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Twentieth Century Chivalry

A Russian Tragedy

Soviet military doctrine was very different from the West's in many respects, reflecting not only strategic policy and the Communist attitude to its imperial aims, but also, at a much lower level, the approach of the authorities to human life and suffering. For example, the priorities for treating the wounded on the battlefield were not dictated by the severity of the damage to skin and bone, or to the trauma and pain suffered. The men with the most minor injuries were the first for treatment, for these could be returned to battle quickly. Those in a terrible condition, no matter their agony, died before they reached the front of the queue.

The collapse of Communism persuaded some in the West to hope that the official attitudes to Russian servicemen might change. Western traditions emphasised the obligations of officers to their men, and in some cases, as, for example, with Field Marshal Lord Slim, the fulfilment of such obligations prompted in the men a war-winning reverence and loyalty. While at cadet school candidate officers are told the story of Sir Philip Sydney (of whom Camden wrote ~ "the great glory of his family, the great hope of mankind"), who fell mortally wounded at Zutphen in 1586 and, as he lay dying, directed that the water brought to him should be given instead to the soldier expiring beside him.

When the Kursk sank, the priority of the Russian Defence Staff was not the rescue of its crew, but was instead the maintenance of secrecy. Support offered by western countries was rejected, and a huge campaign of misinformation was launched.

Here are the lies promulgated by officials during the days that followed ~

The Russian Nation
Sir Philip Sydney

Monday, 14 August ~

The Russian navy reports that in accident on Sunday there was a collision with a foreign submarine.

The navy states Kursk was crippled by "technical faults" and that the crew let it glide to the seabed.

A navy spokesman, Igor Dygalo, announces rescuers are in radio contact with the crew.

The navy explains that the crew signalled it had shut down the nuclear reactors. Later it is claimed that the organic automatic system switched them off.

The navy reports that there is no damage to the submarine's hull.


NATO detected the double explosion on Saturday.

There was no contact of any kind.

There was no such signal.

The hull damage was immense.

Tuesday, 15 August ~

Igor Dygalo announces that the crew has signalled there have been no deaths.

Officials say Russian rescue equipment and crews are in no way inferior to those offered by the West.


There was no such signal.

Russia's most modern rescue equipment had been out of commission for months, owing to lack of finance to pay for maintenance.

Wednesday, 16 August ~

A Deputy Chief of Naval Staff reveals that crew is tapping messages on the hull.

Officials then claim that the last sound was heard on Monday.

Thursday, 17 August ~

Russians refuse to allow the British rescue craft LR5 to Murmansk, the nearest port to the incident.

Friday, 18 August ~

President Putin explains that acceptance of Western help earlier would have made no difference because of the adverse weather.

The President confesses that he knew from the start that the chances of survivors were extremely small.

Russian officials announce that the ship bringing the LR5 is fogbound.


The weather had no significance for under-water operations.

NATO spokesman says this is "nonsense".

Saturday, 19 August ~

Officials agree that damage to the hull is massive, that most of the crew died within minutes, that the remainder are almost certainly dead.

Sunday, 20 August ~

Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov states that Norwegian divers have declared the conning tower hatch too damaged to open.

Ilya Klebanov reports that a crew member was inside the hatch and that this disabled the air-pressure system, killing the crew.


The divers open the hatch with scarcely any problems.

The NATO divers report the compartment below the hatch to be empty.

Monday, 21 August ~

Officials repeat the story of a collision with a foreign submarine that was probably British.


British spokeman denies involvement.

Tuesday, 22 August ~

Russians accept all the crew are dead.

Russians claim to have found a railing from the deck of a British submarine, proving that the catastrophe was caused by a collision.


British complain of being forced to wait for two days salving Russian pride.

Reports in Moscow of submarine being hit by Granit missile fired by Russian flagship.


In the "washup", NATO's analysis of this extraordinary event, several conclusions were inescapable. The first was that Russia will now have lost confidence in its own claims for superpower status. The Kursk had been a totem of Russia's continued influence being exercised by its deep sea fleet (its captain having returned from the previous voyage boasting of the problems he had caused NATO), and now it had been destroyed with worldwide publicity. The second was that Russia's armed services were relying on old maintenance systems that, owing to lack of adequate finance, could no longer function. The third, the factor in which we here are most interested, the authorities' care for the welfare of servicemen and their families, had been pushed into third place behind the perceived need for secrecy, and behind the perceived need to hide from the world the deficiencies in performance of Russia's armed services.

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