Families angered by reluctance to request foreign help

Race to save the Kursk: As the stricken submarine's air supplies run low, conscripts and top brass alike are staring death in the face
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The Independent Online

Russia held its collective breath yesterday, waiting and praying that the nation would be spared another humiliating tragedy and that at least some of the sailors trapped on the Kursk submarine would be brought safely from the bottom of the Barents Sea.

Russia held its collective breath yesterday, waiting and praying that the nation would be spared another humiliating tragedy and that at least some of the sailors trapped on the Kursk submarine would be brought safely from the bottom of the Barents Sea.

The 118 men on the Kursk are a mixture of the lowliest conscripts and some of the top brass from the Northern Fleet, who were using the vessel as a headquarters for what should have been morale-boosting manoeuvres. Decades of communism failed to make them equal, but rank counted for nothing as the hours passed, their oxygen supplies ran low and they stared death in the face.

Ordinary Russians only learned yesterday that Britain was sending a mini-submarine to help more than 20 Russian surface vessels and underwater craft involved in the rescue operation. And when it sinks in that Western aid could have been involved at a much earlier stage, the leadership's reflexive decision to put national pride before human lives can be expected to trigger a wave of popular anger.

"They have been messing about up there in the Arctic since the weekend instead of at least trying to find out whether Western systems would be compatible with ours," said one disgusted Muscovite, who gave only his first name, Viktor. A retired professor rang a radio phone-in show and demanded: "What gestures do we (the people) need to make, to whom must we appeal, to get them (the authorities) to accept help?" The independent daily Segodnya commented: "Admirals for some reason think that even if one Russian sailor is saved from a Russian submarine with outside help, it will certainly end in a political catastrophe." Yet, these are not the days of the Cold War when Moscow would sacrifice any number of men in order to safeguard its secrets. Belatedly, it did appear to accept Britain's help and yesterday was not a time for recriminations.

Distraught relatives of the 118 men on board the stricken submarine were travelling up to the Arctic base of Severomorsk or ringing telephone hot lines for the latest information. The rest of the nation, still in shock after a deadly terrorist bomb in the heart of Moscow only a week ago, was glued to the television, mentally swinging between hope and fear.

At the other end of the country, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, President Vladimir Putin was receiving regular reports on the rescue operation while continuing his working holiday. He admitted that the situation was "critical" but assured Russians that everything was being done to try to save the crew. The Kremlin leader himself could have been in the situation of the sailors, as he recently spent a night at sea in a Northern Fleet submarine .

Serving on submarines runs in Russian families and several of the relatives interviewed on television were veteran sub-mariners whose sons had followed the same career path.

One such man, heading for Severomorsk, said he knew from his own experience that his son had probably no more than a 10 per cent chance ofsurvival but he refused to give up hope.

In St Petersburg, an amateur diving club had helped Lyudmila Milyutina to obtain one of the scarce air tickets to fly up to the Arctic to find out about her son, Andrei. "He looks so small, so thin," she wept, pouring over his photograph. "We have to hope for the best," said her husband. "It is all we can do for him."

The central Russian city of Kursk, after which the 14,000-tonne submarine was named, was especially anxious as six of its young men were thought to be enduring the nightmare in the dark, increasingly airless vessel. For youths obliged to give two years' military service to the Motherland, a posting to the Northern Fleet was regarded as prestigious, infinitely preferable to being sent to Chechnya.

One young man from Kursk, Dmitry Staroseltsev, 20, had written to his mother saying he was "thrilled" because he had been among the "lucky" ones chosen after basic training to go to sea instead of doing menial duties at base. "His last letter was so joyful," said his mother, Valentina. "He said, 'Mama, there's a great crew on board here, a group of lads from Kursk. We're like one big family.'" Mrs. Staroseltseva was proud of him and uncritical of the authorities.

But another Kursk mother, Anna Kubokova, expressed anger as well as anguish because the local military recruitment office was unable to tell her whether her son was on the submarine or not. The hot line, available only to relatives, might have helped. Those travelling up to Severomorsk were being accommodated on a special white cruise ship, where psychologists were helping them to deal with the agonising wait and their worst fears.

The names of the unfortunate men were not being released to the public.

Precisely which senior officers were on board was unclear, but the commander of the submarine was Gennady Lyachin, 45, who has served in the Northern Fleet since 1978.

Compared with the official silences of Soviet times, when accidents were hushed up, the navy's briefings to journalists were helpful, though full details will only emerge after it is clear whether the rescue has succeeded or failed.

Reporting from the city of Murmansk, as near as the press could get to the scene of the accident, Arkady Mamontov of Russia's second RTR channel, quoted naval officers as saying that their colleagues would be suffering in a cold, claustrophobic hell. The temperature of the churning, iron-grey sea above was 9C but inside the vessel, it was only 4C.

In normal circumstances, the officers would have better quarters than the men, but the accident should have thrown them all together. In post-communist times, officers have sacrificed themselves alongside their men, as for example in a recent, costly battle in Chechnya.

Although the deputy Prime Minister, Ilya Khlebanov, said yesterday there was no "sign of life" from the submarine -- perhaps because the sailors were conserving their energy -- they had been using an alphabet of knocks to send messages to their rescuers.

On Tuesday, the trapped submariners had knocked out an SOS and the message: "We are still alive. Save us."

According to the RTR reporter, they would be able to hear the efforts of the rescuers around them.

"But will the rescuers reach them in time? asked RTR's anchorwoman.

The reporter replied: "I'm afraid only God knows that."