Russia prepares for the worst

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The Independent Online

In the Nightingale Grove Cafi, two Kursk ladies sat drinking morning coffee and talking in low voices about the tragedy of the submarine linked with their city. The television in the corner was showing an old Jacques Cousteau film about underwater wonders.

In the Nightingale Grove Cafi, two Kursk ladies sat drinking morning coffee and talking in low voices about the tragedy of the submarine linked with their city. The television in the corner was showing an old Jacques Cousteau film about underwater wonders.

They gazed at the fish without seeing them, impervious to the curious programming choice of the pro-Kremlin channel. Their anxious conversation was all of oxygen and whether, by some miracle, the submariners on the sunken Kursk, including seven from this city, were still breathing.

The assistants at the counter had no milk for my coffee. When the ladies heard my foreign accent, they offered milk from their own shopping bags. When they learned I was British, they came over to my table. "We want you to know that we're very grateful to Britain," said Galina, a pensioner, who was wearing a black-and-white polka-dot dress. "The British are our only hope now. We will be glued to the television this weekend watching them go into action."

But everyone knows it is probably already too late, a week has gone by since the 14,000 ton Kursk, the "unsinkable" pride of the Northern Fleet, went down in the Barents Sea with 118 men, from captain to conscripts, on board.

Despite his assurances that everything possible was being done to rescue the sailors, President Vladimir Putin has not been forgiven by many ordinary Russians for being slow to grasp Western help. But military hard-liners may never forgive him for accepting it at all, and therein lay his dilemma.

The overwhelming popular view is that human lives matter more than the possible exposure of naval secrets or loss of national pride. "We are all for saving lives," said Sergei, the cafe's waiter. "If foreigners can make a difference why not? We will be only too happy." The rare Russian voice that expresses xenophobia is quickly silenced. On a radio phone-in, during which listeners were asked to choose between the values of life and patriotism, one woman voted for national pride. She was verbally savaged by the next listener who said: "Don't you understand that caring about people IS national pride."

"We have lost too many of our people," said another listener. "Last week the bomb in Moscow, now this."

The "Hero City of Kursk" suffered its greatest losses in a famous tank battle during the Second World War. The main feature of the grubby industrial city, 500 miles south of Moscow, is a giant war cemetery. Nightingales sing in the willow trees around it in June. A popular Second World War song tells the nightingale not to wake the sleeping soldiers. The people of Kursk are praying that nightingales will not be singing for their submariners as well.

On a typical Saturday morning, the Soviet-built parts of the city - the local Red Square with its statue of Lenin and the huge granite department store - are as quiet as the cemetery. People are all down at the street market, either trying to earn a living by trading or spending their meagre wages. In August, the fruits of the summer are still abundant - corn on the cob, water melons and peaches. But winter in Russia is always just around the corner. Olga was laying out and combing her range of fur hats. "I've not given up hope for the sailors yet", she said, "we must hope until the last."

Natasha, selling nylon aprons and pellets to kill cockroaches, was beside herself over the submarine tragedy. "Our poor boys," she cried. "We have been waiting and waiting. I could strangle our government over this."

Valentina, another trader, was a bit calmer. "I am disappointed in Putin. He has been incompetent. We are still hoping with all our hearts." She was selling plastic flowers, arranged in baskets for happy occasions, as well as wreaths for graves.

At the railway station where I had difficulty obtaining a ticket back to Moscow, the manager at first took a "more than my job's worth" attitude, "what do you mean you just came to Kursk to talk to people? You are a foreigner. You must be attached to some organisation."

I imagine the bureaucratic psychology which, as much as the storms, probably hampered the rescue of the sailors. Then the station manager melted and gave me a ticket. "We are grateful for your British help," he said. "If ever you are in need you can rely on us."

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