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K-141 Kursk was an Oscar-II class nuclear cruise missile submarine of the Russian Navy, lost with all hands when it sank in the Barents Seamarker on August 12, 2000. Kursk, full name Атомная подводная лодка "Курск" [АПЛ "Курск"] in Russian, was a Project 949A Антей (Antey, Antaeus but was also known by its NATO reporting name of Oscar II). It was named after the Russian city Kurskmarker, around which the largest tank battle in military history, the Battle of Kurskmarker, took place in 1943. One of the first vessels completed after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was commissioned into the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet.


Work on building the Kursk began in 1990 at Severodvinskmarker, near Arkhangelskmarker. Launched in 1994, it was commissioned in December of that year. It was the penultimate of the large Oscar-II class submarines to be designed and approved in the Soviet era. At 154m long and four stories high it was the largest attack submarine ever built. The outer hull, made of high-nickel, high-chrome content stainless steel 8.5 mm thick, had exceptionally good resistance to corrosion and a weak magnetic signature which helped prevent detection by Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) systems. There was a two-metre gap to the 50.8 mm thick steel inner hull.

The Kursk was part of Russia's Northern Fleet, which had suffered funding cutbacks throughout the 1990s. Many of its submarines were anchored and rusting in Andreyeva Bay, 100 km from Murmanskmarker. Little work to maintain all but the most essential front-line equipment, including search and rescue equipment, had occurred. Northern Fleet sailors had gone unpaid in the mid-1990s. The end of the decade saw something of a renaissance for the fleet; in 1999, the Kursk carried out a successful reconnaissance mission in the Mediterranean, tracking the USmarker Navy's Sixth Fleet during the Kosovo War. August 2000's training exercise was to have been the largest summer drill — nine years after the Soviet Union's collapse — involving four attack submarines, the fleet's flagship Pyotr Velikiymarker ("Peter the Great") and a flotilla of smaller ships.


The Kursk sailed out to sea to perform an exercise of firing dummy torpedoes at the Pyotr Velikiy, a Kirov class battlecruiser. On August 12, 2000 at 11:28 local time (07:28 UTC), there was an explosion while preparing to fire the torpedoes. The only credible report to date is that this was due to the failure and explosion of one of the Kursk's hydrogen peroxide-fueled supercavitating torpedoes. It is believed that HTP, a form of highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide used as propellant for the torpedo, seeped through rust in the torpedo casing. A similar incident was responsible for the loss of HMS Sidon in 1955.

The chemical explosion detonated with the force of 100-250 kg of TNT and registered 2.2 on the Richter scale. The submarine sank in relatively shallow water at a depth of , about 135 km (85 miles) from Severomorsk, at . A second explosion 135 seconds after the initial event measured between 3.5 and 4.4 on the Richter scale, equivalent to 3-7 tons of TNT. One of those explosions blew large pieces of debris back through the submarine.

It should be noted just how shallow the sea is where Kursk sank. The length of the Kursk exceeded the depth at which it sank by . The stern (back end) of Kursk would stick up in the air by 46 meters at the depth it sank if it were stood up on its bow (front end).

Rescue attempts

Though rescue attempts were offered by the British and Norwegian teams, all sailors and officers aboard the Kursk perished. Russia declined initial rescue offers. The Russian admiralty at first suggested most of the crew died within minutes of the explosion; however, motivations for making the claim are considered by outside observers as political.

Captain Lieutenant Dmitriy Kolesnikov, one of the survivors of the first explosion, survived in Compartment 9 at the very stern of the boat after blasts destroyed the front of the submarine. Recovery workers found notes on his body. They showed that 23 sailors (out of 118 aboard) had waited in the dark with him.

There has been much debate over how long the sailors might have survived. Some, particularly on the Russian side, say that they would have died very quickly; water is known to leak into a stationary Oscar-II craft through the propeller shafts and at 100 m depth it would have been impossible to plug. Others point out that many potassium superoxide chemical cartridges, used to absorb carbon dioxide and chemically release oxygen to enable survival, were found used when the craft was recovered, suggesting some of the crew survived for several days.

Ironically, these cartridges appear to have been the cause of death; a sailor appears to have accidentally brought a cartridge in contact with the sea water, causing a chemical reaction and a flash fire. The official investigation into the disaster showed some men appeared to have survived the fire by plunging under the water. (Fire marks on the walls indicate the water was at waist level in the lower area at this time). However, the fire rapidly used up the remaining oxygen in the air, causing death by asphyxiation.

While the tragedy of the Kursk played out in the Far North, Russia's then President Vladimir Putin, though immediately informed of the tragedy, waited for five days before he broke a holiday at a presidential resort house in subtropical Sochimarker on the Black Sea before commenting publicly on the loss of the pride of the Northern Fleet. A year later he said: "I probably should have returned to Moscow, but nothing would have changed. I had the same level of communication both in Sochi and in Moscow, but from a PR point of view I could have demonstrated some special eagerness to return."


Submarine wreck after the disaster
A consortium formed by the Dutchmarker companies Mammoet and Smit International using the barge Giant 4 eventually raised the Kursk and recovered the dead, who were buried in Russia – although three of the bodies were too badly burned to be identified. The heat generated by the first blast detonated the warheads on 5 to 7 torpedoes causing a series of blasts big enough to be measured on geological seismic sensors in the area – and those secondary explosions fatally damaged the vessel.

Russian officials strenuously denied claims that the sub's Granit cruise missiles were carrying nuclear warheads, and no evidence has been provided to the contrary. When the salvage operation raised the boat in 2001, there were considerable fears that preparing to move the wreck could trigger explosions, because the bow was cut off in the process, using a tungsten carbide-studded cable. This tool had the potential to cause sparks which would ignite remaining pockets of volatile gases, such as hydrogen. The successfully recovered portion of the Kursk was towed to Severomorsk and placed in a floating dry dock where extensive forensic work was accomplished.

The remains of the Kursk's reactor compartment were towed to Sayda Bay on Russia's northern Kola Peninsulamarker – where more than 50 reactor compartments were afloat at pier points – after a shipyard had defuelled the boat in early 2003. The rest of the boat was then dismantled.

According to the Raising the Kursk television show by the Science Channel:

See also


  1. Andreyeva Bay is a ticking bomb, Bellona’s documents prove – Rashid Alimov, Bellona Foundation, Oslo, 7 June 2007.Retrieved on 2007-08-08.
  3. Spectre of Kursk haunts Putin – BBC News, 12 August 2001.Retrieved on 2007-08-08
  4. Spitz, D.J. (2006): Investigation of Bodies in Water. In: Spitz, W.U. & Spitz, D.J. (eds): Spitz and Fisher’s Medicolegal Investigation of Death. Guideline for the Application of Pathology to Crime Investigations (Fourth edition), Charles C. Thomas, pp.: 846-881; Springfield, Illinois.
  5. Raising the Kursk television show by the National Geographic Show
  6. The Secret of the Kursk's Weapons – Dmitry Safronov (of Kommersant daily),, 10 September 2002.Retrieved on 2007-08-08.
  7. Defuelled Kursk will join submarine graveyard – Igor Kukrik, Bellona Foundation, Oslo, 3 March 2003.Retrieved on 2007-08-08.


  • Gary Weir and Walter Boyne (2003), Rising Tide: The untold story of the Russian submarines that fought the Cold War, Basic Books, NY, NY.
  • Ramsey Flynn (2004), Cry from the Deep: The Submarine Disaster That Riveted the World and Put the New Russia to the Ultimate Test, Harper Collins.

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