This stretch of ocean north of the Arctic Circle makes a miserable grave. The water is frigid, gray and unforgiving, the weather fickle and quick to turn ugly. Nothing marks the sacrifice of the men below.
Nearly a year after the Russian submarine Kursk sank with the loss of all 118 crew members, a fleet of civilian and military vessels has converged here to attempt to raise the dead. Over the next two months, divers plan to drill holes in the hull, attach hooks and lift the doomed submarine from the seabed 350 feet beneath the surface.
While bringing up the boat and the bodies, however, Russia intends to leave the mystery of the Kursk on the bottom of the ocean. From the start, the Kremlin has preferred to blame the tragedy on a supposed collision with a foreign submarine despite a consensus among specialists that it was caused by a malfunctioning torpedo.
The mission defies difficulty and danger as Russian authorities and the Western companies they hired try to salvage a 14,000-ton boat equipped with two nuclear reactors while avoiding any undetonated torpedoes or cruise missiles.
One way to establish the cause of the sinking would be to examine the front compartment where the explosions that crippled the Kursk went off; however, the Russians plan to saw off the bow and leave it behind.
Russian navy commanders said lifting the submarine with the damaged front section would be hazardous and plan to return next year to retrieve it. That operation would be carried out solely by Russians, with no assistance from foreigners who might get a look at the key part of the vessel.
"The navy believes that it is their sacred duty to determine the reason for the demise of the boat," Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak, chief of staff of the Northern Fleet, said Tuesday from the bridge of the destroyer Severomorsk. "We're going to continue to work on this whether we raise the submarine without the first compartment or not."
Others see a darker reason for deserting the first compartment. "This is a way of hiding the causes of the tragedy," retired Rear Adm. Yuri Senatsky, once the Soviet Union's chief specialist for vessel lifting operations, said in May when the government unveiled the $80-million plan.
The skepticism runs even deeper among some sailors and their families in the northern port of Murmansk.
"They said they were going to tell only the truth now and everyone gets ready for lies," said Igor Archipchenko, a communications officer. "No one believes the official version."
Commissioned in 1995, the Kursk was among the most modern attack submarines in the shrinking Russian fleet when a pair of explosions during training exercises last Aug. 12 sent it to the ocean floor. Russian authorities fumbled their response. President Vladimir Putin remained on vacation and refused foreign assistance, then reversed himself and accepted British and Norwegian help after too much time had passed. The government released misinformation on issues from the date of the incident to the chances of survival to its contacts with the trapped crew.
Divers tried to recover the bodies but retrieved just 12 before abandoning the effort because of safety concerns. Two notes found with the bodies indicated 23 sailors survived the blasts before succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning; one note attributed the accident to a torpedo explosion.
As it moves to recover the remaining bodies, the Kremlin wants to repair the lingering political damage. It organized a trip for journalists out to the Barents Sea to demonstrate a new policy of openness _ even as it keeps the Norwegian government and environmentalists away.
"There is a list of 10 things that could go wrong," said Thomas Nilsen of the Norwegian environmentalist group Bellona. "They will make the entire submarine even more unstable than it is already and it will make the lifting operation more dangerous."
TEXT ACCOMPANYING ILLUSTRATION NOT PROVIDED FOR ELECTRONIC LIBRARY, PLEASE SEE MICROFILM.