Illustration: Jia Sung.

It is said that when the car ferry Skagerak, which sailed daily between Kristiansand and Hirtshals, sank and the passengers had to abandon the lounges, board the boats, push out uncertainly onto the open, rather tempestuous sea, one of the boats was hacked up by a Russian trawler.

Over the years, one has read in the newspapers from time to time about Russian trawlers that travel just outside our fishing borders. Our country stretches longitudinally and is shrouded by mist in the fall; at times it seems harsh, weather-beaten, and bleak. And further out at sea, Russian trawlers steal past; the news stories have left their impression on me of noiseless gliding, that these are ghost ships that inspect our coasts with their long, subterranean tows. On the radar: intense yellow lights and an arrow that floats across a round screen. And all the while in that tiny room, where people sit bent over the dial: a ticking noise and a suppressed hum emitted from wires and cables.

From a headline: Who is watching our coast? A photo of a trawler screams from every kiosk, tobacco shop, and newsstand.

It is said that when they came on board, none of the officers could understand English.

Even the tow that the trawler lugs behind it resembles a creature with a scissored jaw sniffing along the bottom of the ocean. When it is lugged up, millions of herring writhe, silvery, glistening. I have often had fish scales on my fingers; they smell of primitive life but are hard to scrub off.

It is said that when those who were pulled aboard came to their senses, they attempted to open some line of communication with the Russians. However they were unable to make themselves understood. They were treated with deference, but it is a heavy thing to meet those coming, so to speak, from the other side. It is said they became anxious because the trawler did not turn inland but continued winding along the coast as though in search.   

There is something about the Russians’ facial expressions that make them foreign to us. You notice the same thing with the Finnish, though it’s more pronounced in the Russians. Their faces are broader than ours, their cheekbones more pronounced, and they are more delicate in stature. They are small men with prominent cheekbones who frequently wear bearskin hats.

They had been packed in together, or else they had huddled together, in a tiny compartment below deck. After hours passed without anything happening, a rumor began to spread that the trawler was traveling along the coast instead of heading inland because the captain was awaiting word from Moscow. It is said that when the word Moscow was mentioned, a feeling of unease spread across the group. Moscow! I have seen the Moscow Express train at station; it has blocky green cars and the words Moscow-Oslo are scrawled on its signs. One of these cars was once cobbled to the daily train from Gothenburg-Oslo. I walked through it and sniffed the foreign aroma of mandarins and spices. The corridor floors were covered in dark red, soft carpets so that we were able to proceed without a sound. One of us said: Simply the act of walking through an unfamiliar train car is enough to make us feel we’re no longer safe. Perhaps he said “not at home anymore,” instead of “no longer safe.”

One of those rescued went up on deck. He saw the back of one of the crew members. The man turned and looked at him. His face was unfathomable. The captain was nowhere to be seen. Rumor has it he was sitting up at the telegraph machine awaiting a wireless communication from Moscow. Men sat in the Kremlin discussing their case. The Kremlin. Which is the color of a large beast’s back—for example a gray elephant. Surrounded by a twenty-meter-high and two-kilometer-long wall with five gates and eighteen towers. Out of which rarely come safe directives. Only dark communications. Each day, black limousines wait outside those five gates, the gates open and the cars vanish as though into a shaft or through the gate of the mountain, like we read about in the fairytales. Behind the walls: churches, cloisters, castles that have been transformed into government offices and museums. Kremlin cupolas. Like enormous golden onions. Almost always buried in November mist. One can sense them as a massive wall behind the fog. Now and then, it happens suddenly, the fog splits and turns the cupolas red. A fascinating sight. But also frightening because everything becomes so abruptly pronounced. Within the Kremlin there are meetings at all times, both inside the mist and in the transformed sunshine. Behind a twenty-meter-high wall that is well guarded.

To be packed in together in a compartment below deck is like being held captive on the bottom of the ocean. Faces take on a different color then, and all of the noises, all of the words, reach one in a different manner than they tend to do in daylight. Everything becomes different. One waited tensely to see a pair of legs appear slowly on the stairs. One hoped for the unfathomable face of a Russian to come.

