Russia’s Sorry Infrastructure

The loss of the nuclear submarine Kursk and the fire in Moscow’s TV tower are indications of an infrastructure in grievous disrepair

15 min read
Photo by COVI

Ostankino television tower in Moscow

[1] Smoke billowed from the top of the 540-meter-high Ostankino television tower in Moscow, Europe's tallest structure, after fire broke out on 27 August. The fire "highlights what condition vital facilities, as well as the entire nation, are in," said Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A current Moscow joke begins, "Russia is a country of optimists," and ends with the punch line: "All the pessimists have already left."

Following a decade of political upheaval, economic collapse, international humiliation, and two nasty Caucasian wars, the latest blows to Russian morale have been a pair of technological disasters. Both occurred in August, one at sea and the other right in the center of Moscow

On 12 August, during naval exercises in the White Sea north of Murmansk, the nuclear attack submarine Kursk sank with all hands lost after two explosions. The 170-meter-long 13 900-ton Oscar-II-class submarine was Russia's newest and most powerful, and carried 118 men, including several specialists from a naval weapons bureau as well as its crew.

Then, on 27 August, fire broke out in Moscow's landmark television tower, Europe's tallest structure [Fig. 1]. Three people were killed, and Muscovites were deprived of television broadcasts for several days. Easily visible on the skyline from all over Moscow, the 540-meter-high tower was an expression of Soviet-era pride, built in 1959-67 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917. "It wasn't simply a tower," a Moscow TV commentator explained. "It was the symbol of an epoch that now, it seems, has passed for good."

"This [last] emergency highlights what condition vital facilities, as well as the entire nation, are in," Russian President Vladimir Putin told government officials. "Only economic development will allow us to avoid such calamities in the future."

Western observers agreed. "The sinking of the nuclear submarine and the fire at the Moscow television tower have highlighted the crumbling state of Russia's physical infrastructure," observed Charles Frank, first deputy president of the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Speaking at Harvard University's Russian-American Investment Forum in Cambridge, Mass., early in October, he continued: "A decade of improperly addressed investments, of disdain for maintenance and repair, and of the foolish waste of enormous natural and human resources has led to an aging... infrastructure...with diminished effectiveness."

In Russia the two disasters evoked the same consensus among a variety of off-the-cuff commentators. Many of the assertions came from officials who wanted more funding for their own departments, while in other cases, dubious and undocumented hypotheses were bandied about like authoritative conclusions.

Infrastructure decay from malign neglect, as it could be referred to, can be seen everywhere in Russia. There are some exceptions, most conspicuously commercial segments of the space industry fueled by Western payments. But Government-funded programs, starved of funds, are collapsing--witness the skimped satellite programs and the laggardly telephone system (of which more later). But whether malign neglect was the direct cause of the two August disasters was less clear. Still, if they focused Russian attention--and resolve--on the larger problem, they might yet yield some benefit.

Infrastructure and Kursk

The most likely explanation of the submarine disaster seems to have been a mishap in the forward torpedo tube during a launch, possibly a test, of an improved high-speed Shkval rocket torpedo. Seismic stations in Norway monitored a small blast, followed 2 minutes later by an explosion with the force of one to two tons of TNT. The Richter 3.47 shock wave was detected as far away as Canada and Alaska.

The subsequent rescue attempt was much more related to infrastructure decay. Only then did most of the world discover that the Russian Navy's undersea rescue teams had been disbanded several years earlier. Anatoliy Vyrelkin, former head of one deep-diving rescue unit, told a Russian newspaper it would have taken his men less than a day to get to the Kursk hatches, but "there is not a single specialized ship in the Northern fleet nowadays."

Later, the Russian Navy evidently concluded that Russia no longer possessed the technical know-how to recover bodies from the wreck itself. In October, it completed negotiations with the Norwegian subsidiary of Halliburton AS to do the job. Halliburton is the largest U.S. company designing and delivering oil and gas equipment.

To fill in some more details, Kursk, powered by two 190-MW pressurized-water OK-650-b nuclear reactors, was taking part in a Northern Fleet exercise. This was in preparation for the deployment of ships from the Northern Fleet, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets to the Mediterranean, to show the flag after a long absence.

The naval maneuvers coincided with a crucial Kremlin meeting on military spending. Fiercely competitive, the country's nuclear and conventional force commanders were heading for a showdown and the Navy was determined not be left out.

