The Kursk tragedy: How Putin’s first public crisis changed Russia

In August 2000, Vladimir Putin was just months into his first term as president of Russia when a crisis arose in the Barents Sea. A Russian submarine — the Kursk — had sunk following an accidental explosion, killing all but 23 soldiers on board and stranding the survivors with no means of escape. Yahoo News explains how the failed rescue and media backlash within Russia changed the way Putin dealt with the public and the press forever.

Video transcript


- On August 12, 2000, a newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin was leaving for vacation in Sochi. Meanwhile, the northern fleet of the Russian Navy began a series of exercises in the Barents Sea. At approximately 11:29 AM, seismologists in Finland and Norway detected two unusual tremors. One of the submarines, the Kursk, had sunk. All but 23 crew members were killed instantly when the torpedoes on board accidentally detonated.

It would take days for Russian authorities to admit that anything had gone wrong and that some of the sailors aboard were still alive. Putin remained at Sochi while the press in Moscow attacked him for his inattention to the crisis. As word of the accident spread, the families of the crew waited in horror.


- After several failed rescue attempts of their own, the Russians finally accepted Western offers of help. But by then it was too late. There were no survivors left to save.


- Facing backlash for not acting sooner, Putin offered generous benefits to the soldiers' families, but at the same time, he recognized that more than military incompetence or public anger, it was media coverage that could doom his young presidency. In the years that followed, journalists would be assassinated, beaten, and hounded out of Russia. By the time Putin first invaded Ukraine in 2014, his control of the media was complete, and as Russia amassed troops on the Ukrainian border again in 2021, there was no dissenting voice in Russia powerful enough to stop them.

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