: "When the time comes to die, though I drive away such thoughts, all I ask is that time whisper: 'Darling, I love you.'" Dmitry was given that time. "I would have preferred not to have gotten that last letter," Olga said. "I would have preferred him to die straight away because this love letter is cruel."

The tragedy has affected the Kursk women in different, sometimes extraordinary ways. Olga believes that Mitya's spirit lives with her. She is convinced that he comes to her at night and lies next to her. "I feel his warmth," she said. "He touches me, holds me, kisses me and loves me. I close my eyes tight so as not to wake up, and then in the morning I feel physically and emotionally satisfied."

Lyudmila Safonova has no ghost to comfort her and no grave to visit. She sits at home and nurses her grief and anger in a three-room apartment in the naval barracks, where she lives with her husband and their daughter, Olga. A flower-laden plaque in Maxim's memory hangs outside their stairwell. Her room is a shrine to her dead son, filled with portraits, a photograph of the Kursk and a brass clock that he brought back from the boat one day. She can scarcely speak of him for weeping. A daughter doesn't replace a son, she says, and the pain doesn't get better, it gets deeper.

Lyudmila, too, was eligible for compensation, but refused on principle to touch it. "It's painful to go near it. It's dirty money," she said sadly. As she leafed through a photo album showing Maxim as a baby, a chubby toddler and then a skinny 10 year old, the tears flowed freely. "I have no future," she choked, "no future. I can't make any plans. I just exist. My only hope is that we'll meet again in death because there's no happiness in life."

Lyudmila and her husband went to see the divers ("because they were the first people at Maxim's grave"), but though they sat and drank vodka with them, they heard nothing new. "They ran through the official version of the disaster," said Anatoly Safonov, Lyudmila's husband and a retired navy captain. "They'd been told to keep their mouths shut." Lyudmila blames President Vladimir Putin for the bungling and coverup. "It's painful to remember what Putin did," she said. "There's this tragedy which is shaking the world and he's in the south playing tennis for five days. For him it was an insignificant event. If it weren't for stupid Soviet pride they might have saved someone, but human life means nothing to them ?€” why bother to save 118 men when there are 150 million more where they came from? Perhaps they didn't want to save them. Perhaps they were scared of what they might say. I can't rid myself of that thought."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian military has been chronically under-funded. Naval officers receive a miserly wage ?€” $100 a month on average ?€” and live in small, cramped quarters in crumbling, peeling garrisons, often with no central heating, erratic electricity supplies and scarce hot water. The cuts have inevitably taken their toll on military hardware, resulting in numerous accidents.

Anastasia, mother of Senior Warrant Officer Andrei Borisov, recalls how her son lived on bread and water because his salary was not paid for months at a time. She lives with her husband in a ramshackle log cabin in a village north of Moscow. Chickens wander about the yard and a cow lows in the shed. The couple subsist on her husband's $25-a-month pension. A candle burns day and night in front of a framed photo of Andrei in uniform ?€” a gift from the navy. His body was recovered on Oct. 26, 2000, and was brought back to the village where his mother and his wife Natalya live, for burial. Despite having been three months under the water the body was carried through the village in an open coffin.

Anastasia tortures herself by sorting through macabre photographs of the body. "I had to see how he died, I had to see his face," she said, convulsed with uncontrollable fits of weeping. "The freezing water preserved him, and look, he had four days' stubble. Does that mean he lived four days?" Andrei served in the eighth compartment but they found him in a thermal diving suit in the ninth by the escape hatch with two other divers. "They'd taken their hammers out ?€” it was him who was knocking, him! He died of asphyxiation. Oh Andrei, my darling Andrei! You were so good, so kind, but they didn't want to save you, they didn't want you to tell."

The suffering in these homes is a physical presence, but every family searches for their own way to deal with the pain. Anastasia weeps and Lyudmila Safonova grieves. Others, like Andrei Borisov's wife Natalya, who lives a few doors down from Anastasia, have come to terms with the loss and put it behind them.

She is busy cooking up meat and potatoes for their 3-year-old son, Sasha. She blames no one for the accident and plans to use the compensation to move with her mother to a flat in a nearby town, where Sasha can go to a good kindergarten. She does not talk of Andrei to her son and will not be going to the Vidyayevo memorial. "Why live in the past?" she said with a shrug. "What's done is done, we can't bring Andrei back." Little Sasha, who had been chasing their cat around the garden, suddenly looked up at the mention of his father. "Is daddy coming back?" he asked.

His mother shook her head.

"Yes he is," the boy insisted. "Daddy's at sea."

But there are others like Nadezhda Tylik who refuse to abandon their fight for justice. They will converge on Vidyayevo on the anniversary of the tragedy, doing everything in their power, at whatever cost, to seek the truth. If the Russian courts refuse to take up their case then they will appeal to a European court. They are fighting not only for the sake of the men they lost, but to prevent such a tragedy ever happening again to other husbands, fathers and sons.

Juliet Butler is a freelance journalist working in London and Moscow.

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