YURI AND THE KING CRAB
Lavery's first book of short stories, Very Good Butter,
2000), was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize. His most
recent collection, You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off (ECW)
was published in 2004. John resides in the Gatineau region of
the glass footbridge, the golden domes and burly, whimsical
palaces of central Moscow, the newish Moscow, enterprising and
photogenic, range the suburbs: endless plains of low-rent apartment
buildings that look, with their long rows of small windows,
like the hulls of junked ocean liners, sinking into the knee-high
grass that grows unhurriedly now in the disintegrating pavement.
on the seventh floor of one such apartment live the Orlovs,
Yuri and Nina. Of indeterminate age. Fairly, or unfairly, old.
Yuri is sitting in his armchair. His hair is as white as his
shirt, remarkably vigorous, brought in from out of doors, perhaps,
and arranged on his head by a brash, energetic bird with a still-wet
doctorate in nest engineering. His eyes no longer seem to be
much interested in focusing on any but the closest objects.
They are small, moist eyes, as though bathed in vodka. And occasionally,
when Yuri blinks, a droplet of the vodka squeezes itself out
and clings to his cheek, uncertain where to go from there.
is standing, her sweater bulky, close-fitting. Her chinless,
spherical head sports two or three very Russian cysts. Her lips
protrude, the bottom one is curled under into a fleshy roll.
She is raging against the new regime. Not necessarily because
it is corrupt. What Russian government is not? Not necessarily
even because it is bankrolling nightclubs and hotels in Vienna.
But because it has forgotten her husband.
Orlov, she insists, has made an outstanding contribution to
you, immediately, want this to be true. For perched on a tea
table, there is a framed, black-and-white photo, a soft-focus
portrait of a young couple, the woman resting her head on the
man’s shoulder. It is a remarkable portrait, moving even.
Not because of the photography, which is professional and banal.
Because of the couple. The woman is striking, genuinely beautiful,
the man evocatively handsome.
Orlovs? Is it possible?
the Orlovs. For once the ravages of time seem not so much cruel,
as beside the point.
want such a couple to have been, to be, exceptional.
Oslo. Early evening. A knot of people have gathered outside
an electronics store. They are watching the television in the
store window, watching, that is, a report about four individuals,
two men and two women. Movie stars perhaps, or musicians, attractive
people. They are being helped into snowmobile outfits. A cameraman
is buzzing around, filming them from every possible angle. There
is animation, laughter. Whenever the four people move their
lips, subtitles appear. They strap on helmets, get onto snowmobiles
behind drivers, and set off over an impressively empty expanse
of snow, the cameraman snowmobiling after them in cold pursuit.
commercial break follows. “The French, the French,”
says one of the on-lookers, shaking his head, not requiring
the sound or the subtitles to know what the report is about.
“They fly all the way up to Kirkenes, go for a four-hour
snowmobile ride, and then take to the sea. Just to eat dinner.”
four people reappear on the TV screen. They are wearing hats
now, lined richly with fur, and they are holding tightly onto
the rail of a fishing boat. The cameraman is there too, busy
filming the boat’s crew as it works to haul out of the
sea a giant trap dripping torrents of water. The trap lurches
sideways and deposits its wriggling load of long-legged crabs
onto the deck. The four French people applaud excitedly.
you imagine,” says the on-looker, “what this trip
is costing them?”
says another caustically, “the Department of Tourism is
in all probability. In return for the right to film their trip
and get more French people to come.”
There is a makeshift table on the deck of the boat. Wine bottles,
glasses, bread. The cameraman is filming one of the women as
she holds up an enormous crab, pink and steaming, freshly cooked.
She has the extremity of a leg in each hand, she stretches her
hands as far apart as possible, rolls her eyes in delighted
astonishment, unable to extend the crab to its full length.
of the men takes the crab and slams it against the gunwale.
A leg breaks off. There is cheering, laughter. The cameraman,
in his eagerness, jostles the television cameraman. The image
leaps. The laughter turns to hilarity. The feast begins, the
knot of people breaks up. The on-lookers separate quickly, silently.
