'Immeasurable grief' and soap operas mark Russia's day of mourning

Jim Heintz
Wednesday 23 August 2000 00:00 BST

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Russians lowered flags to half-staff Wednesday and lit candles in churches in memory of 118 sailors killed in a nuclear submarine as the vast nation marked an official day of mourning.

Russians lowered flags to half-staff Wednesday and lit candles in churches in memory of 118 sailors killed in a nuclear submarine as the vast nation marked an official day of mourning.

The loss of the Kursk, which suffered a devastating explosion during naval exercises in the Barents Sea, has left many Russians in shock, wondering if their crisis-ridden nation will ever return to stability. Former submariners wept in the streets, and many Orthodox churches held all-night vigils.

President Vladimir Putin asked television stations to refrain from running entertainment shows, but regular programming continued during the morning, including soap operas. Some stations honored the dead by showing the names of the crew with pictures of the Kursk.

Putin returned to Moscow early Wednesday despite expectations that he would stay in Murmansk, the headquarters of the Northern Fleet to which the sunken submarine belonged, for the day of mourning.

Putin met relatives of the dead sailors in Murmansk on Tuesday, listening to their complaints about the botched Russian rescue operation and the generally dismal conditions in the Russian Navy.

"The grief is immeasurable, there are not enough words of comfort. My heart hurts, but yours hurt even more," Putin told them, the Interfax news agency reported. Russians assailed Putin for taking so long after the Aug. 12 accident to show concern for the crew, and criticized the government for initially resisting international help.

Weary navy officials met Putin when he arrived in Murmansk. He then visited crumbling dormitories nearby where the relatives are quartered. Russian television showed him walking past one building's peeling paint and banged-up mailboxes, as the wife of the Kursk's commander pulled her parka around her against the northern chill.

The families heard almost no official information about the rescue operation, relying on television for even the most basic news - including the announcement by Norwegian divers Monday that their sons and husbands were dead.

The sailors' widows asked Putin whether they would receive aid for their children or help finding jobs, Interfax reported. Russia's military has been underfunded for years, with servicemen often taking second jobs and barely able to feed their families.

The world has joined in the grieving. British sailors who had come to help in the operation but were never needed held a brief memorial service for the crew, throwing a small bouquet of flowers into the sea as they left the site of the tragedy.

The Russian Navy was negotiating with the Norwegians for help lifting the submarine - which weighs about 25,000 tons in its flooded state - and retrieving the bodies. Such an operation could take months and be extremely expensive.

There is also concern about the ship's two nuclear reactors, though the Norwegians recorded normal radiation levels around the submarine.

It remained unclear what caused the explosion that crumpled the ship. Government and military officials, stung by public anger, suggested Cold War enemies were to blame.

The Russian high command says the most likely reason was a collision with a Western submarine, probably U.S. or British, that survived and escaped. The U.S. and British navies reject the accusations, and no concrete evidence has been provided.

Norwegian officials said there was no sign of a collision. A likely scenario was an internal malfunction and explosion in the Kursk's torpedo compartment.

Putin was reluctant to assign immediate blame.

"We could only punish someone from the fleet command if guilt is specifically proven," he told the relatives, according to Interfax.

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