Russian Submarine Sinks Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the Russian submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, the Russian government hesitated to accept British and Norwegian rescue offers. The entire crew of 118 died.

Summary of Event

The K-141 Kursk, the pride of the Russian fleet, sank on August 12, 2000, with the loss of all hands. The ship had been commissioned in 1994 at a cost of $1 billion. At 18 meters wide, 154 meters long, 5 stories high, and 18,000 tons, the guided-missile nuclear submarine was the size of two jumbo jets laid end to end. Described as the most effective multipurpose submarine in the world, the submarine was designed to operate against aircraft carriers and their battle groups close to Russian waters. The Kursk crew consisted of eighty-six commissioned and warrant officers, thirty-one noncommissioned officers and sailors, and one civilian. After loading up with eighteen torpedoes and twenty-three Granit cruise missiles at the Bolshaya Lopatka naval facility at the Zapadnaya Litsa submarine base, the Kursk had traveled to Vidyayevo, where most of the crew lived. With a full crew, it had proceeded to the Barents Sea. Disasters;sinking vessels Kursk (submarine) Submarines [kw]Russian Submarine Sinks (Aug. 12, 2000) [kw]Submarine Sinks, Russian (Aug. 12, 2000) [kw]Sinks, Russian Submarine (Aug. 12, 2000) Disasters;sinking vessels Kursk (submarine) Submarines [g]Europe;Aug. 12, 2000: Russian Submarine Sinks[10780] [g]Russia;Aug. 12, 2000: Russian Submarine Sinks[10780] [c]Military history;Aug. 12, 2000: Russian Submarine Sinks[10780] [c]Disasters;Aug. 12, 2000: Russian Submarine Sinks[10780] Putin, Vladimir Popov, Vyacheslav

On August 12, 2000, the Russian Northern Fleet began its annual military exercises in the Barents Sea. The maneuvers were the largest Russian naval training exercise since the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than thirty warships and seventy-eight hundred naval personnel took part, including cruisers, antisubmarine ships, three nuclear submarines, auxiliary vessels, ten shore-based army units, two airborne armies, and elements of the Ukrainian air force. As usual, the Russians’ Barents Sea exercises were being closely watched by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). One of the Russian submarines was the Kursk.

On August 12, the Kursk, under Captain Gennady Lyachin, Lyachin, Gennady successfully test-fired a Granit cruise missile with a dummy warhead. The ship then went to a point about 85 miles east of Severomorsk and Russia’s Arctic coast. It planned to fire a 650-millimeter-diameter, two-ton, ten-meter-long practice torpedo with a dummy warhead at a battle group of ships.

In the years since the end of the Cold War, Russia lacked the money to provide the armed forces with the best technology. As a result, torpedoes used in exercises were collected from the seabed later. The torpedo—more than twenty-five years old and from a 1953 design—that the Kursk crew planned to fire had been recycled. The Russians still used the highly volatile hydrogen peroxide fluid as an oxidant for propellant fuel. The British had abandoned hydrogen peroxide torpedoes following the 1955 sinking of a submarine after a torpedo’s casing had exploded while it was being loaded. At 8:51 a.m., the Kursk contacted the Northern Fleet’s headquarters to confirm its current position and its intention to launch a torpedo. The test-firing was scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, leader of the training exercise, remained nearby on another ship and awaited further contact from the Kursk.

The torpedo exploded as it was being slid into its firing tube on the Kursk. A mechanical breakdown inside the old torpedo, perhaps the result of a faulty component, such as an O-ring or sealant, had led to an internal leak. The inside of the torpedo had become a volatile mix of superheated water, pure oxygen, kerosene, and hydrogen peroxide. A physicochemical reaction ensued, resulting in increased pressure and temperature, and the torpedo’s casing exploded, creating a massive fireball of more than 8,000 degrees Celsius in the submarine’s first compartment. Everyone in the torpedo compartment died instantly. The torpedo tube’s door blew into the second compartment. The hatch between the torpedo compartment and the central command post remained open, against regulations, to lower the pressure at the time of a torpedo firing. As a result, the fireball killed the captain and the other senior officers in the second compartment.

The men in the other seven compartments of the submarine began emergency procedures. Some men fought to contain the fire and heavy smoke. Meanwhile, the Kursk began to drop from its position 16 to 18 meters below the surface. The second explosion, one hundred times greater than the first, occurred when the submarine had descended to about 100 meters. The fire and intense heat in the torpedo magazine prompted the torpedo warheads to explode. Compartments one through four were completely obliterated as the bow of the ship blew into more than fifteen separate segments. Three of the reinforced bulkheads were completely blown in by the massive explosion, which was accompanied by a flash fire of intense heat, reaching almost a third of the boat. Fewer than forty men remained alive as the Kursk struck the seabed, four minutes after the first explosion.

