20 years under Putin: a timeline

On August 12, 2000, during Russian Northern Fleet military exercises in the Barents Sea, a torpedo explosion sank the Kursk nuclear submarine. As a result of Russian authorities’ inadequate actions, all 118 sailors on board died. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, IMR editor Olga Khvostunova spoke with Boris Kuznetsov, who represented 55 families of the deceased crew. According to the lawyer, two decades after the Kursk disaster, the Kremlin has not yet learned its main lesson.

 

July 30, 2000, Severomorsk, Russia: Crew members of the Kursk nuclear submarine are seen on its deck during a naval parade. The submarine's captain Gennady Lyachin is first on the right. Photo: STR (AP Images).

 

The Kursk sinking marks Putin’s first 100 days as Russian president 

On August 12, 2000, at 11.28 am, Andrei Lavrenyuk, the sonic operator of the Kirov-class battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy, taking part in Northern Fleet naval exercises in the Barents Sea, recorded a seismic event and located it. This crucial fact means that, had they looked at the map of the exercises, the Northern Fleet command could have realized that an explosion had taken place at the location of the Kursk nuclear submarine, and immediately declared an emergency.

The command publicly acknowledged that the submarine had sunk only on August 14—the same day that marked Vladimir Putin’s first 100 days as Russian president. On the day of the Kursk accident, August 12, Putin went for a short vacation in Sochi and subsequently claimed that he had not known about the Barents Sea exercises. These were, however, the largest, at the time, naval exercises in Russian modern history in terms of number of ships and personnel.

It was later established that a hydrogen peroxide torpedo had exploded onboard Kursk, detonating other ammunition. As a result of the second, much more powerful explosion, most of the submarine crew were killed, except for 23 people who had been isolated in the rear compartments. According to the official investigation, they survived for no more than eight hours, but the lawyer Boris Kuznetsov, who represented 55 families of the deceased submariners, argued that they had lived for more than two days and could have been saved. 

The military ship Mikhail Rudnitsky was the only rescue vessel that arrived at the scene of the tragedy at 11 am on August 13, but the Russian rescue efforts faltered. Despite international rescue teams’ numerous offers to assist the emergency work, Russian authorities allowed Norwegian ships to access the scene only on August 20. Until the last minute, media reports maintained hope that some of the submariners survived, but when the Norwegian divers finally opened the escape hatch, it was officially confirmed that none had. 

Despite the public outcry, Vladimir Putin did not interrupt his Sochi vacation until August 17. On September 8, in an infamous live interview with CNN, when asked by host Larry King what had happened with the submarine, Putin briefly replied: “It sank.”

On July 26, 2002, following the release of the official investigation’s results, the Prosecutor General’s Office discontinued the criminal inquiry into the death of the Kursk submariners “for lack of corpus delicti.” According to Kuznetsov, the case was dropped for political reasons—due to the Russian leadership’s fear of exposing its “utter inability to save people in critical situations.”

 

Boris Kuznetsov

Former detective at the Leningrad and Magadan regions’ Criminal Investigation Departments and high-profile lawyer Boris Kuznetsov joined the criminal case investigating the Kursk disaster in the summer of 2002. Representing 55 families of the 118 deceased sailors, he filed a complaint with the General Military Prosecutor’s Office, demanding a further investigation. Based on the case documents, the lawyer disputed the conclusions made by Ministry of Defense forensic expert Viktor Kolkutin and then-deputy chief navigator of the Russian Navy Sergei Kozlov about the time of the sailors’ death and the source of knocking through which the surviving submariners tried to communicate their situation. Kuznetsov also pointed to numerous falsifications of the case documents and noted that the submarine was not even seaworthy.

 

 

In 2005, Kuznetsov published a book titled “It sank ... The truth about Kursk concealed by Prosecutor General Ustinov,” in which he sharply criticized the official version of the disaster, setting out the facts and results of his own investigation. In 2007, Kuznetsov was accused of divulging state secrets (he was working on a different case at the time), forcing him to flee Russia. In 2008, he was granted political asylum in the United States. Kuznetsov linked his political persecution with the publication of his book about the Kursk disaster. In 2013, he released a second, revised edition of the book, now titled “It sank ... The truth about Kursk concealed by Ustinov and Putin (the full text of the book in Russian is available here).

“Early on—and the Kursk tragedy shows it—Putin prioritized state interests over the value of human life.”

Olga Khvostunova: It’s been 20 years since the Kursk submarine disaster. What is important to remember about this tragedy today?

Boris Kuznetsov: The most important thing to know is that the authorities should not lie, because when they do, their mistakes have devastating consequences. That’s the main lesson of the Kursk disaster. Second, this tragedy showed that in Russia state interests are prioritized over human life, health, family. But human life should be valued the most. And third, Russia today is ruled by an absolutely criminal government. According to the Constitution, Russia has three separate branches of power. The executive branch cannot influence either the judiciary or the legislative branch. The Kursk disaster showed that in reality it is not the case—in fact, the executive branch, the president, directly interfered with the judiciary. How? Putin was informed about the situation and made a political decision not to prosecute anyone. This is not right. And it’s not because someone needs to be in the defendant’s dock or convicted. Such matters are simply not the president’s business—not Putin’s business. It’s the business of the investigation and the courts. 

What do we have 20 years later? Amendments to the Russian Constitution came into force about a month ago. Now Putin has the right not only to appoint judges, but also to remove them from office. In the US, the president also appoints judges, but he has no right to dismiss them. Putin can now manipulate the courts—it depends on him who serves as judges, for how long and where, and what salary they receive.

