Saturday, September 10, 2022

Even Dictators have to Learn: The Kursk Tragedy 22 Years On

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Aug. 12 – Today is an anniversary Putin’s Russia won’t be commemorating – the 22nd anniversary of the sinking of Kursk submarine which cost the lives of 118 Russian sailors, the second political disaster Vladimir Putin had to face after coming to power. (The first was the mishandling of Andrey Babitsky whose detention the Kremlin leader misrepresented.)

            Remembering the Kursk in particular is important because it is a reminder that Putin did not enter the presidency as someone ready and able to cope well with everything. Instead, he had to learn and often learn by mistakes – and it is now widely recognized if usually forgotten that he mishandled both the Babitsky case and the Kursk affair.  

            That dictators have to learn on the job as it were has been true of others. US historian Stephen Blank, for example, even labelled his study of Stalin’s behavior prior to becoming dictator, The Sorcerer as Apprentice (Westport, 1994). But there has been less willingness to talk about that with regard to Putin or even to see him as someone who ever had something to learn.

            For a good introduction to the Kursk tragedy and Putin’s serious mishandling of the political and public relations aspects of the crisis, see Robert Moore’s Kursk: Putin’s First Crisis and the Russian Navy’s Darkest Hour (New York, 2018; a second edition of his 2003 book originally entitled A Time to Die that was made into a film).

            For a rare Russian discussion today of this disaster which doesn’t focus on Putin but on the Russian navy, see

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