By Michael Hammerschlag August 29, 2000
The Typhoon commander smiled wryly. He was a sub captain straight out of central casting: handsome, tough, smart, with a neatly trimmed beard. The Typhoon is the largest submarine ever built, a Russian nuclear ballistic missile boat 55% larger than the Trident and armed with 20 missiles + 180 warheads. “No, I don’t think we could do that”, he said in response to my request for a tour of his boat. But such incredible things were possible then in the glow of friendship accompanying the collapse of the Communist Party. Share a bottle of vodka with the right admiral, and access that could have led to your execution 5 years before became “no problem”. We were at the Museum of the Northern Fleet in Murmansk, the only real big city (470,000 pop) above the Arctic Circle, which was sadly closed for a crew training session. It was the dead of winter- when the sun never cracked the horizon- when I returned 7 months later during the midnight sun, it was closed. Murmansk was a place different than any I had seen in Russia/CIS: there was still pride, purpose, and competence evident here. in contrast to the disintegration and decay rife elsewhere. It was a military city, where the endless Lend-Lease ships had disgorged the US cargo that helped Russia beat back the Nazi’s and an immense 200ft metal soldier still stood guard at the top of hill. They had built + operated ships that could literally destroy the world.
When I heard of the Kursk’s sinking (one idiotic report said that it had “run aground” – 500 ft under the water), my heart sank. The authorities would kill these men, I was sure - the ones that weren’t already dead. Lie, deny, deceive, refuse help.. till there was absolutely no chance. It was the Soviet + Russian way. Lies + deception were so deeply ingrained in the Soviet bureaucratic character. “They told us we lived better than anyone in the world…, and we believed them,” a cab driver said once about his poverty-stricken country where people lived 3-4 to a room. In the Kursk’s case, those lies were particularly cruel: they were communicating with sailors, they had air lines supplying the ship, a rescue was imminent. In reality the huge hole in the torpedo room meant flooding was probably total and terminal: there were no air lines, there was no “communication”. At 350 ft they were tantalizingly close: if the boat was stood on it’s end it would have protruded 150 ft out of the water; but at 10 1/2 atmospheres of pressure (155 lbs/sq in.), oxygen itself becomes a deadly poison. Amazingly, Russia had no divers that could go that deep- an unformidable depth to oil rig divers around the world breathing helium/oxygen mixtures.
One unplumbed question is whether there was any collision or near collision with an American (or British) sub, which routinely closely shadow Russian subs, especially in their biggest naval exercise in years. It’s happened before, the book Blind Man’s Bluff details a terrifying crash of an American attack sub Tautog with a Soviet Echo 2 (Black Lila) in 1970, which plummeted to the bottom near Petropavlovsk with crushing sounds. Fleeing all the way back to Pearl Harbor underwater, for 20 years the US was convinced we’d sunk that boat, until the authors found the Soviet commander, who confirmed that the outer hull had crushed and they’d barely survived. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a collision, but it might not have taken much impact to detonate experimental new liquid fuel torpedoes. According to BBB, it was the explosion of a rotten battery design that detonated a torpedo on the SSN Scorpion and likely sank it 1000 miles west of Spain in 1968. But with surface ships and active pinging probably going on, it’s likely our subs would have kept their distance. In any event, America would probably never admit it.. as a matter of policy.
In truth, Russia’s rulers, military and political, were lucky: probably nothing could’ve saved those men no matter what they had done; but the sharp lesson they received in public relations and practical democracy may limit the next catastrophe
Which was happening now. The 1771 ft Ostankino TV tower in Moscow, where I camped out as Communists attacked it in the ’93 Oct revolt, was burned from top to near bottom and supposedly in danger of collapse. It’s the second highest structure in the world and the origin, then as now, of almost every national TV and radio signal in the entire 11 time zone country. Control it and you control the media all across Russia, which was why thousands of Communists attacked the Telecenter building, while 25 Yeltsin troops held them off for 11 hours. 58 people died there that night, including 3 TV reporters. While the world now watch TV images of it burning 8000-11,000 miles away, Russians can’t… because it’s off the air.
One source for these disasters, besides the drying up of funds for any maintenance, is the incredible level of alcoholism. At any one time, it seems 15% of the people are falling down drunk. When workers doing dangerous electrical repairs in the Metro (subway) start swilling vodka, the boss doesn’t discipline them, he sits down + drinks with them. Coming out of a subway stairs 2 businessmen in suits and ties ever so slowly toppled backward, arms linked, and rolled down the stairs, ripping up their clothes and smashing open their attaché cases. Now workers simply aren’t paid, so have little pride in their labors. Shoddy workmanship was so common in the Soviet state that products would often quickly break or fall apart: Russians themselves were so contemptuous of their products after the economic collapse caused by the freeing of prices and breakup of the Soviet Union that nothing is made in Russia anymore, almost everything is imported. Those errors in manufacture now are taking a progressive toll in the crumbling high-tech infrastructure.
Current travails pale in comparison to historical horrors: the Soviets killed 20 million of their own people and 60-70 million were killed in the 20th Century from wars, purges, prison, and starvation. The Kursk itself was named for the largest armored battle in history, where 3 thousand tanks + tens of thousands of artillery guns blasted each other to smoking hulks + the Nazi advance was shattered. Still, things would happen routinely in Moscow that were almost breathtaking in their horribleness: a sloppy truck driver would carve open a gasoline tanker truck, the fumes ignited by the trolley bus sparks, and immolate 2 entire buses full of people; or a carload of people driving in 3 degree Jan weather would plunge into a 20 ft deep sinkhole created by the leaking 8ft diameter steam lines that heat the entire city, and be scalded to death like lobsters; or dozens of people attending the funeral of dozens of people killed by a Mob war public bombing, were themselves blown up. These things will continue; sometimes it seems Russians were born to suffer, but far more than a ‘naked fat guy’… they are the real survivors.
Michael Hammerschlag reported from Russia/CIS/SU from ’91-94 and has scuba dived for 30 years.