The Kursk Disaster: Facts Sunk Beneath Waves of Drama

At the turn of the millennium a trilogy of disasters gained a high profile in the international media. First, in July of 2000 the fiery crash of Air France’s Concorde flight 4590 from Paris to New York ended not just many lives (109 persons), but also the plane’s career. Second, on August 12, 2000, there was the sinking of Russia’s Kursk submarine, with 118 sailors killed in the tragedy. Third, and probably much less memorable now, on August 27, 2000, a fire high up in Moscow’s Ostankino Tower saw its spire dangerously tilting as if ready to collapse live on camera as seen around the world; two people died in that incident. It was almost as if this would be a preview of the much more breathtaking collapses of the twin towers of the World Trade Center just a year later. Accompanying the millennium disasters were a series of blockbuster disaster movies, which included James Cameron’s 1997 movie: Titanic. Let’s not forget the pretend disaster that was supposed to have been the infamously ridiculous “Y2K Bug,” a hoax in every respect except the billions of dollars transferred to the pockets of IT consultants for unnecessary preparations.

The sinking of the Kursk is now memorialized in a European film released late in 2018, by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. It features an all-European cast that includes Max von Sydow playing the role of “Admiral Vladimir Petrenko” (in reality this was Navy Commander-in-Chief and Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov)—this is the part of the “bad guy”; Colin Firth, playing the role of Commodore David Russell—the “good guy” in the film; also noteworthy, Matthias Schoenaerts playing the role of a fictitious Mikhail Averin who appears to have been based on the real world character of Captain-lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov.

Not being a Hollywood film, this is not a straightforward propaganda film (as one might suspect of a Western media production dealing with a Russian subject, in the current context). However, it is still a big-budget feature that plays loose with certain facts, more by inflating and amplifying some aspects while minimizing others. It is aimed at US and European audiences primarily. Had it been intended as a direct condemnation of Vladimir Putin—who had then been president for only a few months when the Kursk disaster happened—the filmmakers could have simply stuck to the recorded facts. Instead, the film actually removes Putin from a key incident shown in the film—a Russian navy briefing to the grief-stricken families of the sailors—and replaces him with an imaginary admiral played by Max Von Sydow. In reality, Putin vacationed at his seaside villa for several days as the disaster unfolded, before returning to Moscow and attending that disastrous gathering with sailors’ families. At that gathering Putin was directly and loudly challenged, a shouting match ensued followed by scuffles, and one family member was famously dragged out after being surreptitiously injected with a sedative by a nurse in civilian clothes. Reality was ugly enough that there would have been no need for propaganda. On the other hand, it’s not clear that Putin himself was adequately informed by the military, who claimed to have the situation under control.

The impressions that stood out for me as one viewer watching the film, were: (a) the inhumane, obstinate refusal of encrusted military brass to accept foreign assistance, preferring to instead indulge obsolete paranoia and outdated conspiracy theories about the West; and, (b) the sheer magnitude of incompetence and degradation that makes one wonder whether Russia even deserves to have a navy. The loss of the surviving sailors is shown as preventable, a needless tragedy—if only Russian naval brass had not consisted of Jurassic-era dicks, sinister Stalinist throwbacks, and snivelling cowards. Navies are for serious, developed nations of the civilized world—not for rust-bucket states on their last legs. It’s not an accident that I thought these things: they are monumental features of the film that simply cannot be avoided, and were deliberately produced by the filmmakers.

One way to achieve these effects is by playing with the facts, in this case by maximizing what is one possible yet extreme interpretation of what transpired beneath the surface of the sea: that the sailors survived for days before finally succumbing. By stretching events out over a period of days, the filmmakers only amplify the needless tragedy of the delays caused by steadfast Russian refusals of foreign assistance—which then gave way to accepting foreign assistance (so not even that narrative is stable). In actuality, experts can find little evidence that those who survived the initial blasts lasted much longer than three to six hours.

