I Speak for the Silent Prisoners of the Soviets - V. Tchernavin

Fisheries in the Far North

And now, before I go on to tell what happened after this strange midnight search and the arrest of my two friends, Scherbakoff and Krotoff, in Murmansk, let me explain as simply as I can how both I and those working with me came to be stationed in such a remote outpost of civilization, and how that very work to which we were giving our conscientious and untiring efforts ultimately, though for no fault of our own, was to bring only misery and distress to ourselves and to our families.

Technically and according to the many questionnaires which I had to fill in during my life in the U.S.S.R. I belong to the nobility. To the Soviet Government this means that I am a class enemy, but, as is often the case among the Russian nobility, neither my parents nor I possessed any money or property which we had not acquired by our own honest efforts and work. I was fifteen years old when my father died. I had an elder sister and four younger brothers, the youngest a child of three. A life of hardship and uncertainty lay ahead of us.

As a boy I succeeded in joining the expedition of the well-known explorer of Altai and Mongolia, V. V. Sapojnikoff, in the capacity of collector-zoologist. With him I first saw nature in the wild, often visiting places not yet shown on maps; one summer we travelled through roadless territory for more than 2,000 kilometers on horseback. This was the beginning of my work of exploration, which I later carried on independently. For a while I acted as a zoologist for such expeditions and then became the leader in a series of scientific expeditions to the Altai and Sayanskii Mountains, to Mongolia, to the Tian-Shan Mountains, the Amur, the Ussurisk region on the Siberian-Manchurian border and to Lapland.

I believed that regular study was unnecessary and that I could succeed without it. Already earning my living at an early age, I was engaged in various activities such as preparing scientific materials and drawing anatomic charts. The necessity of earning more money gave me the thought of studying ichthyology—the science of fish—a subject which I felt had a wide practical application. I, therefore, undertook to get a knowledge of the sea and became proficient in the use of oars and sails. But I finally realized that the specialized work in which I wished to be engaged demanded a technical training and so I entered the university. The War interrupted my studies there and when I returned again to private life I was crippled. At first it seemed as though I should never regain my health, but within a year I was able to discard my crutches and, although still lame, go on a scientific expedition to the Amur.

Later I did receive a university diploma and was offered a steady position, but it was not long before the Revolution broke the normal course of my life and the institution where I worked was closed by the Bolsheviks. But I lost nothing in the Revolution, for like many others I had nothing to lose.

During the general disorganization which followed this upheaval in Russia, when hunger and cold had to be combatted not only for myself, but also for my wife and for the third and newest member of our family who required warmth and milk, I obtained several jobs, each of which in the "capitalistic" world would have been considered of high standing and would have enabled my family to live in comfort. But in the U.S.S.R. the only job that was allowing me a reasonable income was a course I was giving at the Agricultural Institute. This particular work I had sought out because it entitled me to a bottle of milk a day and sometimes a few beets and a little oats and mash which the professors of the Institute were allowed to have from the rations of the cattle which belonged to it.

In spite of the hunger and cold, I succeeded during that winter in finishing my thesis and receiving a degree. And my scholastic work having thus been terminated, I agreed to take part in an expedition to Lapland, an expedition organized by the "wealthy" Supreme Council of People's Economy. Before starting I tried to get one poud  (36 lbs.) of salt instead of the million paper roubles which were due me for the three months that the expedition was to last. This salt would have served my family as a means of exchange in the villages for potatoes and milk. My request was rejected and I was told that salt in such a "large quantity" was not available, but I nevertheless went on the expedition because it interested me.

The journey to our destination, a distance of 1,100 kilometers, was made in freezing weather in an unheated box car packed full of people and baggage and took fourteen days. Death among passengers in such cars was a usual occurrence. The conditions of our expedition were most difficult, but we still went on with our work with as much zeal and energy as we had given before the Revolution when we were never subjected to such trying situations. There was every reason why the Bolsheviks should have become convinced that the Russian intellectuals were working conscientiously and honestly. New discoveries of great importance and about which the Bolsheviks boast continually were made by Russian scientists under the most difficult conditions, but during the actual work of research not one of the Communist "party" men ever helped; they came forward only when and where it promised to be of advantage to their career.

