The ‘Professor Molchanov’, a small Russian ice strengthened ship from the Meteorological Institute of Murmansk, had just been chartered out as a tourist ship. The crew were at the other end of the world in Antarctica when the news reached them.
The engines were shut down and the ship stopped alongside a large ice floe for a small ceremony. It was a very solemn occasion as the red Soviet flag with the hammer and sickle was lowered from the mast head. The ship’s Doctor Ludmila KoValskaya had a sewing machine and had made a new flag of white, blue and red material. The tricolour flag that was used by the anti communist white movement during the Russian Civil war was slowly raised to the masthead. The hammer and sickle on the ship’s funnel was also painted over with the new Russian flag.
The crew members felt very insecure. They didn’t know what the future held; they hadn’t been paid for months and couldn’t support their families. Even the names of some of their home towns had been changed. They were a long way from home
Eighteen months later we are on a night flight across Russia on an ancient prototype Ansvair 74 cargo plane. The government authorities in Moscow think it’s parked in its hanger, but it’s on a black market flight across 8 time zones to the isolated City of Cherskiy in far Eastern Siberia. The cargo, old tyres and vodka and of course our party of 12, the self loading cargo.
We are an International group of mainly ornithologists who have been permitted to enter Russia on science visas.
Two days later we are sitting around the walls of a large orange helicopter for a flight north to Four Pillars Island in the Bear Island group. The engines rev to an incredible level, but still it can’t get off the ground. We have too much weight onboard to lift off and need to taxi to become airborne. Our packs and supplies are piled high in the middle of the helicopter. I remark that I can smell petrol and am told there are cans of aviation fuel under our packs as they need to carry it for the return journey. I ask if that’s dangerous if we crash and I’m told that it’s not a problem, if we come down no one will get out anyway!
We fly north across the small lakes and polygon pattern of the tundra to the dense pack ice of the East Siberian Sea. A rocky Island appears beset in a sea of white ice. The helicopter lands on a hill behind the living quarters of a Russian Meteorological Station that has seen better days. The heavy wooden door that weighs a ton is designed to keep out the wind, snow and polar bears. The red hammer and sickle flag still flies above the building.
After a late tea we are invited to spend time with the leader of the base. Valeriy is an aerologist who has been here on this lonely island for 10 years. There were formerly 23 people stationed here, now they are only 13. They used to test for pollution from Chernobyl but that’s been stopped. They haven’t been paid for months and they all look very thin and gaunt.
Beyond a flimsy curtain the midnight sun shines brightly on the frozen sea and a few large seals frolic nearby. There’s a television set in the corner of the room. From this distant outpost Valeriy has been watching his country fall to pieces and he’s anxious for outside news. What trade is Russia doing with other countries and how is Russia regarded in the west? He doesn’t like Gorbachev, and says they were better off under Leonid Brezhnev. We are privileged to hear a lengthy discussion of real Russian politics and events, which are very different to the brief opinions reported on our news.
The vodka flows with the Russian custom of many toasts. After a few hours we switch to aero vodka! Don’t go to Siberia unless you have a cast iron stomach.
The members of our group are of seven different nationalities. Valeriy exclaims, “Tonight, the whole world has come to my door!” He is searching for an insight into each of our countries and our way of life, comparing them with Russia. He has to decide where his future lies.
In the early hours the midnight sun reaches its lowest point above the horizon and an eerie silence in what should be night, settles over the High Arctic. At this far flung Russian outpost where the red hammer and sickle still flies, it seems fitting that at this moment in time the low rays of the sun reflect a deeper orange light and cast sombre grey shadows across the sea ice.
- This story was initially titled 'The Red Hammer and Sickle'
- Valeriy left Four Pillars Island within a year. In 1995 the station was abandoned.
- The ‘Professor Molchanov’ after many years as a tourist ship, returned to Russia to the northern port and University City of Arkhangelsk. In 2012 it became a floating university for Oceanic and Polar Research Expeditions.