Fishing for Crab in Arctic Russia by Adam Butler
It works like this:
During crab season, October until March, boats go out every day (bearing in mind that ‘day’, during many of these months, is a fairly arbitrary concept up here) stacked with half-cube cages, roughly one man wide by one man long by one four-year-old high. The cages, though – at least on board the boats that we’re interested in here – are often home-made, using processes that don’t lend themselves to uniformity, with the result that these stacks are haphazard and hazardous. [private]The majority of these boats could easily be regarded as exemplary embodiments of the phrase ‘seen better days’ – were it not for the inherent difficulties of the whole ‘day’ thing, up here. ‘Seen better twenty-four-hour periods’ just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, especially in Russian. The boats have names like ‘Melkart’, ‘Matrioska’, ‘Maroanjoca’, ‘Maxim’, ‘Murman-2’. Most of them used to fish for cod, back in the halcyon twenty-four-hour periods when cod from Murmansk fed the whole of Russia.
The thing is, it’s almost impossible to catch cod round here any more: you study the maps, tidal charts, weather, migratory records, the vagaries of the North Atlantic Drift (that global conveyor belt that keeps Murmansk ice-free all year round), maybe even the grounds at the bottom of your coffee cup. All of this to try and figure out where the cod will be – you have to be a codfish, is what the old-timers say, empathise with the fish, put yourself in their fins. Then after all the planning, the calculations, the divination, the role playing, you head up the Tupoma River, blithely ignoring on the left the hulking great Lenin (glorious relic of 1959! the world’s very first nuclear icebreaker! shortly thereafter site of the world’s very first floating nuclear reactor meltdown!) shielding your eyes also from out-of-bounds Severomorsk on the right, with its sad relics of Soviet history, the nuclear submarines lined up grey and rusting like some ghastly whale cancer ward.
Eyes forward, you chug across the Murmansk Bay and out into the Barents Sea, home in on your chosen coordinates, carefully set your nets; wait; carefully haul them in again … and all you end up with is a boatful of giant crabs, flapping about like malfunctioning robotic insects, their huge legs twisted clumsily around the sodden nylon lacework. Maybe a cod or two, if you’re lucky. And you look this horde of – frankly – ugly fuckers, flat on their backs with their legs waving in the air like a rebenok after his first bottle of vodka, or working their way sideways – sideways, for fuck’s sake – across your deck, and you start thinking, maybe it really was better in the old days, when fishing was fishing and a tower block was a tower block and everything happened five years at a time.
So what comes next is obvious: you think, how about I just retool this boat, turn the nets into cages, say dasvidania to the cod and privet to crabs? Because how hard can that be? After all, catching crabs out here is about as easy as falling off the proverbial churban.
You do some research, realise that those stupid ugly crab are worth about five times more, per kilo, than codfish, and suddenly they don’t look so stupid or ugly any more, and you start telling everyone down at the Krechet, knocking back the vodka in your usual seat, that sideways is the new way forward. In fact you’re so proud of this line that you announce it at regular intervals, being too busy laughing at your own astonishing wit to notice the large quantity of eye-rolling that starts to accompany your increasingly loud pronouncements.
But who cares? Because pretty soon (once you’ve finished turning your nets into cages, and fixed that leak in your crane’s hydraulics, and rebuilt the hold so that you can fill it with your catch, and got yourself a new crew) pretty soon you’re going to be catching tons of crab at a time, and basically printing your own rublya.
Eventually, you’re ready. The crew, the crane, the cages, the hold – everything’s finished. Tomorrow’s the day. It’ll be tough, of course, you’re ready for that, you’ll have to wing it at first while you figure out how to do things … but how hard can it be? So you figure you’ll just nip down to the Krechet for one round, maybe two, tops, and you slide into your usual seat under the photo of the starfish with a look on your face that’s half excited grin, half trepid grimace.
You order your first Dovgan, and it tastes good. It tastes of possibility, of future, of money – tastes like your own personal uskoreniye. You savour it on the back of your tongue, the slight burn – it’s almost like you’re tasting it again for the first time – then you take a moment to look at the smeared empty glass, and the hand it’s in, all scratched up from converting your nets, and just as you’re putting the glass down and deciding that two, definitely, will be your limit tonight, someone you only vaguely recognise, maybe a little smarter dressed than your average Krechet local, sidles up to you and says, “So what’s your quota?”