When in 1921 Lenin declared a respite—the NEP (New Economic Policy)—life changed with fantastic rapidity. The country began to prosper. Food and clothing became more available. One could then buy wood for fuel as well as for repairing. Electric light service was resumed as well as street car and taxi services. Life was returning to the "bourgeois" aspect under the leadership of the Bolsheviks themselves. They came out with a new motto: "A Communist must be an industrialist and a trader."

What did the intellectuals and scientists gain in this change? Their general living conditions improved, but as compared to the advance in the standard of living of other classes of the population they were left far behind. The campaign of economy affected first and hardest all scientific and educational institutions. The funds appropriated for them were so miserly that any typist in a commercial and industrial enterprise was receiving more pay than professors and scientific experts. At the same time, due to continually advancing prices for rent, street-car and railway transportation and postage, as well as for everyday necessities, life for scientists not connected with any industrial organization was becoming exceedingly hard.

In spite of these material hardships Russian scientists continued to work as before. At this time, however, the Bolsheviks, having gained strength through the NEP, began an active persecution of any theoretical work which, according to their judgment, did not agree with the Marxist theories. I realized that my own scientific and theoretical work was at an end. I felt that I was up against an impassable wall. Life was hard. The career I had chosen for myself from the time of my youth, that career which I had stubbornly and persistently followed, could not go on. I must give up purely scientific work—for a time at least—and turn to something more practical.

Early in 1925, at the time when the NEP was particularly flourishing, I was offered the post of Director of Production and Research Work of the North State Fishing Trust, the State-owned industry which had been set up to deal with the fishing business of the region on the Arctic Ocean. I accepted this offer in the hope that it would give me an opportunity to return to research work. And after a time, indeed, I was  able to leave the production side and to organize in Murmansk a scientific biological and technological laboratory.

The North State Fishing Trust's work was carried on in that part of the Arctic Ocean which is called the Sea of Barents, the shores of which are for the most part Russian territory: the Murman coast of the Kola Peninsula, the Kanin Peninsula and the Lapland coast of the continent. Russian fisheries had existed here since the sixteenth century, but the conditions of life were so hard that only about five hundred families had settled on the Murman coast as colonists, with other fishermen going there only for the Bummer fishing season.

The Murman coast is exceptionally austere, its granite cliffs descending in steep steps and abrupt declines straight into the ocean. There is scarcely any vegetation; only those slopes sheltered from the wind are sparsely covered with grass and a few low-growing polar willows and birches. Elsewhere the only growth is moss and rock creepers. Patches of snow remain on the beach throughout the summer. The ocean, however, never freezes and at temperatures of fifty degrees or more below zero the black water and floating ice are covered by a dense white fog. In winter the sun does not rise above the horizon. The settlements of the "colonists" are hidden from the winds in deep inlets or built like birds' nests in the cliffs above the level of the tide which sometimes rises to a height of five meters. Some of these dwellings can be reached only by wooden ladders, one end resting on floating boats, the other reaching to the doorstep of the rain and wind-battered huts.

The colonists earned their living by fishing and they, as well as the men who came only for the summer fishing season, used the primitive methods of their ancestors three or four centuries ago—the same deckless, clumsy open rowboats, trawl-lines (long lines with several thousand hooks baited with small fish to attract the cod) , or the hand-line with its sinker, hook and metal bait-fish. Obviously with such equipment, fishing could take place only near shore and depended entirely on the weather and the approach of fish from the deeper waters.

Attempts to change to more modern methods and to go farther out into the open ocean had been made in pre-war times but they were unsuccessful because of insufficient capital. In the Barents Sea before the War only four Russian trawlers were at work.