How many Russian trawlers glide along our coastline? If you look at a map, Russia is a vast country. I’ve often almost imagined it rising up and throwing its entire left side over the rest of Europe, swallowing it the way a bear swallows a mouse or some other forest animal. The Russian bear. Cartoons are always portraying the Russian as a lumbering bear. Up on deck the sea pushed in toward land, behind the boat the scissor-jawed creature lugged out of sight on the ocean’s bottom. The ocean’s silver in large bowls (which no one saw).

The hordes loved storming Europe from the east. On horseback: Attila, Genghis Kahn. Brutal hordes, small men who raped, laughed viciously, burned, plundered, murdered. The sun rises in the east. The entire city of Murmansk is one enormous lumberyard. I picture the white frosted planks and can sense ice on my teeth when I bite into the planks. Siberia. Tundra. Steppe. The endless steppe. Blue-swollen. Exile in Siberia. In a children’s book I saw drawings of prisoners laboring in coal mines. They had heavy chains around their legs.

It is said that the mood was quite dampened. Most likely they were freezing. A trawler is a relatively small boat. The ocean is big and the trawler bobs on top. On such an October night it is blueish-gray. They were locked in (or: they felt that they had been locked in) a tiny compartment below deck on the small trawler. Waiting for someone to appear on the stairs. Now and then one of them would go up but returned empty-handed.

Above them, the arrow on the radar screen. Above them, Russian men bent over the radar that revealed our yellow coast and our yellow borderline. No message from the telegraph operator’s machine. The message would come in the form of a sign, which he would then write down. Impossible for us to understand. The Russian alphabet is comprised of foreign signs that only foreign men can interpret. Moscow. It is a heavy word, I think, like gray rock, or hard skin. Russia, land of churches and cloisters. Where they flogged themselves in naked cellars and called out for their savior in an incomprehensible tongue and without music. Holy Russia. Ivan the Terrible, murdered in a cloister, in front of an altar. Icons, flickering candles. Outside, the winter gloaming, the winter storm and the endless steppe. But across the steppe, troikas of men lashing violently with their whips in a halfway-upright stance. It is said that those who were pulled aboard did not speak much, they kept quietly to themselves, keenly attune to every sound.

The visibility that night was poor and if someone on land had directed a telescope out toward the Russian trawler (purely by coincidence and with a very sharp lens), they would have spotted it. Some insist that the purpose of a Russian trawler is espionage. In the winter, the Russian seas are covered in ice and the crack of breakers is more than likely among the first noises experienced by every Russian child. Up on deck the crew worked without stopping but none of those clustered below could say to what aim. Through the air, over the Finnish forests, the Swedish valleys, and the Norwegian mountain ranges, any moment a sign might come from the Kremlin. In the Kremlin: Josef Stalin somewhere or other, visible or invisible. The enigmatic man who should have been a priest, the Georgian who smiled and slaughtered. The Moscow Trials, brainwashing. Consciousness that no longer functioned as it should. Russia has always lain hidden in fog.  Unspeaking men have always suddenly appeared among our own without quite being able to explain themselves. Among history book images, all of Russian history has taken place on days of frost with wind that howls across the steppe. Moscow, the impregnable city. Where men live who disappear when you catch a glimpse of them and who burn their houses and scream, and suddenly they are upon you at night the way they were upon Hitler’s troops, Napoleon’s troops, on their retreat across scorched landscapes. Dead and razed cities, scorched granaries. On a sign plate at Stalin’s grave: six impregnable faces around Stalin’s coffin, erect bodies, and Malenkov, who looked like a fish, wearing clothes that are much too large.

