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THESE are the ghosts of the Kursk, young men condemned to an appalling death in the freezing Barents Sea.

They are snapshots of a life beyond the misery of the Russian Navy, where children, wives and friends could bring warmth and happiness.

In one, a youthful Vladimir Sverchkaryov holds his laughing son Ivan on his shoulders.

Another shows Sergey Kalinin's love for his wife Labov as he smiles shyly at their wedding.

And Mikhail Kuznetsov is seen cradling his new-born son.

Another picture, of 20-year-old Dmitri Staroseltsov, is all the more poignant as it has already been seen in the Record - when families were still clinging to the hope of sailors surviving.As news broke last week that a Scots team was set to become part of the rescue effort, Dmitri's mother Valentina clutched his picture.

Choking back tears, she said: "I hope these men can bring back my son."

Tragically there was nothing rescuers could do.

As the heart-breaking photos also show, these men - some of whom are earning just pounds 80-a-month - could be sailors from any modern Navy, but for one thing.

In the eyes of the young Russians there is fatigue and a haunted look of resignation. These are men whose youthful dreams have been stripped away, men who have accepted their life sentence in the crumbling remains of the Soviet Union.

They are men betrayed by a state which promised to care for them, by a Navy who promised to protect them and by a nation which should now face the condemnation of the world. For the experienced sailors such as Andre Siolgav - a married father-of-one - the Navy offered some sanctuary from the industrial decay of Russia.

As a career officer, he was promised a good salary in Russian terms, a state pension, housing for his family and rapid promotion through the ranks.

But their good fortune didn't last when the Navy, crippled by Russia's economic collapse, stopped paying the sailors.

Now all Siolgav's wife has left to remember him by is a picture of her husband with daughter Anna at the bow of the Kursk before it set sail.

For other sailors, the Kursk was their first posting after receiving call-up papers for national service.

The recruits were still intoxicated by a sense of pride and duty.

Father-of-one Viktor Kuznetsov, 27, was one. The midshipman had volunteered to do his two-years' national service in the Navy. His heartbroken mother, Olga, 60, said: "He loved the sea and wanted to work on a submarine. No one forced him into it."

But the tragic death of Viktor was too much for Olga to bear.

As hope was diminished in the last few daysing of any Kursk sailors surviving, the mother-of-three was tortured by a premonition her son was dead.

Olga spent many hours after the sub sank weeping and praying before the Orthodox icon in her living room.

"Last night, the icon fell from the wall," she said. "It was an omen that I would never see my son again."

Another mother was left devastated after her son was also killed.

She had originally wanted to hide Sergei Vitchenko, 20, to avoid him being conscripted. But Sergei refused.

Instead, he was posted to the Kursk as a cook and mechanic.

Sergei was proud to be serving on the the Soviet sub fleet. But he didn't realise there is no pride left in the Russian fleet.

It is rusting in Northern ports. Most of this once huge and feared fleet is unable to go to sea because there is no money for fuel or food.

The vessels that can are poorly maintained and crewed by too many inexperienced sailors.

Many commanders struggle on, like Kursk captain Gennady Lyachin - a man who still had the respect of his crew.

The Navy chief knew how poorly trained many of his ratings were yet he had to accept them on board.

He'd supplement their lack of experience by boosting morale and trying to forge them into a disciplined unit. Discipline was the only security the Kursk had.

When young men took their first dive on the Kursk, he'd call them together at the command post and initiate them into the ranks of the submariners.

Each would drink a glass of sea water and kiss a ship's hammer before Lyachin shook their hands.

It was a proud day for the young men.

Young Sergei had difficulty keeping his salt water down. It made him feel ill, yet he still wrote a letter home to his mother to tell her proudly of his encounter with the captain.

That letter was written on July 23, just before the Kursk sailed her final journey.

When the first explosion tore through the Kursk's hull, Lyachin, standing in the command post near the blast, would have been killed almost instantly.

Sergei would have been in the cargo area towards the stern of the vessel. He may have survived initially but his terror would have been unimaginable.

Then, seconds later, it was all over. A second, larger blast ripped through the Kursk and the sea swept into her hull.

The Kursk sank to the bottom, a steel tomb carrying 118 men to their graves.

And as the last breath was squeezed from Kursk men, Russia itself began to suffocate in grief, despair and anger.

Last letter of a doomed seaman

DEAR Mama and Papa Thomas,

I have received all your letters. I'm sorry I haven't written for such a long time and that I am replying so late.

We were at sea and now we are sitting in the port, loading up rockets. When we have done this, we will go out to sea again, then we will return to Severomorsk for the military parade.

Everything is fine with me - they finally accepted me to work in the ship's mess and so now I'm working as a cook.

I have just hurried to prepare lunch so now I've got an hour's free time. The cooks are a privileged class on the ship - we are allowed to wash every day and we get to sleep for 12 hours at night.

Congratulations on passing your driving test - can you really drive a car now?

To be honest, Mama, I can't imagine you in the driving seat. I can't wait for you to send me a picture of you behind the wheel.

When we arrive back at base, I will write to everyone. But I think we will be at sea until the end of August.

I have been awarded my submariner certificate.

We were down at about 100 metres but that's by no means the deepest our boat can go - even 480 metres is no problem.

Later, I'll try somehow to send this certificate home for you to keep as a souvenir.

We were baptised as submariners - we were called to the command post where everybody drank a cup of sea water and kissed a greased ship's hammer - and then we got these papers and the commander shook everyone's hands.

After drinking the sea water, we all felt sick.

When we come back from the sea, I will take some photos and then you can see where I have been serving.

I have probably begun to bore you all, so I'll stop.

Bye, I love you. I miss you. Write to me.

Seryozha (a cook)
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Author:Macaskill, Jamie
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Aug 22, 2000
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