Months ago Putin was feted as a hero here. Now he inspires anger

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The Independent Online

The hero city of Kursk, site of the world's most famous tank battle, during the Second World War, has a new triumphal arch, almost as large as the Moscow copy of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. When President Vladimir Putin came here in May to open the war memorial, crowds of women screamed in ecstasy. If he were to return today, Kursk would welcome him rather differently, after his handling of the loss of the submarine that bears the city's name and carries its sons.

The hero city of Kursk, site of the world's most famous tank battle, during the Second World War, has a new triumphal arch, almost as large as the Moscow copy of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. When President Vladimir Putin came here in May to open the war memorial, crowds of women screamed in ecstasy. If he were to return today, Kursk would welcome him rather differently, after his handling of the loss of the submarine that bears the city's name and carries its sons.

Although the President returned to Moscow yesterday, the residents of Kursk were still venting their anger over his prolonged absence from the Kremlin at such a critical time.

"How dare Putin swan around on holiday at the Black Sea when our boys are trapped up there in the Arctic, probably dead by now?" demanded Leonid, who ekes out a living by using his car as an unofficial taxi. "Those in power care more about a lump of metal and their stupid secrets than human beings. Mind you, I never liked Putin. I didn't vote for him. What can you expect from a former KGB agent?"

Natasha, a student who said she had voted (although not screamed) for Mr Putin, was just as angry. "I certainly would not vote for him again. He has lost my trust. He has dithered instead of acting and waited far too long before accepting foreign help. It is simply indecent that he did not go straight up to Severomorsk when he found out that the boat had sunk."

Kursk has traditional links with the Northern Fleet, and on board the submarine that went down last Saturday were seven of its young men - four conscripts and three officers.

Lying on her sick bed, ill with breast cancer, Olga Kuznetsova was too distressed about her son Viktor, 28, a junior officer on the vessel, to waste much emotion on Mr Putin, although she too expressed dissatisfaction at what she saw as his indecisiveness and insensitivity. "She just keeps crying and crying," said her daughter Lyuva.

Her illness has stopped her travelling with other relatives of the sailors to the Arctic, where they hope a British mini-submarine, joining the Russian rescue efforts, can achieve a miracle this weekend. "Hope is fading," she admitted. "I feel as if I have a huge stone in my soul. I would rather have died on the operating table than have this happen to my poor Viktor."

Her younger son, Timur, 16 - she has seven children - led me to a table with icons and photographs of Viktor: Viktor as a schoolboy; Viktor as a young seaman; Viktor with his wife, Svetlana, and their three-year-old son, Dima. "As you see, we are a large family," said Mrs Kuznetsova. "My father is 100 years old. He doesn't know his grandson is on the submarine. The news would kill him."

Mrs Kuznetsova, a retired postwoman, spoke of Viktor as a calm, restrained man. "He loved the sea," she said, "which is strange, us being so land-locked down here."

Kursk is 500 miles south of Moscow. Mrs Kuznetsova has only seen the sea once, when she was in Germany with her husband. Viktor saw it for the first time as a conscript and loved it so much he decided to make his career in the navy. He joined the crew of the Kursk when it was launched in 1994.

"I wanted to serve on the Kursk too," said Timur, who will finish school and become liable for conscription in two years. "But I'm not so sure about the navy now. Perhaps I'll be a fireman instead."

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