Nina has a cardboard box in her arms. She puts the box down
on the tea table, nudging aside the framed photo, and begins
rummaging. The box is stuffed with memorabilia, with papers
and clippings, diplomas, letters from colleagues, publishers
and scientific institutions. There are any number of black-and-white
photographs, among them a series of stills from a film of some
sort showing winter train yards swirling in smoke, the featheriness
of the sparse snow giving an impression of intense cold. Short-necked
cranes are loading cargo into innumerable, stubby cars.
says Nina, still rummaging. “Ah!” She pulls out
a paper triumphantly. It is a formal certificate, printed on
stiff paper. “Dear Professor Orlov,” she reads,
“Very dear Professor Orlov,” correcting
her translation with ironic pompousness, “the Russian
Committee of Fishing would like to thank you for your invaluable
and devoted work concerning the transport and acclimatation
of the Kamchatka crabs.” She holds the paper as though
about to drop it into the wash, her forced, genteel smile revealing
her spaced and sensuous teeth, as well as her anger. “Forty
years ago they gave this. And since? Nothing. Silence. They
should be ashamed!”
scolds Yuri gently, “my publications are still being consulted.
That is what matters. Official recognition...” He brushes
away official recognition with a discreet sweep of his hand,
smiles, grateful for his wife’s pointed outrage that affords
him a solid base on which to seat his scientific detachment.
Sørfjord. Northern Norway. The water is metallic
and very calm, the sunlight transparent. A solitary man is fishing
lumpfish close in to the shore where patches of snow still lie
in the hollows.
lumpfish is an ugly beast, a slimy, underinflated bladder with
gill slits. Considered inedible by the majority of mankind.
The roe, on the other hand, is highly esteemed.
this fisherman can dig the roe out of three hundred lumpfish
a day during the season, he will be able to live simply, but
stands in his well-maintained boat, one foot on the gunwale,
and begins to haul up his gillnet, hand over hand. He brings
in a lumpfish or two, flips them out into the bottom of his
boat. Then he hauls up a large crab. He does not have a permit
to fish crab. He disentangles the crab, not without difficulty,
and throws it back. He brings in another crab, decides to leave
it, keeps hauling. Another crab, and another, more and more.
He begins to strain with the weight of them. Crabs, nothing
but crabs, their ungainly legs tangled up with each other as
much as with the net. It is all the fisherman can do now to
inch his net out of the water, and yet half of it is still below
the surface. He stops hauling, drops his chin to his chest,
his back taut, his arms trembling. And then he heaves the entire
net, crabs and all, back into the fjord.
crab meat is one of the most appreciated, and expensive, products
the sea has to offer, and there are hundreds of king crabs in
his net, hundreds.
he does not have a permit to fish crab.
Yuri takes on the look of a man deciding where best to begin
his story. The pixels in his eyes fire as images flit through
his mind. He looks up.
Barents Sea, yes?”
you know the Barents Sea, a subdivision of the Arctic Ocean,
junkyard for the hapless Northern Fleet’s rusting nuclear
submarines, watery grave for the K-159 and the Kursk.
And for the more than a hundred submariners who manned them.
Barents Sea is very rich biologically.”
You were perhaps not entirely aware of this.
is not so cold. Because of the North Atlantic current. The port
of Murmansk is even without ice all winter. In Canada, Murmansk
would be in the middle of Baffin Island. Also, in the Barents
Sea, when the ice melts, the fresh water lies on the surface
and that is where the phytoplankton grow which feed the zooplankton
and the krill, which then feed the cod, the capelin and the
whales. Very rich. All of Russia eats cod from the Barents Sea.
at the other end, in the east, at the start of the 20th century,
there were the Kamchatka crabs. Paralithodes camchatica.”
The Latin words tumble nostalgically over Yuri’s lips.
“A very important fishery, many thousands of tons. But
not for feeding Russians. For selling to the Japanese. The Kamchatka
crabs could not be transported across Siberia.”
were many failures,” interrupts Nina vigorously. “Many
attempts and many failures. Only Yuri succeeded.”
the 20th century was a time of giants, of vast confidence, yes?
