Book Review: Cry from the Deep

In mid-August 2000 much of the world riveted its attention on the Barents Sea as reports came in of the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk. How did this happen? Were there survivors? Ramsey Flynn, an award-winning magazine journalist, was so drawn in that he knew he had to write about it.

Some 75 days later, Flynn set foot in Russia for the first time in his life. Four more trips, some three and a half years, and more than 300 interviews later, he completed work for Cry from the Deep, a worthy addition to the English-language books that examine the tragedy.

Recently released in paperback, the book is an absorbing look at the calamity from both a personal and institutional perspective. The personal takes the reader not only aboard the Kursk and other military vessels but also into the lives and families of several of the 118 sailors who perished. The institutional looks at how the Russian leadership responded – or failed to respond – and how remnants of Cold War mentality contributed to delays in offers to help from NATO countries and acceptance of those offers.

Flynn begins the story largely from the personal aspect. We learn not only about the commander of the submarine but particularly three close friends, two of whom were among the 23 sailors who survived long enough to seek refuge in the rearmost compartment of the submarine. Using interviews and access to a variety of documents, Flynn takes us inside the families and the submarine up to and immediately after the explosion that led to the Kursk’s demise. With his examination of that explosion, Flynn rebuffs claims that the Kursk sank because it was struck by a western submarine. He contends the evidence is clear that a torpedo fueled by high-test hydrogen peroxide exploded in the torpedo room, killing or stunning everyone in the adjacent control compartment and sparking a fire that caused other warheads to explode with even greater force just more than two minutes later.

Yet while Flynn has the reader accompany the 23 men to their final refuge, he does not delve into how long they survived. Initial reports were that pounding could be heard coming from the submarine for several days. Some attributed it to the survivors banging out distress signals on the hull, others to other devices on the sub. However, once Flynn puts us with the 23 sailors in that last compartment, he moves the focus to the rescue efforts and the institutional aspect of the tragedy.

Flynn lays out a variety of reasons for the lengthy delay in rescue efforts. Part is attributable to financial problems in the Russian military. Part is attributable to simple disbelief. Part is attributable to remnants of Cold War mentality. The last is even reflected in the American response. Flynn explores how the U.S. learned about the event long before even Russian President Vladimir Putin did and why U.S. government officials did not contact Putin or other Russian authorities. He also traces not only the rescue efforts, but the subsequent recovery of the bodies in that last compartment, the ultimate raising of most of the submarine more than a year later, the recovery of additional bodies from it, and the reactions of and impact upon the families and the Russian nation.

Examining the bureaucracy and levels of officialdom that contributed to the delay in rescue and recovery efforts could easily become plodding. Yet Flynn’s crisp writing keeps the reader interested. While the main focus of the last half of the book is on the rescue and recovery efforts, Cry from the Deep always keeps in mind that this really boils down to a tragic story about real people.

Twenty-three men waited in the ninth compartment, hoping against hope that a new, more humane Russia valued their lives above national pride, the protection of state secrets and other bad habits left over from the Soviet era.

Ramsey Flynn, Cry from the Deep

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