Russian nuclear submarine Kursk

[2] The Russian nuclear submarine Kursk docked at a northern Russian port, Zapadnaya Lista. The sub sank 12 August 2000, most probably as a result of a torpedo-room explosion. One hundred eighteen men were trapped and died on the floor of the Barrents Sea.

On Saturday, 12 August, at about noon, Kursk [Fig. 2] requested and received permission to fire one torpedo in the first of a series of torpedo runs. That was the last signal ever received from it.

What happened next was monitored from Norway and from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ships at sea. The first blast was followed by sounds that could be interpreted as a life-and-death struggle. These included the sound of cavitation, as bubbles of water vapor were created by the twin seven-bladed propellers spinning at top speed. Sounds of machinery working and ballast tanks being blown were also heard.

"You can hear them desperately trying to reach the surface," a senior U.S. naval officer who had studied the event told the Washington Post. But whatever crisis overwhelmed the crew, it left them no time for even the most basic responses, such as releasing a rescue beacon.

The second explosion terminated any mechanical sounds from the submarine. All that could be heard was the creaking of the hull, perhaps signifying slow collapse of weakened structures under the relatively mild pressures at the shallow depth. Some 105 seconds later came the thud of the Kursk gouging into the seabed (many Russians still insist the second explosion occurred at the moment of impact with the bottom).

So how was all this to be interpreted? John Pike, a technology analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, in Washington, D.C., told ABC News that the first, smaller blast "certainly would be consistent with what you might expect from either a torpedo or cruise missile warhead exploding." But he added: "It would not exclude bumping into an old World War II sea mine."

The later blast, said Pike, was consistent with one or more near-simultaneous explosions of torpedoes or cruise missiles, or perhaps the violent collapse of some internal pressurized bulkheads. Based on the 2-minute delay, he said, "one could speculate that the initial explosion caused a fire in the torpedo room, [setting] off another weapon, or weapons or...breached part of the hull, which damaged another pressure bulkhead, subsequently causing it to collapse." Images on Moscow TV showing damage to the Kursk agreed with the idea that a torpedo explosion set off the disaster.

Deep-sea inputs

Evidence for collision with another ship would exculpate the Kursk's state of fitness, to a degree--the theory favored by the Russian Navy. So in September the wreck was examined by the oceanographic research ship Mstislav Keldysh, famous for its exploration of the sunken Titanic. In the course of five days, it deployed its two deep-sea diving vessels to photograph the submarine and to search for wreckage from another ship.

No evidence of such a ship was found. Yet public sentiment blaming the disaster on a foreign submarine ("probably NATO, perhaps British," goes the most popular rumor) remains strong. Meanwhile, Russian newspapers report that the consensus among naval officers in Murmansk is that a missile from the cruiser Peter the Great, also in the area, accidentally hit Kursk, setting off the explosions.

What the Keldysh did find was grim enough. The submarine was upright, its nose plowed about 2 meters into the clay bottom at a depth of 108 meters. The periscope was raised. Besides the damage forward, there was damage to the bridge, and two Granit missile tube lids were torn off. Metal fragments were recovered that were traced to both the outer and inner hulls of the submarine. The fragments, twisted and melted, were evidence of a massive explosion within the forward torpedo room. Based on these findings, officials concluded that all crewmembers had died during the first few moments after the second explosion.

 in the rescue operation

[3] Involved in the rescue operation, Norwegian Captain Paal Svendsen shows images of the sunken submarine Kursk to the chief of the Russian Northern Fleet, Admiral Vyacheslav Popov [right, in hat].

But Russian divers, supported by Norwegian specialists, made a grim discovery when they entered the aft compartments of Kursk late in October [Fig. 3]. In a pocket on one of the bodies, there was a note describing how about two dozen men had survived the initial explosions and had taken refuge in the last compartment, where they knew they were doomed. Russian press reports even suggested that additional notes showed the men had lived at least two days, but under the known conditions on the sub experts consider that idea preposterous.

New television inspections of the outer hull of Kursk showed what looked like long gouges on its surface. Whether these were from a collision with another vessel, or had been caused by impact with the bottom, or had been there even before the disaster, still was unknown.

Cutting corners

As the investigation widened, evidence uncovered suggested that infrastructure decay might well have elevated hazards aboard the submarine, as well as on other Russian warships. Apparently, when the submarine went out on the exercise, its full weapons complement from its last combat patrol was still installed and could have led to or reinforced the second explosion.