Big men with big muscles, yes? In Russia, in Germany, in America,
everywhere. Huge wars, huge bombs, nuclear reactors everywhere.
We are strong, we are Russian. We can build the high dam on
the Nile River. We can put Gagarin into space. We will bring
the Kamchatka crabs to the Barents Sea. We will because we want
to. And because we want to, we can. Hah! Only Yuri succeeded.”
Ghadziyevo, Kola Peninsula, northwestern extremity of Russia,
where the treeless shore and the sea appear to be solid and
liquid forms of the same leaden matter. The men wear heavy,
faded sweaters, and toques perched on the very backs of their
heads. Limp cigarettes cling to their weathered lips and bob
as they talk.
they talk. Of when the Northern Fleet subsidized every village,
and had an active base in every bay and inlet, along the entire
coast between Murmansk and the Norwegian border. Of Admiral
Oleg Yerofeyev, former Commander-in-Chief, who may or may not
have been supplementing his income by selling the silver from
stolen silver-zinc torpedo batteries, but who definitely burst
into a substation of the regional power company, Kolenergo,
a private company, followed by a brace of heavily armed troops,
and compelled the duty engineer to restore the electric current
to the Ghadziyevo Naval Base, which current had been turned
off because the Northern Fleet’s account with Kolenergo
showed an unpaid balance of 20 billion roubles, but which current
was also powering the cooling systems that kept the nuclear
reactors of the decommissioned submarines from overheating and
was, therefore, the only thing preventing a meltdown that would
contaminate all Scandinavia.
this is old news.
new news is more soft-spoken. The new news, in this remote and
derelict village forsaken by history and all but abandoned by
its own people, is about a crab. A crab as big as a young boy.
That strode right out of the water, shook itself off, and ambled
through the village, looking for a telephone.
are, they say, no telephones here.
no boy-sized crabs in the Barents Sea either. There have never
been, not in their time, or in the time of their fathers, or
grandfathers, or great-great-grandfathers. And yet this first
crab was followed by others, many others, an unending parade,
just waiting, as it were, to be scooped up and dropped into
frown dubitatively, you know when you’re being had.
do not believe we eat giant crabs?”
stride you out of town, to the dump. And there you find a pinkish,
waist-high glacier composed entirely of broken crab shells bleaching
slowly in the arctic sun.
eat giant crabs. We eat nothing but. All day, every day. There
is no money for anything else. The sea is full of them. Why?
What will become of us? We will walk sideways. We will have
erections for ten straight hours. We will all go crazy.”
Nina leaves the room quickly, no doubt to allow her emotion
to dissipate itself into the limpid air of an unoccupied room.
Yuri’s eyes do not follow her.
is true,” he says, “that attempts had been made
to transport the crabs to the Barents Sea since 1930, and none
succeeded. But I was young, I did not understand how they could
be so inept, I was sure I could not fail. I thought, first we
must take only strong animals. I need to make a test for them,
but quickly, yes? without complication. So I put the crabs on
their back. If they turned over, I took them. If not, no. Then
I thought, we must take many specimens, not ten or a hundred.
We must take several thousand. And three, we must keep them
alive. I invented the aquariums myself, there is a drawing in
Nina’s papers, look, you have it there, that’s it,
505cm by 310cm by 340cm, with the opening in the top, 340cm
by 220cm. There are the photos of Vladivostok in Nina’s
papers too. Those ones, yes. They are from the television news.
The aquariums are being loaded onto the trains, in the snow.
This is 1961. Later we used airplanes as well. The aquariums
were very strong, thick steel, and had pressure, because the
crabs live in many metres of water. So how could I fail?”
Murmansk, the largest city in the world north of the Arctic
circle. A winter afternoon, the sky the colour of cold, over-steeped
tea, almost black, thick with sugar. Anatoly Fedorchenko sits
in his new Toyota SUV, fingering the mini-holster of his cell-phone.
