September 01, 2011

Lucky Murmansk

Murmansk was lucky. It is the place where one of the most remarkable novels of the Soviet era – Georgi Vladimov’s Three Minutes’ Silence – begins and ends. Its forlorn hero, who lives a feckless life along the shores of Kola Bay, after returning from a job at sea to solitude on land, sits in a train station café pondering the love he believes he has lost forever.

The station buffet opens at six; I occasionally used to go there before going on morning watch. The barmaid came out looking sleepy, her hair tied up in a grey scarf, and squeezed two glasses of coffee out of the urn. The coffee was hardly warm – or so it seemed to me, having come in from the freezing cold – and I drank it without bread or anything else, simply in order to chase away the sleep and have a bit of a think. Because in the evening we’d be meeting at the Arctic and there, of course, we’d have plenty to drink and everything would again take its usual course. In the meantime, though, it would be a good idea to try and understand what we live for and why we go to sea. And about those Scotsmen – why did we go and save them, when we seemed unable to save ourselves?….

Was it so important, though, how I organized my future? Because Klavka wouldn’t be with me, and I didn’t want any other woman in my life – ever. And anyway, one thought wouldn’t give me any peace: why were we all such strangers to each other, why were we always each other’s enemies? No doubt this is to someone’s advantage; sad to say, we are all simply blind and we can’t see where it’s taking us. What disasters we need to bring us to our senses, for us to recognize our fellow-men as our brothers! But we are good people, that’s what we have to understand – I couldn’t bear to think we were worthless – yet we put up with pigs; like sheep, we obey people who are stupider than we are, and we torment each other for no reason… And so it will be – until we learn to think of our own neighbor. But not to think about how to stop him from getting one up on us, or how to outflank him: no, that way none of us will ever save ourselves. What’s more, life will never set itself to rights on its own. We, each of us, if only for three minutes a day, ought to shut up and listen out to hear if someone’s in trouble, because that means you’re in trouble too! – in the way that all Marconis at sea observe radio silence and listen out, in the way that we get concerned about some distant people on the other side of the Earth… Or is all that just useless day-dreaming? Yet it’s not much – just three minutes! And then, you see, you gradually turn into a human being…

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