On the other hand, I have to confess that my inner populist reacted positively to the film focusing heavily on the sailors, their heroism, courage, altruism, and self-sacrifice for their comrades. These were the workers. They did their job, even though they were not getting paid and were all struggling to survive in a climate of delayed back wages. The focus on their wives and children was also appropriate, showing where and how they lived, their apartments, the laundry hanging from tiny balconies in grim-looking residential towers overlooking the sea, neighbours huddling together over tea, consoling each other. These are the people who really mattered, and it is my main praise for the film that it maintained this emphasis.

However, going past populist appeal, what magnifies the tragedy in this film is Russian rejection of foreign assistance. Had the Russians accepted foreign help, immediately, before even trying to do things themselves, then the men who waited—allegedly for days—might have been saved. The reality is more likely one where even if Russia immediately accepted such aid, it would have taken too long to reach the survivors, who had all died just three to six hours after the initial blasts. The film enters the territory of propaganda if—as seen in the present—it is meant to suggest that Russia is to blame for Cold War II. Russia did not start this new Cold War, and that fact should be as plain as day. It was not Russia that ended cooperation with the West, that walked out on peace treaties, that booted itself from the G8, that terminated various forms of cooperation and exchange. It is Russia that is constantly pleading for more diplomacy, and less aggression. What the film shows is the opposite of that—something that is instead like the US after Hurricane Katrina, which rejected offers of humanitarian assistance from nearby Cuba.

The questionable nature of the film then is its thematic logic, which essentially breaks down into the following points:

  1. You are inadequate.
  2. You must therefore accept foreign help, because you’re no good to yourself.
  3. Foreign help saves lives.

It is a basic “humanitarian” ethic, and in this present context where the US is trying to ram tiny bits of junk aid down the throats of the same Venezuelans whose economy the US is smashing, it is a message that will still resonate with audiences untrained in thinking critically.

But what if we instead read the events as a logical chain of events and causes, shaped by history? Then we would get something that takes us back to some “uncomfortable” roots of the problem, roots that implicate Western powers. Thus,

  1. What happened to the Kursk? The technical aspects were the subject of considerable debate, and the facts are hardly settled—even down to disputing the argument that an overheating torpedo exploded prematurely.
  2. Why was the Kursk out at sea? Given NATO’s steady expansion in what was formerly the Warsaw Pact, its move toward incorporating the Baltic republics, and its bombing campaign against Serbia (a Russia ally), the Russians clearly felt a pressing need to mount a show of force.
  3. Why was the Russian Navy in such a parlous state? Budget cuts. That is, austerity, caused by an economic meltdown, brought on by the sort of “shock therapy” that was deliberately pursued by Boris Yeltsin (Washington’s man in Moscow), and pushed by the International Monetary Fund. The Russian state, pre-Putin, had cut back on all sorts of public expenditures, basically running the state-owned sector into the ground (and into the arms of oligarchs). GDP contracted by about 40%, unemployment soared, as did food and fuel prices, and life expectancy tumbled—this was the reality of Russia under neoliberalism, as pushed by the US and Western international institutions. Russia also suffered from a financial crisis in 1998, a direct outcome of its over exposure to international capitalism.
  4. Why was Russia melting down? This would take us to the complicated sequence of events following the demise and fragmentation of the Soviet Union (USSR).
  5. Why did the USSR collapse? Not that there is anything like a consensus about the ultimate determinants of the demise of the USSR, the most common explanations advanced include as a key factor the structural fatigue brought on by the Cold War arms race, and the USSR’s international over-extension as it tried to counter the US/NATO at every move.

The fact of the matter is that we can see a similar break down transpiring in the US, not just in terms of economic destruction and social division, but also in terms of cities exposed to toxic pollution from radioactive waste dumps connected to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Thus we will soon have a review here of Atomic Homefront, much delayed already. In Russia’s case, much of the destruction of the 1990s was countered by the reforms introduced by Vladimir Putin, to great effect, depending on the observer, which no doubt accounts for his continuing high popularity rating among Russians (well past the highest ever achieved by Obama).

Had the film followed a logical and historical chain of causes and consequences, then the message of the film might have changed substantially:

Don’t threaten countries that you first subjected to stress, because such stress can literally kill.

But then that would be an anti-interventionist ethic, and that ethic is not permissible in our society, which continues to train specialists in the field of “humanitarian intervention,” just as it trains others in the arts of deception, and tries to secure the consent of audiences.

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