“Wrangel Island, Russia”

In December of 2016, I went on a work trip to Ireland with two representatives of a large Russian agri-holding to meet with reps from an Irish potato company. One of them, Alexander Dmitrievich, a stern man in his sixties, was on the board of directors. The other, Lyudmila Frolova, was a scientist whose specialty was genetics.

Their company dealt with lots of different areas to do with the food sector, including live cattle, hybrid research, crop rotation, but most of all, food ingredients. I had to organise the meetings and interpret between the importers and exporters. On this particular occasion, interpreting was a pain in the ass because, despite my asking them, the Russians didn’t give me any information whatsoever as to what they wished to discuss during the meetings. The topic of conversation turned out to be potato hybrids, various diseases etc. As a result, I had to stop several times to check the dictionary on my phone for certain words; this also meant that I would never again forget the Russian words for starch and potato blight.

The trip lasted two days and it was on the last evening, when we were sitting in armchairs of the lounge area at the Library Bar on Exchequer Street in Dublin City Centre, that Alexander Dmitrievich (after about three pints) opened up a bit and told us about his past. It became immediately clear that Lyudmila Frolova knew little about her boss, because as soon as he began to tell us a story about his life, she sat forward in her chair, listening intently, not noticing the bit of tomato ketchup on the corner of her mouth as she chewed on a burger.

‘You know, I served in the Soviet Army for twenty-seven years way out in the Far East,’ said Alexander Dmitrievich, amid the din of voices around us.

‘Really? Whereabouts?’ I asked.

‘You probably wouldn’t know most of the places, the army moved me around a lot. You’re a young man, you have time to travel and see the world. If you get a chance to go the Far East of Russia, go, the wilderness is special.’

‘It’s on my list of places, I hear Kamchatka is beautiful,’ I said. ‘What were you doing out there?’

‘I worked as a mechanic, but I can tell you that even though there were shortages during Soviet times, the one thing the Far East was not short of and that was food. And I mean the best kind, fresh seafood. You could get caviar, giant crabs, you name it. What you couldn’t find was vodka.’

I frowned.

‘But I thought vodka was one of the things you could get quite easily,’ I said.

‘Oh yes,’ said Alexander Dmitrievich. ‘In most places it was easy to come by, but not the Far East. One of the perks of being a mechanic was that they allocated me around twenty litres of pure alcohol every month. I was supposed to use it for my work, but I usually traded it on the black market and kept what I needed for jobs. I could get a kilo of caviar for half a litre of pure alcohol back then.’

‘But was that the kind you could drink, or the industrial kind?’ I asked.

‘You could drink that stuff, I never had complaints anyway,’ said Alexander Dmitrievich. ‘The thing is, nobody really cared out there. If you could come by alcohol, it was as good as having hard currency. I will never forget the size of the crabs we could get, you wouldn’t believe it. You know, the King Crabs, you could get them with a leg span nearly two metres wide!’

‘And you were in the same place for twenty-seven years?’ I asked.

‘No, not the same place. Like I said, I got moved around, but it was always in the Far East. Have you ever heard of Wrangel Island?’

‘No,’ said Lyudmila and I in unison.

‘It’s just to the north of the Bering Strait off the Chukchi Peninsula, inside the Arctic Circle. Well, they sent me there for three years and believe me, that is isolation. The island itself is about a hundred and fifty kilometres long and on one end there’s an army base and on the other there’s a village. Both groups kept pretty much to themselves. I remember the first day I got there, one of the guys came up to me and introduced himself. He’d been there two years already. Then he told me that he would take me hunting the following day. It was May already, so the winter was pretty much over.

‘He came to my bunk the next morning and I was already cleaning my assault rifle, getting it ready for the hunt. That is how green I was, because I knew nothing about hunting. “What the fuck are you doing?” he asked me. When I explained, he laughed and then told me to leave it behind. “That thing will blow a bird apart. We’ll be using shotguns instead.”

Note: I cannot remember if he said shotgun or hunting rifle.

‘Now when I say that the winter was over, it was still bloody cold, what with the windchill. My comrade told me to follow his lead and do as he did. What else could I do? We walked further and further out into the wilderness but I could not see how we were going to find any game out there. The land was barren tundra, you know? There wasn’t so much as a bush so I couldn’t see how we’d conceal ourselves. Eventually, we came to a stream and he walked straight out into it and began to walk downstream. I followed. We walked, and walked, and we walked. My boots were soaked through before long. The next thing, he raised his hand. “Stop. We have to crawl now.” He got down and began to crawl, keeping the gun above the water. I did the same. Keep in mind that the air temperature was only about one or two degrees, so you can imagine how cold the water was.

‘We crawled and a ridge rose up to our right. Further down, the stream veered to the left. My companion stopped and said “When I jump up, I’m going to aim into the air and you do the same. When I shoot, you shoot. Fire off both shells, got it?” I told him “okay”. He crawled closer to the bank then stopped and listened. We must have waited thirty seconds, when suddenly, he leapt up. I did so too, and I’ll never forget the sight over that ridge. Birds, as far as the eye could see, thousands, hundreds of thousands. They were water birds, geese and the like, but you couldn’t see the lake they were floating on because there was so many of them. The next thing, they rose up into the air and you wouldn’t believe the noise hundreds of thousands of birds make when they take off at the same time. It’s like the sound of several jet engines. They rose up and my comrade aimed and I did the same. We fired off four shells, but guess how many birds we got?’

‘I don’t know, ten?’

‘Forty-seven,’ said Alexander Dmitrievich.

‘God!’ said Lyudmila.

‘Aha, we couldn’t miss and the spray from the shells meant that we hit lots. We had enough meat for the entire base for a couple of days. Anyway, that was my first day on Wrangel Island.’