After the Revolution and before the Reds came to Archangel, a fishing company had been formed by the industrialist Bezzubikoff with the participation of the Centrosouse  (Central Union). Twelve trawlers were procured from the government and remodeled for fishing purposes, but this company's activity was scarcely begun when it was stopped by the arrival of the Reds. These trawlers and their shore base near Archangel then became the foundation of the Soviet State fishery organization in the North.

In spite of the fact that they began working with a concern that was already organized, there were great difficulties during the first years of this State enterprise. The Murmansk and Archangel Soviets were in a state of nearly open warfare against each other, a situation which meant a great deal because of the then prevalent "power of local government." As the trawlers' base was in Archangel (a port that is frozen seven months of the year) , the entire concern was looked upon as belonging to Archangel and the Murmansk authorities would not allow the trawlers to enter their ports which were open the year around. Therefore the trawlers could work only five months in the year. No orders, threats or arguments from the "Centre" were of any avail. It was not until 1924 that the warring factions were brought together by the organization of a new concern, the North State Fishing Trust, of "All-Union importance," with both the Archangel and Murmansk Soviets as "shareholders" and with the trawling base transferred to the ice-free port of Murmansk.

Murmansk, the chief town of the province, had been founded in 1916 to serve as the terminus of the new, hastily erected railroad, built to bring to St. Petersburg military supplies furnished by the Allies. The town is on the Kola bay, sixty kilometers from the ocean, at a point where the bay narrows down to one and a half kilometers and rather resembles a wide river than an oceanic bay. Only the tide, which rises more than four meters, and the smell of salt water show that this is a part of the Arctic Ocean. High, rocky shores here bank in the bay and the town is built on a small and steep plateau. During the World War there was some construction here—landing places, repair shops, a temporary electric power station, a primitive system for bringing water down from a mountain lake above the town, and only the most indispensable buildings, built like barracks. There were no real houses in the town, only some so-called "trunks," dwellings made out of sheets of corrugated iron bent to form a half-cylinder, the base of which was boarded in. There were no streets or sidewalks, no horses or automobiles; in winter the Laplanders drove in on reindeer. Twice a week the mail came in by train. Winter lasted not less than eight months, more than two months of which were complete night.

The authorities of the town—members of the GPU, the executive committee and other indispensable Soviet organizations—were Communists, banished to this desolate spot as punishment for theft or drunkenness. And all their energies were spent in trying to be recalled.

Those of us who went to Murmansk in 1925, to take our several special parts in the organizing and carrying on of this new State industry, did so of our own volitions, for at that time there was no compulsory assignment of experts to such work, and we could all have found employment elsewhere. But the newness and the scope—the very challenge—of the enterprise, which was planned on an unprecedented scale, beckoned to us. This was to be the first great Russian trawling development. We, like the English and the Germans, would now go out into the open ocean. We would be laying the foundations of a tremendous industry.

From the very beginning of our work, the business began to develop with remarkable success. The experts of the North State Fishing Trust, by systematizing the data they were receiving, learned to know the Sea of Barents and its fish life as did none of the other scientific organizations working in that region.

We did not expect any praise or even recognition of our work—in Sovietland this is not the custom—but we could not fail to love it, in spite of the terrible conditions under which we had to live. To the yearly catch of the local fishermen, which remained at its former figure of about 9,000 tons, we added a rapidly increasing catch which in 1929 reached 40,000 tons. This result was attained not only by the addition of several new trawlers, but chiefly by basic improvements in the work—year-round fishing, the speeding up of each trawler's turnover and the improvement of fishing technique.

The methods of curing fish were also radically changed. Instead of stinking cod unfit to bring into the house, we produced white and clean fish, not inferior to that of Astrakhan. And for the first time, the Trust succeeded in delivering fresh sea fish to the Leningrad and Moscow markets and was at last even successful in exporting fish to the English market. Our success had not been equalled by any other fishing trust of the U.S.S.R.