He is parked on the quay assigned to his company’s fleet
of five crab boats. The boats bristle with antennas and masts,
their blue hulls appear green in the orange glow of the spot-lights.
Rust stains run down from under every portal, like the ooze
from the eyes of workhorses, making the boats appear gaunt and
they are not. They are, like Anatoly, waiting. For a phone call
from a Muscovite bureaucrat granting, despite the fact that
the crab season has already been open for six weeks, permission
to fish. It has been months since the allotments were bid on
and won at the quota auction, months. And yet the results have
still not been fully authenticated. The selling prices, that
is, have not been fully adjusted for kick-back, favouritism,
is doing his best to sink into his nostalgia for Vladivostok.
He is not used to the daytime winter darkness of Murmansk. To
him, it has nothing of the menace and secrecy of true darkness.
It is airless, stifling. He has the feeling, the certainty,
that if he were to drive thirty minutes out of town, he would
drive into a blast of clear-cut sunlight.
seventeen years Anatoly lived in Vladivostok, captain of a Kamchatka
crab processing ship. The winters were bright there, weren’t
they, invigorating, high in contrast, the summers warm and noisy.
He is doing his best to remember Lilia Polevik, to relive the
third Sunday in July, the Navy Day parade. Neptune himself he
was, god of the sea, with a golden crown, a brown beard down
to his thighs, blue, wave-like squiggles painted on his bare
legs and back, and a sea-green cape held up by a pair of mermaids
in silver swimsuits, one of whom, with a mole on the rim of
her collarbone like a hardened drop of chocolate, was Lilia
is doing his best. But the smirking, melancholy darkness of
Murmansk has infiltrated his memory, making the images he is
working so hard to summon appear not vivid and creditable, but
derisory, almost silly.
has been promoted, transferred across a continent. He is an
administrator now, overseeing a fleet of five boats and a processing
plant. An administrator, parked on the quay in his new Toyota
SUV, waiting for bureaucratic intrigue to play itself out. Waiting,
squeezes the cell-phone hard in the palm of his heavy hand,
closes his eyes. He knows how he would appear to himself, were
he to see himself from Vladivostok. He has the feeling, the
certainty, that the cell-phone is on the very point of ringing.
“So how could I fail?” Yuri smiles. “How?”
His moist eyes shine. A droplet of vodka trickles down his cheek.
“It was ten days in the train from Vladivostok to Murmansk.
There was a very serious difficulty with the oxygen. Too many
of the crabs in each aquarium. Ten days.” His face darkens,
his smile disappears. “They died. All of them. Hundreds
of aquariums I opened, full of dead crabs. I was inept myself.
My heart in my chest was like a fist, like the fist of a man
with no one to fight.”
Nina is standing in the living room entrance, her cradled arms
holding a number of labelled jars. There is menace in her voice,
a hard, intimate menace, more expressive of love, perhaps, than
died,” Yuri repeats solemnly, looking directly, and only,
drops his head, his smile returns. “All but thirteen.”
“A good day,” says Tor Petersen. He is proud
of his 36-foot boat. It is equipped with a 240hp Volvo engine
and a 10kw Kubota genset, GPS, radar, VHF, a sounder, a plotter,
as well as an auto-pilot that is currently functioning. He braces
himself against the chart locker, his knees loose, and rolls
himself a cigarette. He gazes through the spray into the overcast
sky. He seems to remain perfectly still as the world around
him plunges and rolls.
hold of his boat contains a large number of red king crabs.
Tor has a permit to fish crab.
large number. But the hold is not really full. A good deal of
the long day, in fact, has been spent throwing crabs back into
the water. The limit having been established according to number
and not weight, there is no point in taking any but the largest.