Normally, cranes are used to offload the weapons while the vessel is in port, but according to documents obtained by Moscow newspapers, "the Russian Technical Register put a ban on operating the cranes in the Northern Fleet, saying they are too worn out for use." In fact, in a budget deposition to the Russian parliament last year, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, Vladimir Kuroyedov, had complained that of fourteen 100-ton cranes and sixty-three 40-ton cranes at naval bases, only three of the big ones and seventeen of the smaller ones were operable. A request for about $20 million for crane repair was ignored.

One other credible report blames the initial explosion on budget-cutting pressures. A few days after the sinking, the Russian military daily newspaper Red Star embellished its Web site with an article about faulty torpedoes. Three days later the piece was deleted without ever appearing in print, perhaps because of military security concerns.

The Red Star article described how expensive, battery-powered torpedoes of Russia's submarines were being replaced with liquid-fueled designs, to eliminate costly battery components such as metallic silver.

According to the article, Navy officials argued against the new design because the liquid-fueled torpedoes were difficult to handle and were considered "too explosive." But the new design promised cost savings and was adopted.

The case for a torpedo explosion is not altogether proven, even so. In October, deputy prime minister Ilya Klebanov, in charge of the investigation, told reporters that investigators had been unable to get a torpedo to explode as hypothesized for Kursk. "So far, no matter what harsh conditions we put a torpedo into, we cannot reach the variant of anything happening to it," he said. "But obviously something happened to it--either to a torpedo itself or as a consequence of other processes occurring."

Other Russian newspapers provided details of cost-saving measures on the submarine. One wrote that no emergency batteries were installed. Another described how emergency systems, such as the locator beacon and a crew bailout pod, may have been welded to the outer deck because mechanical equipment to hold them in place had worn out. These measures prove the fraying of the infrastructure, but were unlikely to have contributed to the loss of Kursk. (Still, they could cause future disasters unless remedied.)

Even if the nuclear Kursk was "safe," the entire Russian submarine fleet remains an environmental threat. It is assumed that Kursk's two reactors shut down safely, and monitoring ships have not detected any radiation leaks. But a hundred other Russian submarines, decommissioned but not dismantled, float in Russian harbors with their reactors still installed. For decades, expended reactor hardware was simply sunk off the Russian coast. As detailed by private groups, such as the Bellona Foundation in Norway, the collapse of the old Soviet nuclear navy is a slow-motion catastrophe requiring urgent and expensive countermeasures.

The toll on the navy of budget cutbacks is seen in other figures. In the past nine years, more than 85 percent of Russia's naval vessels have been scrapped. Today, Russia has only 12 nuclear and 10 conventional submarines and 37 surface warships considered combat-ready. This is less than half the sea power of its neighbor, Turkey, and only half of these can be manned and supplied to go to sea at the same time. In 1989, Russia built 78 military ships; in 1998, it built four.

Too little, too much

In the case of Moscow's television tower, originally inadequate construction plus recent overcrowding, not simply neglect, appear to have fanned the flames. During construction, Soviet designers chose not to purchase electric power line cable with nonflammable cladding from the West, and used cheaper Russian electrical lines. "The designers knew the tower was dangerous even when it was being built," Moscow electrical engineer Mikhail Ryzhok, a veteran of the cable installation, told Business Week.

In recent years, new private television stations just squeezed their equipment into whatever spaces were available. From the tower's upper spire, at the 460-meter level, down to the 334-meter level, with its observation deck and rotating restaurant, the tower was crammed with broadcasting equipment for 11 TV and 12 radio stations, and 17 additional satellite TV programs. No one paid attention to fire safety.

In fact, the fire started in the upper spire, in electrical equipment owned by a Moscow paging service. The fire rode down cable ducts to the observation level, and stopped only at the 70-meter level, where firefighters had erected a barricade of asbestos sheets. Most of the structure above that level was gutted, and steel support cables appear to be damaged. The top of the tower now tilts 2 meters off vertical.

Obviously the tower's safety and anti-fire systems were outdated, said Eduard Sagalayev, the head of Russia's broadcasters' association. Suppressant systems either never activated or soon ran out of foam. Moreover, a day after the fire was extinguished, firefighters found some power cables in the tower were still live, despite a supposedly complete power-down during the fire. The discovery was made when a firefighter inspecting the 147-meter level noticed that wall clocks were still keeping time.

Now, with an estimated repair cost of US $1 billion, the tower faces an uncertain future.

