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What Caused The Kursk To Sink?

What Caused The Kursk To Sink?

As the academic discussion about Russia’s European versus Asiatic cultural identity continues, the nuanced reality seems to become lost to the myopia of the question itself.

The true nature of Russia, a society simultaneously so diverse and homogenous; passionate and sterile; capable and incompetent; eternally hopeful and simultaneously despondent, is far more nuanced.

Russia may indeed be both Asian and European, but it is also uniquely Russian—a geographic, cultural, and individual identity unto itself and far more complex and idiosyncratic than the exceptional scope of most of Homo Americanus could admit.

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The preoccupation of post-WWII Western societies with rigid political taxonomy is partially to blame for misconceptions about Russia’s nature.

To understand such a cultural outlier, the West needs to not only recognize our own provinciality, but also make  peace with the seeming incoherence and incongruity of the Russian historical and ideological  narratives.  

When Ralph Waldo Emerson opined that “the creation of 1000 forests is in one acorn,” it was not just the casual observations of an idealistic transcendentalist—it was the encapsulation of deep insights about our natural world, and by extension, humanity as well. Similarly, while the collective ideology of Russia extends its roots deep into history, perhaps more importantly, it lives on in the individual and collective minds of Russians to this very day—and it does so in a manner very different from the West.

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Thus, in many ways, with regards to Russia, to understand the individual is also to understand the whole, and vice versa. And while I would generally defer to Daniel Kahneman’s conclusions about the excessive—and misguided—inclination of human beings to habitually infer the  general from the specific, in the case of Russia I would make an exception. That is to say that one  thousand years of collective Russian cultural identity, unconscionably multifaceted though it may be, can still be glimpsed through the identity of its unitary constituents.  

In August of 2000, the Russian submarine Kursk suffered an explosion and sank during a  training exercise in the Barents Sea. Crippled and trapped on the seafloor though she was, a small group of submariners survived the initial explosion and subsequent flooding by isolating themselves in an aft compartment.

Norwegian Seismic Array seismic readings at three locations of the explosions on the submarine Kursk on 12 August 2000.

The ensuing tragedy is well documented; no one survived despite the intense international attention and offerings of support. Barely seaworthy to begin with, Russia’s Northern Fleet, and entire Navy for that matter, listed heavily to port following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and subsequent decade of financial and ideological purgatory. Just staying afloat was a tall order, never mind affecting such a dramatic rescue.  

When the mangled hull of the boat was finally salvaged, personal letters from sailors who survived the initial explosion were found among the remains. It is likely impossible to fully describe the hopelessness of the conditions in which the sailors clung to life during those fateful days; grasping for every breath while the rest of the world held its own.

One of the Kursk notes recovered was penned by Captain-Lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov. In it, he was quoted as follows

“It is dark to write, but I will try by feel. It seems there is no chance, 10 to 20 percent. Let’s hope someone  will read this. Here is a list of the personnel of the sections who are in the ninth [section] and will try to get out. Hello to everyone, there is no need for despair Kolesnikov.”1 

The Russian nuclear submarine “Kursk” motoring in the Barents Sea near Severomorsk, Russia. The “Kursk”, one of the biggest and newest submarines in the Russian Navy, is trapped at a depth of 354 feet, above the Arctic Circle in the Barents Sea and rescue attempts continue August 16, 2000. (Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Newsmakers)

For emphasis, Dmitri’s vessel suffered two massive explosions and, completely crippled, subsequently sank to the bottom of the sea. He and a small group of fellow sailors remained trapped in a partially flooded compartment, entombed by layers of high-tensile steel and buried under more than 100 meters of seawater—all while consuming the last pockets of putrid air.

To this situation, Dmitri, by his own hand, ascribed a 10 – 20 percent chance, presumably to the chance of survival. 

The benefits of hindsight notwithstanding, the utter incongruity of the situation with his assessment was more than just the effects of mental degradation, oxygen deprivation, and trauma.

Dmitri’s own mortal heart, staring him in the face though it was, did not hesitate to remind him of the nature of the immortal Russian soul.

Mirroring Dmitri’s own heart and soul, the reality of the aftermath of the tragedy witnessed the breaking of Russia’s own collective heart in public displays of grief hereto unseen on the global stage.

Displays of grief quickly subsumed within the larger clarion call for Russian unity, perseverance, and reclamation of greatness—in other words, a harkening to the eternal  Russian soul.  

This ideology is not unique to Dmitri. This is the foundation of Russia and her history and  can be directly observed through many examples. During the Great Patriotic War for example, this  ideology drove nearly 30 million Soviet citizens to their deaths in defense of the Motherland.

