Families of 'Kursk' pay final tribute at the grave

Spurning President Putin, loved ones of the 118 sailors who perished in the Barents Sea mourned in their own way
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The Independent Online

Distraught relatives of the Kursk's drowned submariners who boycotted an official day of mourning, organised their own memorial ceremonies yesterday. Doctors were on standby to help parents and wives who wept inconsolably for the loss of their sons and husbands.

Distraught relatives of the Kursk's drowned submariners who boycotted an official day of mourning, organised their own memorial ceremonies yesterday. Doctors were on standby to help parents and wives who wept inconsolably for the loss of their sons and husbands.

President Vladimir Putin - who was criticised for his slow reaction to the sinking of Kursk on 12 August and had flown to the Arctic to be with the relatives on Wednesday - declared a national day of mourning. Relatives gave him a hearing but declined to grieve with him and the rest of Russia, saying they would mourn only when their loved ones' bodies were raised from the Barents Sea.

Instead, they gathered in the garrison town of Vidyayevo, the Kursk's official base, to lay a stone where a monument to the 118 sailors will be erected. "We grieve that such a tragedy happened. The best monument for them is for us never to forget them," Vice-Admiral Vladimir Dobroskuchenko began. But he had to interrupt his speech when a woman in the crowd collapsed and was taken to a waiting ambulance. Later, some 150 of the relatives went out on a ferry to the spot where the Kursk lies - 345ft beneath the waves - to cast wreaths. A bottle of vodka was emptied onto the waves in a traditional Russian graveside gesture, and an imam was also present to pay last respects to the eight Muslims on board the vessel.

At the stone-laying ceremony seen by the few Russian journalists allowed into Vidyayevo, a woman flung herself to the ground and wept: Irina Lyachina, wife of Gennady Lyachin, Kursk's captain, looked devastated. "They are inconsolable," said a reporter from the independent television channel NTV.

Some Western newspapers yesterday published shocking photographs of a nurse injecting a woman with a sedative, which implied she was being drugged to shut her up. That incident happened last Friday when the Deputy Prime Minister, Ilya Khlebanov, addressed the relatives in the Vidyayevo community centre. The woman was shown on NTV, screaming at the minister about the authorities' delays and demanding that top naval officers take off their epaulettes.

Relatives have been given counselling and some who continue to believe their loved ones are still alive may eventually need psychiatric help. This self-protective refusal to accept reality may have been one reason why some were not ready to mourn with the President and nation. But there was also anger from people who, while grieving, seemed to know their own minds. "I did not go to meet Putin," said Marina Stankevich, the wife of Kursk's medical officer. "I cannot see that person."

According to Russian tradition, a funeral is an occasion when people who may have been in bitter conflict come together and forgive each other for the sake of the dead. The fact that Kursk relatives refused to mourn with President Putin suggests they do not feel ready to forgive his apparent incompetence and insensitivity. After the sinking, he stayed on holiday and wasted valuable time before accepting help from foreign rescue teams.

But Alexei II, the influential Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, said Mr Putin was genuinely distressed. Some had thought he might lack the courage to look them in the eye, but he had a private conversation with Captain Lyachin's wife and a three-hour meeting with other relatives, which was closed to the press.

Russian television filmed him on the stairs leading from Mrs Lyachina's modest flat. "If you think that was a revelation to me, you are mistaken. I myself lived in such a flat," Mr Putin later said in an interview broadcast on RTR, the state television channel.

He said it was shameful that Russians - even the military elite - should live in such conditions and vowed to make the army, navy and country strong. He also spoke of his own "great feeling of responsibility and guilt". Yet he spoilt the apology by lashing out in the next breath against the businessmen who made fortunes during the Yeltsin era and who own the media that criticised him.

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