Space projects in poor shape

Meanwhile, for lack of funds, Russia's own fleet of space applications satellites is wearing out and breaking down. This could leave the country half-blind to foreign missile launches, half-deaf to its own domestic communications, half senseless due to the loss of weather satellites, and lost without a functioning navigation satellite network.

"The past 10 years have already seen failures of equipment on board spacecraft increase by more than three times," space forces commander Valeriy Grin told a reporter in mid-1999. Of the 90 military satellites at his disposal, more than 80 percent had exceeded their design lifetimes.

The situation with the Glonass space-based navigation constellation graphically illustrates the infrastructure crisis in the domestic space program [Fig. 4]. Developed as a Soviet response to the U.S. Department of Defense's Global Positioning System (GPS), Glonass planned to deploy 24 satellites in 12-hour circular orbits. Beginning in 1982, the satellites (called uragan, for hurricane) were launched three at a time by Proton rockets.

Hurricane (Uragan in Russian) satellite

[4] The Hurricane (Uragan in Russian) satellite shown in the artist's rendering [left] is key to the Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass), the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). Glonass was designed for 24 satellites divided in three 12-hour circular orbits inclined to the equator. By last summer, only 10 were still in operation.
Enjoying renewed success is the Proton rocket [right]. Its first stage generates a 900-ton thrust.
Click on image to enlarge.

By 1993, the orbital alignment of the entire fleet of satellites, was near enough complete for the system to be formally accepted by the Russian Defense ministry. But within two years, replacement launchings ceased as funding levels plummeted. By mid-2000, only 10 of the operational slots were filled; the rest had simply died in orbit. The surviving payloads have gone far beyond their nominal lifetimes of three years, lasting on average about 4.5 years before failing.

After a five-year gap, three new Glonass satellites were launched last 13 October. Their launch had been scheduled for 27 September but was postponed after an accident damaged one of the payloads at the Baikonur base. It was being transferred by rail from the launch site to a fueling facility 30 km away, when an improperly operated handcar ran into the carrier.

The payload suffered minor damage, but was airlifted to the factory in Omsk, repaired and recertified, and then returned to the launch site. While this urgent repair was being made, two of the remaining 10 satellites in orbit suddenly died. The three new payloads reached orbit successfully, but the network is still not functioning, with more launches planned for next year. Eventually, Glonass managers hope to limp along on a bare-bones 12-satellite network for the next four years, until a new-generation Glonass-M payload can be built. It will have a life span of seven to eight years. Then a lightweight Glonass-K satellite, to be launched one at a time from a base inside Russia, will replace these designs.

Launch warnings collapse

Perhaps more alarmingly, Russia's network of missile-launch warning satellites is also collapsing. A full constellation needs 21 satellites, but as of mid-1999, only three were left, the last of which had been launched in 1997. On average, the surviving payloads provide only "single-string" coverage, meaning there is no possibility of a launch warning being confirmed by another satellite. And even that single-string coverage exists for only about half of every day. Six new satellite launches are required to resume 24-hour coverage, but neither the payloads nor the boosters have been funded.

Other satellite systems are also suffering. Last August, for example, a Russian Space Agency official, Vladimir Umnikov, told a TASS news agency reporter that 34 of the 44 satellites dedicated to economic applications and scientific research "have used up their resources." He added that any or all of them "could break down at any moment."

Earlier this year, Aleksandr Frolov, of the Russian weather forecasting service, informed TASS that the situation with the weather satellite network was "critical." The satellites remain in orbit, he said, but "their equipment on board is not functioning."

Other projects shine

But throughout the year, and in stark contrast to the public perception of overall deterioration, other space efforts have achieved high levels of reliability and innovation and shown impressive competence. This success, however, is fueled by money from the West.

Take the return-to-flight of the heavy Proton booster rocket. Its blistering pace of flights will set a record for the year. Earlier failures were traced to engines improperly assembled during a financial crisis in 1991- 92. Recent launches included commercial payloads to geosynchronous orbit and the Service Module for the International Space Station (ISS). An improved Proton-M variation was introduced, and the Proton's new Briz upper stage had its first successful flight.

The new Fregat upper stage for the mid-sized Soyuz booster was introduced, and there was the world's first demonstration of an inflatable heat shield so that a rocket stage could return from orbit intact. Four Progress supply ships were launched (three to the Mir space station, one to the International Space Station), bringing the unbroken run of successes to more than a hundred.

