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Submarine Crew’s Families Seek Answers From Putin

By Robyn Dixon and

Richard Boudreaux
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MURMANSK, Russia

Grieving relatives of the 118 seamen who died aboard the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk poured out their rage and pain in a heated meeting Tuesday night with President Vladimir V. Putin at a closed military base near the site of the tragedy.

Putin, struggling to recover from his worst political crisis since he was sworn in last May, took the desperate step of confronting the fury of the bereaved -- a rare step for a Russian political leader.

After promising compensation and housing, Putin fielded difficult questions during a 90-minute meeting carefully controlled to keep out all media except the pro-Kremlin RTR state television network.

“It was a tough meeting. Everyone wanted to know how come our children ended up in this tin can for the paltry money that they’re paid,” said Nadezhda Tylik, whose son was aboard the Kursk.

“People wanted to know how the government is planning to lift that submarine where our children and husbands are,” said Tylik, whose 24-year-old son, Sergei, left a wife and 11-month-old daughter.

The families also expressed anger at Putin’s decision to stay on vacation for nearly a week after the submarine went down in the Barents Sea on Aug. 12. And they criticized the government’s failure to call in foreign rescuers until last Wednesday. The meeting hall was crammed, with the crowd estimate at just under 1,000 people. Among them were about 350 relatives of Kursk crew members.

Tylik’s account of the meeting, which was held at a closed naval base in Vidyayevo in northern Russia, was backed by Russian navy Capt. Alexander Zhuravlyov and RTR journalist Ivan Konovalov, both of whom attended.

Since his return from vacation Saturday, Putin has sought to control the political and public relations damage facing his government.

The large crowd that gathered Tuesday soon after 4 p.m. was forced to wait more than five hours in the rain before the meeting finally started.In a telephone interview after the Tuesday night meeting, Tylik said she was doubtful that the money and housing promised by Putin will be delivered.

“In my opinion, the meeting was confined to just empty words,” she said.

Putin knew he was flying in for a potentially explosive meeting after a series of emotional confrontations between Russian officials and grieving relatives in recent days.

Zhuravlyov said he believed Putin had found the necessary words to comfort people and that relatives and residents walked out of the meeting with a sense of certainty and completion.

“There was also bitterness on their faces, the bitterness for their lost loved ones,” the navy captain said.

The mood across the country Tuesday was somber. People were lighting candles in churches. Television footage showed one man sitting in a gutter in St. Petersburg, weeping inconsolably, with a woman awkwardly touching his back to offer comfort. The Russian Cabinet stood for a minute’s silence to mark the tragedy, in which 55 children lost their fathers.Television stations Tuesday displayed the names of the dead and showed old footage of the 500-foot Oscar II-class submarine sailing out of port, its crew at attention on deck.