And Tor has ample time to catch his quota.
allow myself one a day,” he says, putting the cigarette
between his lips, “on the way in.” He continues
gazing at the horizon for a time, removes the cigarette again.
course I understand that they are jealous, even resentful. I
earn more in a month than they do in a year. Or than I used
to. I think everyone should be allowed to fish the crabs, not
just two hundred of us. Then we might be able to get rid of
them. We Norwegians pride ourselves on respecting the environment,
especially the marine environment. We are the most maritime
people in the world. But we did nothing to prevent the Russians
from introducing king crabs into the Barents Sea. And we do
nothing now, except make studies. We harvest them as if they
had always been there, and always will be. We even invite tourists
to come to Norway to eat them fresh out of the water. It is
in the newspapers and on TV. ‘Come and live a Norwegian
adventure. Eat Russian king crab.’ It is embarrassing.
No, I am honest when I say I wish the crabs didn’t exist.”
puts the cigarette between his lips again, lights it, exhales
with obvious pleasure. “But they do.” He resumes
his examination of the horizon. He seems to remain perfectly
“Thirteen!” says Nina. “Thirteen, thirteen.”
She is on her knees, arranging the labelled jars on the floor.
“And how many now? How many crabs do they say are in the
Barents Sea now?”
raises his head. “Thirteen,” he repeats, with obvious
“Thirteen million? I would say more. Perhaps far more.”
Natalia Stepanova sits behind her computer at her desk in the
National Laboratory of Marine Biology. Behind her, hanging on
the wall, there is a framed, life-sized wood-carving of a king
crab. She tilts her chair back, points to several black volumes
high up on a metal bookshelf lining the side wall. “Those
are Professor Orlov’s studies. Excellent, the basis for
all further studies. Professor Orlov was extremely devoted.
He did all that was asked of him and more.
crabs, or red king crabs as maybe we should call them now that,
ironically, they are not plentiful off Kamchatka, red king crabs
can live in water with a depth of between 4m and 500m, a salinity
range of 10 to 30 parts per thousand, and a temperature of -2°C
to 18°C. They can live, in other words, almost anywhere.
They are omnivorous bottom feeders, they can scoop up and filter
out invertebrates and microfauna, but they can also seize and
tear apart larger benthic animals, including other king crabs.
The larvae are preyed on by various planktivorous fish, cod
among them. But fully grown king crabs have few enemies.
was considerable excitement when it became clear that they had
been successfully introduced into the Barents Sea. For which,
be it said, the credit goes almost entirely to Professor Orlov.
It was agreed by both Norway and ourselves, the Soviet Union
at that time, that they should be allowed to develop for forty
years, without fishing. The forty year period is now over.
Russian quota has gone from 500,000 crabs last year, to 1,400,000
this year. And it is accepted, not officially of course, that
local fisherman will poach all they can. Who knows how many
“A huge success! Huge!” Nina’s cheeks are
warm. She is kneeling on the floor, examining her glass jars,
one after the other. The jars are old, the labels no longer
legible. She holds one up. It contains a liquid like thin, yellowish
syrup. “Here you have the larvae,” she says. “Kamchatka
crabs hatch many thousand.” She shakes the jar, the liquid
thickens, becomes murky. “The larvae of crabs are swimming,
not crawling, almost invisible, the insects of the sea. Plankton,
yes? After 450 days, approximately...,” she looks over
at Yuri who blinks slowly to indicate that this is correct,
“...they sink to the bottom. They moult.” She holds
up a second jar. “Now they are tiny, tiny crabs. They
hide in algae and rocks. For a year.” She holds up a third
jar. “Now they are the size of fingernails. They come
together and live in groups of three thousand. They continue
to grow.” She holds up the other jars in order. She is
talking with a strange eagerness, vaunting her enthusiasm for
her husband’s field of expertise. She is at once domineering
last jar contains syrup that is darker, almost brownish, and
a single, pickled crab, as white as an egg and perhaps 5 cm
across, not including the cramped legs. “When they are
this big, after five years, the groups join together into...?”
She looks over at Yuri.
says Yuri. “Armies is a good word.”