For reference, the entire state of New York contains roughly 20 million people. Forty years later, after the  nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, the Politburo once again called upon the citizens of Mother  Russia to pay their generation’s toll. Captured, paradoxically but most eloquently, in the fictionalization of Boris Shcherbina in HBO’s recent miniseries Chernobyl; Boris entreats his  countrymen sent to toil amidst the lethal radiation thusly: 

You’ll do it because it must be done. You’ll do it because nobody else can. And if you don’t, millions  will die. If you tell me that’s not enough, I won’t believe you. This is what has always set our people  apart. A thousand years of sacrifice in our veins. And every generation must know its own suffering. I spit on the people who did this, and I curse the price I have to pay. But I’m making my peace with it, and now you make yours. And go into that water. Because it must be done (emphasis  author’s).2 

As subsequent generations of Russians take their place in line to continue the long and distinguished history of the idolatry of suffering and sacrifice in the pursuit of greatness, the context may change, but the outcome is always the same.

Russia sees herself as a true global power, and in many ways she still is. The nature of the projections of that power, however, are becoming unimaginably diffuse at an ever accelerating and increasingly alarming rate.

Further, the very nature of Russia’s projection of great power politics is changing as we speak. Long range nuclear missiles may still grab the headlines, but the impacts of modern tools of influence within the emerging battle spheres of social media, public sentiment, and digital infrastructure are unequivocally more impactful in the near term. 

Sergei Karaganov, Dean of the School of International Economics and Foreign Affairs and sometime advisor to Vladimir Putin, expressed his views on the changing geopolitical landscape in a presentation that I attended in 2017.

According to Karaganov, the bipolar landscape of the NATO era and the brief period of Western global hegemony are over.3 Instead, he noted that the future era is characterized by multipolar power dynamics, multiphasic taxonomical structures, and the democratization of unilaterally empowering technological capabilities.

The future envisioned by Karaganov emanates not simply from progress, but from the very nature of the dynamics behind progress itself.

Following the Great Patriotic War Karaganov notes, Russia was one of two remaining world powers. Karaganov further noted that Russia itself “led the way in destroying the [Soviet Union]” which subsequently led to the disappearance of Russia as a “counterbalance” and the ensuing erosion of the United States and Western hegemony itself.4

That is, the path for Russia to reemerge on the stage of global power was through its own self-immolation—the destruction of itself in pursuit of the destruction of its enemy; deliberate or otherwise. The associated shared sacrifice and collective suffering are not simply an unfortunate side effect but a necessary component of the endless cycle of  the Russian heart and soul.  

Russian sailors on the surface aboard the DSRV AS-28 Priz

It is likely not incorrect to contextualize Russian philosophical notions of greatness in terms of the corresponding magnitude of requisite sacrifice. By contrast, Western idealism largely characterizes greatness as the conquest of suffering itself; perhaps even by its absence.

The modern landscape of Western consumptive attitudes would seem to overwhelmingly confirm this. Russia has never defined itself nor drawn its true strength of character from the coffers of its largess.

Instead, Russia constructs its narratives of greatness on a foundation of the graves and privations of its own self. 

Interestingly, the US National Defense Strategy of 2018 listed “long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia” as the “principle priorities for the Department [of Defense].”Paradoxically however, the main finding in the recent Future of Defense Task Force Report 2020, acknowledges that while “Russia presents the most immediate threat to the United States…Russia’s long-term economic forecast makes its global power likely to recede over the next 20 to 30 years.”6 Apparently, as far as the United States is concerned, the “long-term” is 20, at most 30 years. After which time Russia will no longer require substantial attention.  

One might, in this case, tangentially reference the “Lindy Effect”—or the notion that the future longevity of a non-perishable entity is proportional to the current lifespan of the entity itself.  

Russia may or may not be a global power in 20 to 30 years, but there can be little doubt that Russia’s going concern extends well beyond that timeframe.

Even though the last brick in Putin’s mausoleum may still be wet 30 years from now. And it is impossible to predict the state of world affairs even a generation in advance, we can be certain that the Russian Phoenix-Bear will continue to rebirth itself.  

In short, preferencing short-term policies in response to these shorter stages is inefficient and myopic, and betrays a fundamental ideological misunderstanding of Russia’s heart, soul, and history.

The reimagination and realization of Russian greatness is not simply an expedient task, it is a multigenerational commitment to an ideology and a narrative that has existed for over one thousand years. Eventually, in some form or fashion, Russia will again achieve the self-actualization of this greatness—and if, along the way, she must realize it through some degree of economic contraction or societal privation, well, so much the better.  

What Caused The Kursk To Sink? Written by Jules Hirschkorn

Kursk Submarine Disaster : The Genesis of Putin’s Post-Soviet Russia – (

What Caused The Kursk To Sink?