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Kursk's Tragedy--and Hope

June 24, 2002

After nearly two years, the mystery of the deep is solved on the surface and the men and boys who suffocated on the sunken Russian submarine Kursk in August 2000 are home for burial. The official verdict: One of the submerged Kursk's own torpedoes, powered by volatile hydrogen peroxide, exploded, igniting others, shattering the bow and sending the 14,000-ton sub and 118 crewmen to drift helplessly 350 feet down to the Barents Sea's muddy bottom off Norway. Another maritime tragedy that makes people everywhere wince in sympathy for families they don't know.

But even in the chilled murk of those hostile waters, the Kursk calamity revealed much--about the unpreparedness, poor maintenance and morale and rigid mind-set of the underfunded Russian military and about the inertia and arrogance of a totalitarian bureaucracy being forced into the daylight by developing democracy. As President Mikhail S. Gorbachev used the 1986 Chernobyl disaster to force reforms, there's hope that President Vladimir V. Putin, after an initial misstep, is using the Kursk similarly.

The sinking was secret for one costly day, then fudged for another. Rescue equipment had been mothballed for budget reasons. Military big hats, dodging responsibility, suggested that an aged mine caused the disaster or, better yet, a foreign vessel. Only after four days of saturation media coverage did Putin interrupt a beach vacation to visit the scene--a PR lesson in humanity long learned by officials elsewhere but something Russian leaders from the czar on had ignored.

Russia's military was loath to seek help from foreigners, who routinely--and unashamedly--swap assistance for emergencies such as vast forest fires. Help was too late; all probably died within hours, some after penning farewells. Putin held a town meeting and vowed to investigate and to recover remains of the crew and ship, a $130-million gesture that has fueled his domestic popularity.

It will take much more than PR gestures and torpedo-fuel changes before Russia's authoritarian society creaks haltingly into an openly responsive civil society for the 21st century. The fundamental modernization of Russia will take patience, persistence, cleverness, time and probably a healthy dose of luck.

If this sad loss and aftermath provide needed impetus for ongoing reforms, then the Kursk lives were not wasted. Little solace for those 118 families. But moderate encouragement for their countrymen and many millions of others who share this Earth with, and hopes for, that vast land.

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