At least 23 of the 118 sailors who died aboard the Kursk survived the internal explosions that sent the nuclear submarine to the bottom of Arctic waters in August 2000. That was confirmed by the contents of a note found on one of the bodies. What we don't know is whether or not the Russian regime preferred these men dead. That's the main question addressed by author Robert Moore in A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy. With cool dispassion, Moore dissects every element of the nightmare both inside and outside the stricken vessel that gripped the world for nine agonizing days. And in the process, he demonstrates that the Russian government's Communist mentality and its military culture have survived the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Twice the size of a jumbo jet and longer than two football fields, the Kursk provided a clear example of the sea adage that a submarine has room for everything except a mistake. Moore examines what the international community has deemed errors, among which were a 48-hour cover-up, falsified reports blaming the West, the impoverished Russian Navy's failure to maintain adequate rescue equipment, and the government's reluctance to ask for outside assistance. All these factors contribute to the notion that the Kremlin in Moscow, where a tram driver is paid as much as a nuclear submarine commander, valued machines more than men.
Combining forensic evidence with the laws of physics, Moore masterfully re-creates the doomed sailors' final hours. And, thanks to a tape recorder hidden under the coat of a journalist, we are able to eavesdrop on a raucous meeting unthinkable in the old Russia between the outraged families of the dead sailors and President Vladimir Putin, who was still on vacation in the sunny Crimea five days after the accident. As Moore, chief U.S. correspondent for the British news agency ITN, skillfully reconstructs the hour-by-hour sequence leading to the divers' excruciating approach to the sunken submarine, readers might find themselves ignoring what they already know about the outcome and hoping against hope that some of the trapped sailors will be found alive. Alan Prince of Deerfield Beach, Florida, lectures at the University of Miami.