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Nightmare at sea

Published: December 10, 2004 (Issue # 1028)

Mourners at the burial of the Kursk's captain, Gennady Lyachin, in St. Petersburg in March 2002. Just before midday on Aug. 12, 2000, the Kursk submarine sank following two explosions during a military exercise in the Barents Sea. When news of the disaster broke two days later, riddled with official lies, the media went into a feeding frenzy: One hundred and eighteen patriotic sailors trapped at the bottom of the sea in a Russian nuclear submarine made an emotive story, especially during the slow news months of summer.

But as the truth about the disaster emerged, it was the reaction of the Russian military - befuddled, self-contradictory and intentionally deceptive - that took center stage. No less shocking was newly elected president Vladimir Putin's decision to continue his vacation on the Black Sea while the submarine accident was making headlines across the world. In short, the Russian leadership gave a brilliant example of how not to handle a crisis. The Kursk had been participating in an exercise intended to illustrate to the world that Russia was still a major player, but the inept reaction of the Kremlin - and especially the Navy - exposed the decline of the country and its military instead.

Skillfully building up tension in "Cry From the Deep," Ramsey Flynn, an American investigative journalist who admits he had never worked in Russia before beginning the book, gives a readable, if overly emotional, blow-by-blow account of a disaster whose causes are still fraught with debate. To this day, many in the Russian Navy think that the Kursk was sunk by a collision with a U.S. or British submarine, even though Putin has said that there is little proof of such a theory. Indeed, it's hard to believe that evidence of a collision would have been withheld by the Russians if it existed.

Flynn argues with skill that a faulty torpedo was to blame for the sinking of the Kursk - the same conclusion reached by Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov in the official inquiry. The torpedo that sank the Kursk was a Type 65-76, more familiarly known as a tolstushka, or "fat girl," because of its size. The tolstushka has a bad reputation among sailors since the high-test hydrogen peroxide that it uses as an oxidizer can break down upon contact with common catalysts, rapidly expanding in volume and creating massive temperatures. The weapon had been loaded onto the Kursk on Aug. 3 with a "flood of paperwork irregularities," and roughly handled in the process. In an indication of how bad it is to be a sailor in the Northern Fleet, military analysts have claimed that submarine crews often have to pay torpedo units to ensure that they get well functioning weapons.

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Friday, Jan. 30 through Wednesday, Feb. 4

A retrospective of the films of Roman Polanski starts today at Loft-Project Etagi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt, with a screening of ‘Repulsion’ at 7 p.m. and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ at 9:15 p.m. The series runs through Feb. 4 and will include Polanski's eminently creepy ‘The Tenant,’ the cult comedy ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ and ‘Cul-de-sac’ among others. Tickets are 150-200 rubles and the complete schedule is available at

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