The Kremlin on Wednesday refused to reveal the full story of a fire that killed 14 officers on what was reportedly a nuclear-powered mini-submarine, saying the details of the tragedy were a “state secret.”
But apparently under pressure from critics, the defense ministry published the names and photographs of the victims who it said had saved their comrades and the deep-sea submersible at the cost of their lives.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said there were survivors of the accident, without specifying numbers.
The seamen died on Monday due to smoke inhalation, the defense ministry said, following the fire on a submersible in the Barents Sea in Russia's territorial waters, but the accident was only made public on Tuesday.
Two days after the tragedy the defense ministry described the victims as true patriots and top professionals, adding they repeatedly took part in expeditions to study the Arctic and plunged to maximum depths.
Russia has been involved in the battle for the Arctic, staking a claim for the Arctic Ocean and its riches.
The tragedy has echoes of the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, also in the Barents Sea that claimed 118 lives and shook the first year of Vladimir Putin's presidency.
Officials have released little information, saying the crew was studying the sea floor in the interests of the navy. But Russian media reported the ship was a top-secret nuclear-powered mini-submarine.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained the secrecy surrounding the tragedy by saying the information was a state secret.
Igor Kurdin, a former commander of a nuclear submarine, said authorities have managed to extract only four bodies from the vessel which was full of water.
It's a complicated task, Kurdin told Echo of Moscow radio. When and most importantly in what state the rest of the bodies will be taken out is unclear so far.
Independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta said the accident took place on an AS-12 nuclear mini-submarine.
Little is known about it and no official photographs of the vessel are available.
Conceived in the Soviet era and launched in 2003, the AS-12 is apparently carried by a mother submarine and is designated for research and special military operations.
Its hull is reportedly built of titanium orbs, earning it the nickname Losharik - a winsome toy horse made of juggling balls in a Soviet-era cartoon.
The acting governor of Saint Petersburg said the crew was based in the city.
The presence of many senior ranking officers on board could suggest the submarine was not on an ordinary assignment, experts said.
They described the crew as an elite unit of highly-skilled hydronauts. Putin has described the tragedy as a big loss for the army.
Nearly all of the victims were highly decorated officers and included seven Captain First Rank officers - the most senior staff officers in the Russian navy.