It is said that those present felt like time stood still. Below deck one could clearly hear the chugging of the motor (it was apparently located in the neighboring compartment). At one point it stopped. One of them went up on deck and saw them tossing the echo sounder overboard. This instrument is in fact used to measure the time that passes between the moment a signal departs the vessel and the moment its echo returns from the bottom of the ocean. But also to register the shoals of fish that are present between the vessel and the bottom of the ocean. The man who saw this returned to the others and told them that the echo sounder had been tossed overboard. There is not much space on the trawler and it may seem like the vessel has more nooks and crannies than it actually does. Moscow was no longer mentioned. They spoke of how lucky they were to have been rescued (it was only later that they expressed their fear, after they were back on land). It is said that all of the pipes, all of the wires, took on the form of telephone cables. Internally, several of those rescued were mute. One got ahold of an officer in the corridor between the cabins and galley and tried talking to him in German and English with little success. He tried gesturing that they wanted to go ashore, but the officer merely smiled. Moscow. Ivan the Terrible. The October Revolution. Wild, ravished wolves across the steppe. Blood. Attempted escape. Siberia. Lenin. Beria shot. Secretive leaders annihilating each other. Dostoevsky. Rasputin. Suffering. Atonement. Cross. Bare-legged in the snow outside of cloisters. Patriarchy. Duels. The Kremlin’s twenty-meter-high walls behind which decisions are made. Someone has driven themselves mad inside of a cloister, doors open themselves and they flee, wailing and half naked, out into the snow.

In an oft-reoccurring nightmare, I am lying on a divan reading in the apartment where I grew up. Suddenly a lightbulb swells and swallows the light. The glow of the filament is the only source of light and someone tells me I will have to pull the plug. At the same time, I read in a newspaper that I am going to take a trip to Moscow. Why did the American, William Mott, feel it necessary to smuggle himself into Russian territory, knowing the risks? And why did he commit suicide when he was packed in together with an unknown number of Russians inside a train wagon? As we discussed this matter, someone I knew said this: It is said that he was tormented. I noticed their choice of words and said that normally we tend to say that people are tortured. He replied: It took place in Russia and therefore he was tormented. Holy Russia. The Russian bear. Blood flowing out across the steppe. I hear the screams from the concentration camps, from inland on the tundra.

Once or twice the trawler would scoop. Some of those rescued observed it happening. Glimmers of silver, writhing silver. In an encyclopedia, I have studied a picture of a herring. The thing that strikes me is that its head, in contrast to most other fish, is devoid of malice. And yet I still find its head repugnant. It is said that due to the alleged conversations between Moscow and the trawler, most passengers found the others to be repugnant and many of them desired nothing more than to be alone just now.

There are many who wonder what the Russian trawlers are doing beyond our coastline. They have sometimes been discovered all the way up at shore. When they are discovered, they vanish and are rarely or never caught. One often cannot even be certain whether it is Russian trawlers that one sees. As though they did not exist. I remember the time the Russian speed skaters set superhuman time records in Alma-Ata. There were few who could truly believe it, and if they did believe it, they were at least able to act as though they almost did not exist. Only, every now and then, there’s an alarming time record in the newspapers. But one February day they came to Helsingfors. A photo in the newspaper that has etched itself onto one’s mind: five Russian speed skaters in black tracksuits beneath floodlights. The image was taciturn, around them a gleaming ice surface; it was like peering down at something taking place at the bottom of the ocean. Across their chests these strange signs that I had never seen before: C C C P.

Now and then one could hear that the Russians were onboard and that they were watching over them. But all of their movements, it is said, were gliding movements which felt, it is said, like being watched over by clouds. One of those rescued got caught on a sharp object on his way out of the loo. He screamed savagely and the scream frightened everyone. But no one did anything.

Due to the poor visibility, none of those rescued were able to orient themselves. At some point or other, the trawler must have changed course and headed toward land. They were let ashore at Egersund. They walked up the stairs and came out on deck, they walked across the deck and down the gangplank. They were met by newspaper photographers. They smiled weakly. Some of them turned away. Standing at the railing of the trawler, which seemed astoundingly tall and astoundingly dark, were small men with broad faces who stared unfathomably in toward land, it is said.

Dag Solstad

Dag Solstad is one of the most prominent contemporary authors in Norway. Consistently met with critical acclaim, his work has frequently been nominated for awards. He is the only author to have received the Norwegian Literary Critics' Award three times. All three of his novels available in English have been listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This story, "Moscow," is from his early short story collection Svingstol from 1967.

Becky L. Crook

Becky L. Crook is a writer and literary translator. In 2010, she founded SAND, an English literary journal, in Berlin. She led creative writing workshops in the Netherlands for two years before returning to the US. Between translation projects, she recently finished writing her own first novel. She lives with her family on an island near Seattle.

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