How could you not have thought of quotas? Just because the whole sea is crawling with crabs, just because you could catch them with a moth-eaten bridal veil if you wanted to – it doesn’t mean they’ll actually let you. Everything here has a quota.
He laughs, this unusually dapper stranger, an irradiated x-ray cackle that goes straight through you. Then he passes you a business card and walks out, laughter still audible even after he’s halfway down the snowlocked street.
For a few seconds you stare at the still-vibrating door, then look down at the card. Some company or other (no doubt under the name of a brother or a sister of someone on the FGU) and their bank details. The procedure is simple and – you have been led to believe – time-honoured; this is just how capitalism works. A generous donation to this company’s coffers will cause a sudden and spontaneous increase in your chances of receiving an equally generous quota. One gift creates another.
Except that if you actually had any money to generously donate, you wouldn’t’ve set out on this path in the first place, would you?
So there’s no first outing tomorrow, or the tomorrow after that. The retooled boat languishes, the new crew get antsy, and you spend most of your days in the Krechet counting your kopeks. A week passes. You try your uncle, thinking maybe he can spot you enough to start the reciprocation ball rolling – but of course he’s too busy counting out his kopeks at the bar of the Dnem i Notchyu across town.
Another week passes, and eventually you think, chort poberi, are you gonna just waste the rest of your life like this? And you get your crew together, hit them with your best motivational rhetoric, and go out anyway, quota or no quota. You straightaway catch a holdful of snapping giant crabs. It’s all new, haphazard – the crabs are science fiction, the crew’s a slapstick chorus line – but it’s so easy. Once you get back to Murmansk, the crew are not so impressed at being paid in crab, which is the only thing you can do since you’re not allowed to actually sell any of them. But at least you’ve done a day’s work. And just to prove it wasn’t beginner’s luck, the next day you go out and you do it again.
That night, after your second successful outing, another stranger sidles up to you, also from the upper reaches of the Krechet’s sartorial bell curve. Except that this one doesn’t laugh at you. Instead he buys you a vodka, and then leaves in silence. And what he slips you isn’t a business card, it’s a map. On the map is a star. It marks a point on Kildin Island, at the mouth of the Murmansk Bay.
So the next day, you go out, you fill your hold with crab. At one point, you come out of the captain’s cabin as the crew are busy hauling onboard a cage full of crab and flinging them singly into the water-filled hold below. Several of the animals are doing their lateral thing across the icy deck, some primal instinct pushing them into making final, doomed, sideways bids for freedom. You bend over, pick up one that is scuttling at your feet. After staring at it for a few seconds, imagining that you can perhaps open up a kind of communication channel – ask it what it’s really like to be a crab, compare notes on the stringencies of communal living – you realise it has a purple streak above its face that is exactly like the nevus flammeus on the forehead of the final Soviet President. You show the crew, christen it ‘Mikhail’. There is laughter. Mikhail is the ship’s new mascot.
Once the hold is full, you chug on down to the starmarked point and – ne slabo! – it’s a deserted military base, complete with concrete ramparts, tangled rusting skeletons of what might have once been missile launchers. The whole thing’s been converted into a mini port and processing plant. Rickety and home-made, admittedly, but then so’s your boat – you fit right in.
The unloading’s all manual, everyone setting to in silence, and once it’s over a guy with a thick neck and a fistful of tattooed rings counts out a bundle of rublya, then bares blackened teeth in an expression located at some inscrutable coordinate between a smile and a sneer, and hands over half of it. Also in silence. You are, you immediately understand, not welcome to hang around. Casting off, you realise that Mikhail is gone – he has been unloaded with the rest of the catch.
Back in Murmansk, though, there is no silence. Even only half of that bundle was three times what you were making back in the dark days of cod, and for you and your crew this is the first money you’ve seen for weeks. Most of it disappears immediately in the Krechet, transmuted, like backwards alchemy, to a splurge of sound and frenzy – but who cares, right? Because tomorrow morning you’ll get up and do the same thing again (albeit with an icebreaker in your head) and the next day, and the next …
The black-toothed man, meanwhile, takes a few moments’ pleasure in cooking your crab alive, transports them to Severomorsk – covering his tracks with a combination of misdirection and bribery – and sells them on to another man in a transaction that is also silent, and that also involves the handing-over of only half a wad of grimy notes—1000 rubley, a shtúka. From Severomorsk, the crab are taken to Murmansk by one of several satellite-photo-visaged van drivers, and then on to an underground central freezing plant, and are then loaded onto a Petersburg-bound train in a truck that claims it contains scrap metal (the question of why a scrap metal truck needs to be covered and supplied with electricity is, as is very clear to your average train inspector, best left unasked).
