Even in Russia’s relatively closed society, you would have to be a flag-rank officer or a minister of state not to be aware that the armed forces are decrepit and the navy an accident waiting to happen. The stubbornness and ignorance and selfishness of the leadership as much as the loss of life made the Kursk disaster a deeply felt national disgrace.

Yet the Kursk affair in the long run will likely accelerate Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy. The lesson of the Kursk is the need for change, and only the president has the capacity and the authority to bring it about. The change Putin has in mind is the reconstruction of central authority, but with a modern twist. He wants a government that knows what everybody else does, but also one that controls the flow of information. Call it apparatchiks with focus groups.

Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 constitution placed enormous power in the president’s hands, but Yeltsin himself was too sick and feckless to use it. Other groups and institutions–the oligarchs, regional leaders, the Duma–stepped into the empty space that Yeltsin failed to occupy. Putin has devoted the early months of his presidency to reclaiming that space as his own.