“Bands, we say,” says Natalia Stepanova. “But
armies, I admit, is a good word. Because a band of king crabs
can be enormous. The eldest members will have been alive for
several decades. They will weigh well over 10 kilos and have
leg-spans of a metre and a half. The entire band will be capable
of undertaking migrations of astonishing length, from shallow
spawning waters close to shore in winter, to deeper water off-shore
crab bands are dense and they move fast. I dive, I have seen
them. It is like a nightmare. An army, yes, thousands of metres
long, an army of crabs, half a million of them, crawling and
twisting, trampling each other in a relentless drive over the
ocean floor, stripping it clean as they go, eating everything,
marching, marching. Two kilometres a day they can march. For
two and a half months. Imagine. And then they go back again.
A nightmare. They were first released into the Kola gulf. And
already they have reached Spitzbergen and Lofoten, 700km away.
They may reach France, Spain and even Gibraltar if their progress
is not checked. A nightmare. A disaster. The Barents Sea is
so important to Russia. Not simply for food. It is like a mirror
for the Russian personality, cold and distant in appearance,
but rich and nourishing nevertheless. And we have treated it
with so little respect, thinking only of the present. We have
treated it like adolescents.”
stops, aware of having said more than she intended. She makes
no apology however. “A mirror for the Russian personality,
as I say.” She smiles thinly. “Cod is much less
plentiful in the Barents Sea now. Capelin can not be fished
at all. We need the crabs. For money. Like everyone else.”
Nina has put her jars away and her box of memorabilia. She is
sitting beside Yuri. The living room is filled with silence
now, a silence not unlike thin syrup, yellowish, old. Downstairs
the letter box is empty. The knee-high grass grows unhurriedly
in the disintegrating pavement.
Anatoly Fedorchenko leans out over the port wing of one
of his company’s five crab boats and stares down into
the smooth wavelets spreading out from the hull as the boat
advances. Slowly. He is trying not to wonder what hidden terrors
the water might contain. He knows that there may well be a teeming
metropolis of king crabs scrabbling over the bottom, the crabs
being more numerous here than anywhere, these being the waters
into which they were first introduced in the 1960’s. But
although he has at last received permission to fish, he has
not received permission to fish here.
these are also the restricted waters of the Northern Fleet,
and Anatoly will not soon be out of them, particularly as he
must, obligatorily, navigate them at slow speed. Or the captain
must. Anatoly is an administrator now, an observer.
can see the beached submarines perfectly well through his binoculars.
The nuclear submarines his wake must not disturb. He is struck
by how cold and forlorn the enormous, black vessels appear,
huddled together, lying in shallow water close to shore. They
look, now that they are useless machines, like living animals.
is trying not to wonder how he will ever meet his production
requirements, trying not to think about the well-ordered Norwegians
who have been filling their holds to bursting for weeks while
he, incredibly, has yet to take a single crab. Above all, he
is trying not to think about the crabs themselves, growing,
mating, crawling through the decaying submarines whose radioactive,
giant hearts, continue, mercilessly, to beat.
“We have sea-gulls in Moscow now,” says Nina, vaguely.
“They have followed the trail of human garbage all the
way from the coast. Too bad crabs don’t eat garbage. Yuri’s
job would have been easier.”
are unreasonable, Nina. Besides, no one is interested in eating
who eats Kamchatka crabs? Not us. We haven’t enough money.”
Nina’s only answer is to stand and leave the room.
is right of course,” says Yuri. “The only time we
have eaten Kamchatka crab was at the Norwegian embassy, at the
dinner when I was given that certificate from the Committee
of Fishing. I have no taste for seafood.” He is trying
to find his sly smile again. “I was given a black suit
to wear that night as well. I have no taste for black suits.”
But he doesn’t smile. He remains silent for a time. “Perhaps
I was wrong to transport the crabs to the Barents Sea. I feel
like a blind pianist who has given a concert in an empty hall
because he was told there were people listening. He does his
best to play well, but there is no applause. Perhaps I should
have stopped playing.”
says Nina, who is standing just outside the door, “you
should have studied birds instead.”
looks up sharply, his offended eyes bright with anger.
looks only at Nina. His anger disintegrates. He knows what she
is going to say.
says Nina, “you will have to eat them, I think.”
JOHN LAVERY (1949-2011)