Up until this point, the crab have been circulating among the outer tendrils of the Tambovskaya prestupnaya gruppirovka – the Tambov gang – one of the largest and most powerful in the whole of Russia. The boss has one arm, shards of bullet in his heart, is a devout Christian. He denies being the gang’s boss, also denies having ever had connections with Putin. He certainly neither knows nor cares about your crab, which – under his unconcerned auspices – will now fly across the Russian eighth of the planet and into the warm embrace of the Japanese yakuza. Payment will not be made in half wads of yen, but in kind: fake cigarettes from North Korea, perhaps, or Afghan heroin, or some promissory note of future protection. The whole thing’s much like the North Atlantic Drift, just another global conveyor belt – and you are working at its outermost limits.
Mikhail ends up on the plates of diners at a restaurant on Takeshita Street in Tokyo’s Harajuku district. Various parts of him are eaten by: a young politician dining out on his first ever lobbyist backhander; an ageing television presenter who has just discovered that he is being replaced by a teenage girl; a public relations executive from a leading brand of toothpaste who spends the meal trying to work out whether his wife, seated opposite him, is having an affair with her yoga instructor; a journalist who is celebrating the fact that he finally finished, this afternoon, a long piece on connections between Russian and Japanese crime groups (it will never be published); a sportswear model who decides, over the course of a meal spent watching through the window two men selling fake Louis Vuitton handbags, to quit his job and go and study law at Todai University.
Back in Murmansk, you’re fully aware of the fact that you’re now supplying the mafiya – but it’s not as if it makes much difference either way, whether you work with the mafiya or the state, since they’re both as corrupt as each other, right? They’re jammed up against each other in a loggerheaded symbiosis that sometimes feels like it has the whole coast-to-coast enormity that is Russia in its thrall, a culture jam that ensures no-one can ever really move forwards. Only – ho-ho! – sideways.
And at least the mafiya looks after its own. Not like the state, which in the last fifteen years has given up even pretending that it has anyone’s best interest at heart other than its own. If, indeed, it actually has a heart, which seems unlikely.
There was a time, when you were young, when you really believed what you were told: that the rest of the world was rotten, decadent, doomed to be swept away under the rug of history; that only plucky Russia and its loyal satellites (and you didn’t need reminding of the glories of Sputnik) were engaged in the serious task of building, brick by five-year brick, the palace that would house the future of humanity.
But then when it fell apart, this impossible palace, the people nearest the centre of the ruins grabbed as much of the rubble as possible, hoarding the pieces for themselves, freed at long last from the necessity of maintaining the pretence that they ever actually believed the thing could stand up on its own.
How many of you – you demand from your seat beneath the starfish photograph, the Krechet’s very own rhetorician here – how many of you still feel like there’s an edifice underneath you, supporting you? A roof above you, protecting you? Like you are a part of anything larger than yourselves any more? Larger than the daily struggle for food, for shelter, for a hurried shivering fuck in a tower block doorway? Who, in short, you ask, has got your back?
You are, of course, hopelessly naive.
When the morning comes – let’s say it’s the first morning of the year, why not? sometime in February, a morning so embarrassed at its own inadequacies it turns immediately into an evening – and you are found face down in the water, bloated from the time spent there, a single bullet hole in your forehead because you maybe said the wrong thing to the wrong person, or you maybe asked one time too often when they were planning to start giving you the other half of that bundle of notes – when it happens, no-one is surprised. They just roll their eyes, as usual, make some remarks about how they didn’t even care enough about you to cut off your fingertips, pull out your teeth. That’s how much you mattered to them, they mutter, as another gleam-eyed kopek-counter slides into your seat beneath the starfish photo.[/private]
Adam Butler lives in Berlin. As a musician he has released five albums of experimental crunk showtunes under the pseudonym "Vert", and has performed throughout Europe, the US and Asia—including, yes, Murmansk. This, his first published story, is an extract from a novel in progress, provisionally entitled *.