The whole enterprise was reorganized and with it the town of Murmansk itself. A large and excellently equipped harbor was built; a huge reinforced concrete warehouse of 5,000 tons capacity with concrete tanks for salting fish; a three-story reinforced concrete refining factory for the manufacture of cod-liver oil; a by-product factory for the production of fodder flour out of fish waste all this in the course of four years. A refrigerating plant and a barrel factory were under way; a branch railroad was extended to the harbor; a water system installed for the use of the plant, a repair shop for ships and a temporary electric power station, since the city station was unable to give us as much electricity as we needed. Electric cranes were installed for unloading trawlers.

Murmansk began to grow upon the solid foundation of a developing industry. Houses put up by the North State Fishing Trust were located with a certain order and so formed the first real streets in the town. Its population was increasing. From a town of barely fifty families it grew about as follows: in 1926 it had 4,000 inhabitants; in 1927—7,000; in 1928—12,000; and in 1929—15,000.

The greatest difficulties encountered were in the building of or otherwise obtaining new ships. The limit of our dreams was to have seventeen new trawlers, as seventeen of our old ones, taken over from the navy and rebuilt, were going out of commission on account of their age. However, Russian factories were not building them. To order them abroad foreign exchange was necessary and to obtain the authorization for such expenditure was extremely difficult. Orders must be placed through the Commissariat of Trade, which did not enjoy a reputation for honesty, and a Communist who knew nothing about the trade had to be sent abroad for the drawing up of contracts with the various firms. That a Communist, finding himself in "rotten, demoralized" Europe, begins himself to get pleasantly demoralized is a well-known fact, and our Communist was no exception to this rule. However, our North State Fishing Trust succeeded during these five years in purchasing one trawler abroad and building four, so that together with the old ones we finally had a total of twenty-two units.

During these years the fishing industry throughout the U.S.S.R., like all the other Soviet industries, was required to plan production, and considering the hazards of our work, one can well understand that many difficulties might be encountered. To be able to foretell a year or more in advance just how much fish would be caught in a certain region, how much equipment would be necessary, as well as predetermining both the cost and the selling price of the finished product presented no small problem. The quota requirements were increased from year to year, but, in spite of the severity of the conditions under which our trawlers had to work and the difficult conditions of life in the Murmansk region, the North State Fishing Trust succeeded in fulfilling each year these plans. During these years of its development up to 1929 it was making a real profit, so exceptional an occurrence in the Soviet fishing industry that our Trust received the nickname of "White Crow."

Our success was due to a number of causes. One was the fact that the enterprise was a new one, well organized, applying new methods and striving all the time to improve its work. And no little credit was due to the small but highly efficient staff of non-party experts and the exceptionally fine contingent of sea captains—natural seamen, accustomed from childhood to the rugged conditions of Arctic navigation. With a few exceptions all of these men had worked for the State fishing industry in the North from its very foundation in 1920. Such a stable staff of employees was a rare exception in a Soviet enterprise, where the usual rate of turnover of employees was at least once a year. It was necessary to be a strong man to withstand the hardships of work under Arctic conditions and this work could retain only those who were truly loyal to it. In addition to these reasons, the change to year-round fishing, the finding of new fish banks, improvements in the loading and unloading of trawlers,—all gave us increasing production for several years in succession, so that we were able to keep pace with the ever-increasing planned requirements.

We clearly realized that such a happy state of things could not last forever and that a year would come when, because of senseless orders from above, we would not be able to make such increase in the catch as would be necessary to fulfill that year's plan.

Up to 1929 we had been left to work in peace, relatively speaking—as much so as is possible in the U.S.S.R. None of our experts had been either thrown into prison or executed by the Soviet Government. Then our Trust attracted the attention of the Government and this was the beginning of the failure and ruin of the whole business.