Northbound? by Julia Jones

More than a decade ago in The Salt-Stained Book  (2011) Donny, the hero, was by the shores of Gitchee Gumee (okay, fact checkers, it was Alton Water, a reservoir near Ipswich in Suffolk) when he felt the tang of the North Wind. It was a life-changing moment, the extent of which he has yet to experience fully. That’s a thought-in-progress. More recently I’ve been reading Paul Heiney’s Goodbye Mr Puffin which includes a wonderful page of praise for that same ‘tang’.

I love anything with the word ‘north’ in it. I adore the air that blows in northern parts for its freshness and its tang. I can sup on it as if it were a glass of the finest claret. The true north wind is the tastiest of all and best when it is close to frigid.’

Heiney writes of the ‘spirituality to be found by heading in the direction of north.’  Is this something that Donny will experience? I’m not sure. In 2018, at the end of Pebble, I left him on a Russian superyacht (she was originally an Arctic survey vessel but he didn’t know that then). MY Raisa was heading north and east as she set a course to hurry away from the Suffolk coast and back to her own home waters. But where?  Will her destination be the Baltic or the Barents Sea? Kaliningrad or Murmansk? Both have been mentioned. Donny has simply signed on as the third hand because he realises the two older men on board need his help and there’s something there, somewhere in the northern waters, that he needs to discover.

Pebble’s fictional year was 2012. Vladimir Putin had recently been re-elected and was using his renewed mandate to force the return of fictional oligarch Arkady Ivanov and his money to Russia. In Pebble Arkady seemed mercurial – one moment spitting out his chicken soup and accusing his staff of poisoning him; later charming and solicitous, in love with his disabled wife and truly concerned for the fate of his former crewmember Dimitri who is discovered to have died from radiation poisoning. By the end of the book the reader may have begun to admire Arkady for his bravery and patriotism, yet he’s a self-confessed former Intelligence officer, a long-term associate of Putin and how can anyone that rich be honest? Presumably it’s something Donny will need to find out – if Arkady doesn’t die first. Currently he’s been seriously injured by the treachery of the SVR agent Dzerzhinsky, who is definitely dead and his body removed. (Good.)

I currently know little more about oligarchs than Donny, so I’ve been reading. Londongrad: from Russia with Cash (2009) by Mark Hollingsworth & Stephen Lansley mentions the ‘plane of shame’ trip twenty years ago, in summer 2001, when my dear Francis was among a group of journalists invited to Russia by Mikhail Khodorkovsky of (former) Yukos oil. The group was led by Prince Michael of Kent, a fluent Russian-speaker who is said to have a striking family resemblance to the last Tsar. Francis watched as President Putin came across to their table at a grand St Petersburg dinner to introduce himself to the prince, shake his hand and have a photo taken together. Was this a corrupting exchange, evidence that ‘Kentski’ might be using his position to sell access? There have been rumours but they’re unsubstantiated.

The group went on to Moscow, Murmansk, Ekaterinburg and a Yukos-owned oilfield in Siberia. When Francis came home to Essex, I enjoyed his tales of the high life but didn’t have the insight to see the trip in any wider context. Now I feel deeply envious – especially of the time in Murmansk, where they dined with an Admiral of the Northern Fleet (a title fictional Arkady has awarded himself by the end of Pebble.) Murmansk was a frequent destination for the WW2 Arctic Convoys – I’d love to visit for that connection alone. In 2001 the immensely rich Khodorkovsky (who has described himself as a ‘robber-baron’ according to the Londongrad authors) was becoming more articulate about the need for change in Russia. Sponsoring the journalists’ trip was part of a positive agenda which would lead the oligarch to confrontation with President Putin, the confiscation of his company and most of his wealth and ten years in prison. Later in 2001 he established the Open Russia foundation: then re-established it in 2014 after his release from prison. This year, 2021, the foundation has had to cease operations in Russia to protect its members from criminal prosecution and the risk of being imprisoned.