OK: In your opinion, why did Putin decide not to prosecute anyone over the Kursk disaster?

BK: It’s hard for me to say what informed Putin’s decision. Perhaps he didn’t want the whole world to see that the Russian Navy was in a terrible state and being run by irresponsible people. Perhaps being the Commander-in-Chief, he did not take debriefs from the Ministry of Defense and the Navy, and simply let the Barents Sea exercises take their course. But because of the international resonance of this disaster, he could not do without a scapegoat, so he dismissed the Northern Fleet’s top brass, including the fleet commander, Admiral Vyacheslav Popov

OK: How do you imagine justice in the Kursk case? Is it for the authorities to tell the truth? 

BK: All the relatives of the deceased sailors received the largest ever compensation package in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. The international effect of the tragedy was so tremendous that hundreds of thousands of dollars were sent to the families from all over the world. A bit of that money was stolen, however, but I put an end to it.

OK: Who stole it? 

BK: The Northern Fleet command. Here’s what happened. A sub-account for international aid was opened in the Northern Fleet’s official account. And once the money started to flow in, the command immediately used it to repair the Vidyaevo naval base canteen and fix some pipes. Burying this money, so to say. But I found out about it, kicked up a storm, and then reached out to the new Northern Fleet commander, Gennady Suchkov. He turned out to be a very decent person and ordered to set up a public commission to oversee the compensation payments, after which the money was divided among the families and paid out.

OK: Will the Russian authorities ever tell the truth about what happened?

BK: I told the truth in my book, and published both editions at my own expense. But the books are hardly selling. I send them out, distribute them free of charge. My books essentially dispute two expert conclusions—those made by Kolkutin and Kozlov. As part of my own investigation, I hired forensic experts from Russia and Norway to work for me, and their conclusions show that the official results are falsified. 

OK: You are also refuting the conspiracies about the presence of a foreign submarine in the area of the Barents Sea exercises.

BK: Yes, the former leadership of the Russian Navy and the Northern Fleet alluded to the involvement of US submarines in the Kursk disaster. But that bewilders me. We have a closed drills area in the Barents Sea, where anti-submarine exercises are conducted. If US submarines had been in the immediate vicinity, not to mention inside the training area itself, then what is the Russian Navy worth? 

OK: You put Putin’s infamous words from the Larry King interview in the title of your book. As a lawyer for 55 families of the deceased crew, how do you see this interview?

BK: It wasn’t quite the phrase itself that struck me, but the way it was uttered—with this half-smile. How can one speak like that when such a tragedy has happened? It is simply not human. Actually, it’s because of this phrase in the book title that the Russian authorities began to put pressure on me. When my book was first announced, the De Facto publishing house was harassed. Then there was an attempt to intercept the printed copies. Also, at that time I was representing the Department of Presidential Affairs in court. When my book came out in 2005, they broke off relations with me and gave me three days’ notice to clear my rented office in the former building of the Federation Council in Moscow. This was a direct instruction from the Kremlin.

OK: You knew Putin even before he became president. Could you imagine then that this man would rule Russia for 20 years?

BK: Yes, I was initially introduced to Putin by [former mayor of St. Petersburg] Anatoly Sobchak. Then I met with him a few more times. When Putin was only a presidential hopeful, [first Russian president] Boris Yeltsin asked me to support him, and my lawyers organized free legal advice in Putin’s election office for citizens who wanted to approach him. But I could not imagine that in 20 years I would find myself in emigration. At that time, given his relationship with Sobchak, whom he had helped at a difficult moment in his life [by flying him out, illegally, to France for emergency heart surgery], it seemed to me that Putin was a democrat and a decent person. But I never studied his biography, did not know much of his past, and was mistaken about him. 

OK: Were you surprised by his transformation from a simple KGB colonel into a seemingly irreplaceable president of Russia?

BK: Even leaving aside that he was helped into the presidency, in all respects Putin is an absolute failure. He was born and grew up in a St. Petersburg backstreet. Why did he get into sports? Because he was bullied. When he joined the Foreign Intelligence Academy, which station was he sent to? To the German Democratic Republic as the director of the House of Friendship. What was he doing there? At best, paperwork, at worst, opening doors for others. I have met many Chekists, and they come in all sorts of flavors. For example, I represented General [Oleg] Kalugin, who is a real intelligence officer, a true professional in his field. His combat awards are for recruiting assets and gathering valuable intel. Meanwhile, Putin has never recruited anyone, nor has he been given any combat award during his entire KGB service. Still, they did teach him some skills in the KGB. So now he uses intelligence and surveillance methods to govern Russia. He breaks people, he buys people—both in Russia and abroad. 

OK: In your opinion, has the Kursk disaster changed the public mind? And why, for example, do people who criticized Putin during the tragedy support him today? 

BK: I think a lot of this has to do with genetic memory. Remember when the Magna Carta was adopted in England? In the 13th century. Meanwhile, Russia only abolished serfdom in 1861. Then, the entire 20th century in Russia was about the Soviet regime. Lots of Russian people still retain an imperial mindset. For the majority, making their own choices and decisions is more difficult than simply following instructions from above. Early on—and the Kursk tragedy shows it—Putin prioritized state interests over the value of human life. And he continues to act on this principle. 

OK: Do you think Putin will remain president for life? 

BK: I don't know. Russia is such an unpredictable country—anything can happen there.

 

Russia under Putin

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