Meanwhile, a Norwegian seismological group recorded a disturbance in the Barents Sea that measured about 1.5 on the Richter scale. A second disturbance in the same area that measured 3.5 on the Richter scale was detected by seismographs in Finland, Scotland, Alaska, and the Central African Republic. The explosions were detected by American, British, and Norwegian ships in the vicinity. Admiral Popov received notification that the Kursk had blown up and flooded. He doubted anyone had survived.

Popov did nothing, perhaps out of fear of delivering bad news to his superiors. He also knew that Russia did not have the resources to rescue the submariners. In August, 2000, no Russian deep-sea diver had training to go below one hundred meters, there were no functioning diving bells, and the only two deep-sea submarines were taking Russian Defense Ministry officials to visit the wreck of the Titanic in the North Sea. Additionally, Russia did not want NATO forces to obtain access to a top secret ship. Russia refused British and Norwegian offers of assistance. Meanwhile, the survivors on the Kursk died in a fire caused by attempts to regenerate oxygen on the evening of August 12.


The Kursk disaster highlighted indifference to suffering and ineptitude among the Russian authorities. The Russian navy initially indicated that the accident occurred on Sunday, not Saturday. It did not begin rescue efforts until Sunday, when it announced that gale-force winds blocked attempts to reach the Kursk. Western sailors in the area detected no such winds. The Russians subsequently insisted that knocking noises from the submarine’s hull indicated that some sailors remained alive, and the media distributed this story. When it became generally known that the Russian government had refused offers of assistance from the West, it appeared to many Russians that the navy had simply abandoned the Kursk crew to their doom. Further, the Russian navy did not contact a single relative of Kursk personnel in the immediate wake of the disaster. The navy also did not provide a list of the crew members, when it was known to cobble together crews at the last minute.

Russian president Vladimir Putin remained silent for four days after the accident while continuing his vacation on the Black Sea. Meanwhile, domestic and international pressure to rescue the Kursk crew was building. Four days after the accident, Putin overruled his admirals and accepted Western assistance. The British rescue received no official cooperation or coordination from the Russians, not even a map of the Kursk. British divers reached the ship within six hours, determined that the crew had died, and declined to disturb the remains of the sailors.

Anger and a sense of betrayal filled many Russians. Ordinary citizens blamed Putin for betraying the armed forces. The furor about the treatment accorded the Kursk had not been expected by the Russian government because no similar outcry had ever occurred under the Soviets. In an attempt to salvage his political career, Putin announced that the families of the Kursk’s victims would receive a lump sum equivalent to ten years of an officer’s salary, free housing in any Russian city, free college education for the victims’ sixty-five children, and free counseling. The compensation was unprecedented in Russian history. A number of admirals, including Popov, were dismissed.

On September 19, 2000, Putin announced that the Kursk would be raised to recover the bodies of the submariners. On October 25, 2001, the Kursk emerged from the sea. On March 23, 2002, a funeral service was held for the captain of the Kursk and six crew members. Hundreds of mourners paid their respects, and hundreds of thousands watched the national broadcast of this last ceremony for the Kursk departed. Only three of the crew members remained unidentified. Autopsies revealed that most of the crew died by drowning and many had also been badly burned. Disasters;sinking vessels Kursk (submarine) Submarines

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burleson, Clyde. Kursk Down: The Shocking True Story of the Sinking of a Russian Nuclear Submarine. New York: Warner Books, 2002. Burleson is a submarine expert who aimed this book at a popular audience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flynn, Ramsey. Cry from the Deep: The Submarine Disaster That Riveted the World and Put the New Russia to the Ultimate Test. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Flynn uses interviews, forensic data, and recovered tapes to describe the disaster and Putin’s response to it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Truscott, Peter. Kursk: Russia’s Lost Pride. London: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Relies on Russian naval officers as informants to paint an exceptionally detailed picture of the political and military climate at the time of the submarine’s loss.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weir, Gary E., and Walter J. Boyne. Rising Tide: The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines That Fought the Cold War. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Thorough history of the Russian submarine program. Sets the Kursk in a broader military context.

Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Radioactive Cargo Sinks in the North Sea

Soviet Nuclear Submarine Sinks in the Atlantic

Categories: History