There's been a demonstration launch of the new Rokot commercial small-satellite launcher, based on a converted intercontinental ballistic missile, and the first launch from the Plesetsk cosmodrome inside Russia of application satellites into the sun-synchronous near-polar orbit. (All previous launches into this orbit had been made from the Baikonur space base in Kazakhstan.)

Although Russia's contributions to the International Space Station are mainly funded by the government, they benefit from spillover from commercial profits of the organizations involved. The Service Module, which received its first permanent crew for the space station last month, may have been years late, but when it arrived, it was of classic Soviet-era quality.

Where money obviously makes a difference is seen around Moscow. Construction of all kinds is booming throughout the Russian capital, funded from sales of expensive properties to western companies and from Russian tax revenues. On 30 October, Moscow region governor Boris Gromov told newsmen of his plans to attract a billion dollars in western investments next year, including funding for the food industry, manufacturing, trade, and construction. Western investments for 2000 would be about $650 million, he predicted.

third and outermost ring road, meant to alleviate traffic jams.

[5] Ample funds are available for improving the infrastructure in Moscow, the capital. Under construction [above] is the third and outermost ring road, meant to alleviate traffic jams.

Moscow is becoming a "showcase city." Repaving of the ring roads around the city and building a third, outer one [Fig. 5], along with special highways such as the Rublevka in northwest Moscow (connecting the downtown with the most exclusive suburbs) are producing world-class roads. In contrast, and with few exceptions, roads outside Moscow are Third World class at best. The route from St Petersburg to Tallinn, Estonia, for example, is a two-lane unlighted quasi-dirt road.

Optical-fiber cables are being laid throughout Moscow, for commercial clients with cash. But in general the Russian telephone system is "dismal," noted a recent article in The Economist. The article states that Russia must spend $6.5 billion to end the six-month waiting list for new phones, $9 billion to make existing lines digital, and $6.5 billion more to modernize the in-country long-distance system. Less than a half billion dollars is spent annually.

Perception was not reality

To a large degree, the contrast between today's disasters and Soviet-era "normalcy" is one of perception. In Soviet times, accidents such as the Kursk sinking were not even reported, so the level of infrastructure decay was hidden. And along with a precipitous decline in maintenance funding in the past decade, has simply come the aging of equipment that is now beyond its design life.

Observers also suspect that people are more careless these days, and less likely to obey safety regulations, than in Soviet times. In the 1980s, the armies of underpaid but officious inspectors and social wardens probably contributed to early detection of hazardous conditions. But the Soviet-era response to infrastructure failure was usually coverup rather than cleanup.

Today's pattern is clear: when money is adequate, Russia's engineers can deliver. Without money--for hiring more engineers, performing hardware and software design and development, and buying new equipment--they are not miracle-workers.

The outlook for the rest of Russia's technological infrastructure remains grim, experts insist. At the Harvard conference, Charles Frank described the problems ahead. Almost 70 percent of the population drinks water unfit by U.S. standards. One-third of waste water is released untreated. Railways, electricity, oil and gas pipelines, roads and bridges all need massive infusions of cash, he said.

Leonid Gozman, an official with a Russian electrical power monopoly, told the same conference that the Russian national electric grid will need at least $70 billion over the next five to seven years to maintain current levels of power output, or the country will face a severe energy crisis as the power distribution system collapses. In Moscow earlier this year, the Emergency Situations Ministry issued an apocalyptic prediction that Russia was becoming vulnerable to innumerable technological disasters, such as fires, collapsing buildings, radiation leaks, pipeline ruptures, and toxic spills. Experts warned that much of Russia's industrial equipment might become virtually useless within five years.

The estimated cost of these repairs is about a hundred billion dollars, about five times the total annual budget of the Federal government.

It seems the only resource in adequate supply is humor, as the optimist/pessimist joke exemplifies. Even the psychological impact of the recent disasters was ameliorated by another immediately famous joke.

"The fire in the TV tower has now been explained," the story goes. "They found out it had collided with another TV tower, probably a NATO one."

About the Author

James Oberg is a 22-year veteran of NASA Mission Control in Houston and now a writer and consultant. His most recent article in IEEE Spectrum, "NASA's big push for the space station," appeared just last month.

To Probe Further

For an excellent overview and insights into the Kursk and other Russian naval disasters, see the Web site at

The Friends and Partners in Space home page at has many useful links to the Russian space industry. Details on cooperative programs can be found at and

Current information on trends in Russian society can be found at, and has more insight into cultural issues.

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