Monday, 3 January 2011

War and Peace in Russia: Sailing to Murmansk (Russian Northwestern Federal District)

As mentioned in my previous blog, I now take an unusual detour – flying from Samara to the seaport of Bergen in Norway, despite my next destination being Murmansk, high up in Russia’s Northwestern district. The reason for this is that I shall be travelling to Murmansk by sea with a book called “Return to Murmansk.” In 1990, Henry Swain sailed the 34-foot yacht Callisto from Norway to Murmansk, Russia. He had been there 45 years earlier, on a Royal Navy warship escorting American merchant vessels charged with supplying vital aid to the Soviets. U-boats prowled the Russian coast and the Luftwaffe nestled menacingly in Norway, while the cruel Arctic winter offered its own deadly hazard – ice.

Swain's return journey, along one thousand miles of rocky coastline and over the Barents Sea, as well as his account of the reception he received in modern-day Murmansk, forms the main narrative of my next destination.

I have only been sailing once myself (a weekend trip from Portsmouth to the Isle of White), but Swain describes the experience of sailing (both the exhilaration and the stress, the excitement and the boredom) to great effect here. Of course, my efforts pale into insignificance compared to this epic journey, but Swain’s engaging prose really brings this journey to life.

As well as the quality of writing, there is an interesting structure to this narrative. Chapters about the 1990 journey made by Swain and his crew are interspersed by a gripping account of his journey to Murmansk nearly half a century earlier, as a seaman on the HMS Lancaster Castle, a Royal Navy ship escorting a supply convoy in U-boat ridden seas during World War 2.

What is striking in both elements of this account is Swain’s openness and honesty. In his account of the 1990 voyage he is open about his self-doubts in terms of his ability, at his age, to make the journey and occasionally accuses himself of cowardice in turning back in the face of inclement weather. He also appears acutely aware of the age difference between himself and the rest of the crew - and this honesty extends to his personal feelings towards some of them. A notable example of this is the attractive Kate: “Everyone was getting on well, Callisto’s crew was a successful team. After a while the thought slowly came into my mind that one other member of the crew was having personal problems. It was me. I was getting jealous about Kate…I felt strangely exiled. Jealously is a vice which unlike anger diminishes you. I hated myself for it.” Such candour has the effect of alienating Swain as a sympathetic character at the same time as endearing him to the reader. He has faults (which of course, are magnified in the pressured situation of a long voyage with strangers) yet he is at least honest and open about these. As it happens, in this instance his jealous feelings are unfounded – and I would have liked to know how things turned out between Katy and Henry after the journey was completed.

Swain is equally candid in depicting the events during his crossing with the HMS Lancaster Castle in 1944. Here the pressure-cooker environment of a cramped crew is magnified a hundredfold, and of course the stresses here are much more than bad weather and the fear of grounding – the threat of torpedoing by U-boat is ever present, and Swain describes in graphic detail how this is the fate of other vessels in this Arctic convoy. Even though his own ship is not hit, his imagination torments him when another ship is sunk: “I felt a sick surprise. My hands shook…Her crew were like us – 200 or so crowded in every compartment of the ship… I had experienced in my imagination what it would be like if we were torpedoed. I knew what was happening on Lapwing. First the mind numbing shock as the warhead of the torpedo exploded tearing everything apart. Steel and men would be shattered in smoke and blood. The ship would sink in minutes…some would die in the cold sea almost immediately…the men below would have no chance at all…they would go down with the ship. The live and the dead would be imprisoned in terminal darkness – light, fire, life and hope quenched forever.”

Given these experiences, both past and present, it is not surprising that Swain has mixed feelings when finally arriving at Murmansk in 1990. The welcome accorded him and his crew upon their arrival is unexpected, touching and overwhelming in equal measure. The crew are warmly welcomed by local people and dignitaries – including a formal reception at the Town Hall by the Chairman of the City Council and a meeting with the War Veterans Committee, as well as a less formal procession of visitors to the yacht by local residents and well-wishers.

Swain is obviously overwhelmed by this - hardly surprising given his recent travails in the Barents Sea and his difficult memories. He is typically self-critical in this, upon leaving the Civic reception – accompanied by local school students - he states: “I walked by myself. There were too many new impressions and half of me was still with Callisto in the empty sea. I had not adjusted to the crowds, the traffic and the heat. I ought to have been chatting to my crew and the students. Instead I lagged behind”. In a touching episode this is noticed by an empathetic student, Natasha Vanyushkina, who looks after him for the rest of the day.

Swain does also manage to rouse himself to take in impressions of modern day Murmansk: “The Lenin Prospect could be the main street of any big town in Europe. It is wide and flanked by six and seven story buildings. They have vaguely classical facades and brightly painted stucco... The streets that intersect Lenin Prospect at right angles end in the green hills in one direction and the blues waters of the harbour on the other. In its brief summer there was a felling of vitality in the air. The streets were thronging with people, many of them carrying flowers, flown in from the south and sold at pavement stalls. Pink and blue flags were flying for the annual Fishermen’s Festival.”

Ultimately this book is as much about the journey as the destination, yet the destination of Murmansk – a remote Russian town visited 45 years earlier by his younger self, scared and fearing for his life yet risking all to help his Russian allies - is obviously a talisman for Henry Swain. In 1990 he evidently felt this was an important trip to make in order to banish the demons that his earlier experiences had created. One gains a sense from this book that the trip did exactly that – and also meant a huge amount to his Russian counterparts in the Veterans Committee in Murmansk who suffered huge tribulations themselves in the war.

Swain’s final chapter account of returning home to an empty suburban house in Nottingham is particularly poignant (his front room is still furnished with photos of his long-dead comrades from the Navy), and truly demonstrates how his wartime memories never left him. One hopes that this trip helped him to enjoy his remaining years (sadly, he died in 2002 aged 77 years.)

The next destination on my journey forms a quite different prospect from this voyage of self-discovery; and in doing so serves to demonstrate just what a diverse world we live in…

The past few weeks have seen several unusual detours for me where I have retraced my steps in order travel to a particular destination. For instance, in "Last Boat to Astrakhan" I flew back from Chechnya to Moscow to commence a river cruise to Astrakhan. Similarly, I flew to Bergen in Norway to "Return to Murmansk" by yacht in the book I have just reviewed.

For my next trip, however, I am returning to Transnistria for a second stopover. It is rather ironic that one of the smallest states on my travels is also one of the few to merit more than one visit! My reasons will be detailed in the next entry on this blog.

Due to the massive distance involved, I shell out £285 for a one-way flight on Rossiya-Russian Airlines which departs at 22:15 Murmansk and drops me at 15:15 in Chisinau, Moldova. The lengthy trip duration is largely down to two long stopovers: 7 hours 45 minutes in St. Petersburg and 5 hours in Moscow.

As there are no civilian flights into Transnistria, I travel the 35 miles from Chisinau to Bender by taking a Marshrutka (a small white minibus that sits about 14 people – very cheap at 25 Lei). I must admit to being worried about the border crossing – having heard lots of horror stories about Westerners being singled out and asked for bribes. However, my crossing is simple and businesslike. A few straightforward questions: “Where do you come, how long will you stay, where will you stay, how much money do you carry”, then customs have a brief look in the trunk and I am asked to fill in a simple immigration form (written in Russian and English). These forms can be obtained at the border, or you can try asking your Marshutka driver for a form, or anketa ("DAIE-teh anKYEtu").

And so I arrive in Bender – a small city of just under 100,000 people on the banks of the river Dniester. I am heading to the ‘Low River' area – populated largely by a community of displaced Siberians who are fiercely independent and maintain a strict social code of honour among criminals…

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