I’d come to Severodvinsk, about an hour from Arkhangelsk, to see the submarines. An expatriate Italian bartender living in Arkhangelsk had told me I could take pictures of Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines right from the city’s harbor.
‘Course, what he didn’t mention was that Severodvinsk was a ” Closed City” – that is, off limits to foreigners even these days – because it’s a storage area for the Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines that park in its harbor. Formerly it was closed because it was a staging area for the nuclear gear that used to be transported to the islands of Novaya Zemlya, back when the Soviet Union was doing above-ground nuclear testing there.
The bartender assured me that, while the city was closed, it wasn’t ” very closed” .
After about an hour of looking on my own (I had taken bus No 3 on a three-loop tour of the city before realizing I was going in circles), I finally asked a kid where the subs were (” Excuse me, where are the nuclear submarines?” – which I pulled off with a dignity equal to that of Ensign Chekhov, who asked the same question of a San Francisco cop in Star Trek V) and was directed to a fence at the end of a long, deserted street.
The ” fence” turned out to be the entrance to some sort of naval facility, and as I passed the boundary (there was no one guarding it) I realized that from that point on, no amount of pleaded ignorance would help me if I – an American with a camera in a Russian military facility – were caught.
The water was now in sight, the subs just across the harbor from where I stood, but between them and me, moored at the docks, were two large gunships, sporting several large and rather vicious looking guns fore and aft.
A man with a face of stone and wearing an officer’s uniform stood between me and the subs.
” Hi!” I said, with a smile, ” May I take a photograph”
The officer looked at me a and grinned, and said, ” Why not?”
There were about eight black submarines parked just across the water, but far enough away to make my photographs look as if they were taken by a spy satellite in the 1960s. Still, I got the shots.
I looked over to one of the gunships and saw on board a young woman in a pink coat looking around ear the bridge. As I walked back past the gangplank, I asked the officer if I could take a look around on bord.
He smiled again and said, ” Of course, go right up.”
I saw the bridge, and the guns, but I started to get a little nervous; my Russian’s good enough to say what I had said so far, but anything ese would be a hopeless stretch, and I wanted to get out of there fast.
On my way out, a much more senior looking officer approached me with a look of investigatory intent.
” What is he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but speaking to the officer who had let me on board.
” He’s taking an excursion,” said the first.
The senior officer looked at me, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said to the officer, ” You know, we really ought to set up a ticket booth out here.”