A more recent book Putin’s People: how the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West (2020) by Catherine Belton is a very much more detailed and authoritative account than Londongrad, focussing on how the oligarchs’ money was acquired, rather than the bling on which much of it was spent. The thesis expounded in its subtitle is much more than a tale of individual greed, irresponsibility and ostentation; it’s a truly chilling exposition as to how these qualities are now incorporated into the structure of the state – or more accurately the service of the individual known as the Number One, the new Tsar. Putin’s People is currently in the UK courts being sued for libel by a group of those former ‘robber-baron’ oligarchs – now tamed by the example of Khodorkovsky’s fate (and worse)  -  and by the state oil company Rosneft, which benefitted so significantly from the assets of former Yukos.

Catherin Belton is a financial specialist and much of the detail of acquisitions, shell companies, kickbacks and slush funds is beyond me. She is also a good and vivid writer. The description of St Petersburg in the 1990s, when Putin was a key member of the city administration (1990-1996) is brilliant and shocking in equal measure. Her chapter ‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ begins with a description of the port area where ‘a tangle of cranes and containers juts out across the elegant facades of pre-Revolutionary palaces […] far out on the western edge, a concrete jetty leads to the place sometimes called the ‘Golden Gates’, a concrete sprawl of oil-storage facilities that makr St Petersburg’s most strategic outpost, the oil terminal that was the battleground forsoe of the 1990s most vicious bandit wars.’ (p84)

Peter Duck leaving St Petersburg
summer 1998

This, I realise, overlaps with the period that Peter Duck was also living in St Petersburg with her then owners Greg and Ann Palmer. Although in 1996 Ann was still working as a teacher in Essex, Greg, a historian, had been loaned by the British Executive Service Overseas to the Shtandart Project and Peter Duck had travelled with him. The project was the building of a replica of Peter the Great’s  Shtandart first built in 1703 on the Svir River which connects Lake Onega to Lake Lagoda, northeast of St Petersburg. The c20th Shtandart was built in the former Admiralty shipyard in the city itself and Greg had a job teaching within the Philological Faculty of the University. I’m not sure exactly where Peter Duck was moored at this time – I only know that she was ‘in the marshes’. Those are the foundations of the city, as it was conceived by Tsar Peter. ‘Thousands of serfs toiled and died to realise his vision of stately Baroque mansions and elegant canals rising out of the freezing and muddy marshes.’ (Belton p84)

Shtandart arriving 
in Harwich Aug 2000

The Shtandart Project, with its deliberate re-evocation of the acceptable face of the pre-revolutionary era was one that could only have existed in the post-Glasnost period. It was a co-operative, Western-friendly enterprise – after Greg’s untimely death in 1998, Ann continued living in the city and working to develop their media relations. When Shtandart was finally launched in 2000 she embarked on a recreation of Tsar Peter’s Grand Embassy 1697-8, aiming to strengthen Western alliances. Peter Duck had already returned. She and I met the Russian frigate (and Ann Palmer) at Harwich. 

Is it perhaps hard to imagine such a co-operative project happening in the current phase of UK – Russian relationships?  I find it salutary to remind myself that it did happen in St Petersburg of the 1990s, alongside the graft, drug-trafficking and violence described by Catherine Belton as endemic in the city at the time – or at least the port area. Most of us respectable citizens, going about our daily work, absorbed in private projects and our family lives are blithely unaware of murkier undercurrents.

As well as the injured oligarch, Arkady Ivanov, the third person with whom Donny was left at the end of Pebble, on board MY Raisa, is called George. He’s an enigmatic figure with a splendid bushy beard and a heart condition.  When my characters first met him he was sitting on a white plastic chair observing the activity in Lowestoft harbour – rather as Arthur Ransome’s character 'Peter Duck' is first encountered watching from a bollard. George seemed benign – he was certainly shrewd – but by the end of the book he’s been discovered to be playing some deeper game.

What’s next for Donny as he heads north or north-east on board the superyacht?  Paul Heiney waxes lyrical about the benefits of northernness: ‘the air now becomes clear and in that clarity landscapes have a renewed sharpness and leave a more profound impression as detail and contrast emerge.’ In fact, on Heiney’s voyage to the Arctic Circle, almost the first experience is a dense north sea fog. ‘We could have been anywhere in the world were it not for the mark on the chart that said we were somewhere north of Bridlington.’ 

It's a long voyage, northbound, in both fact and fiction.  


Jan Needle said…
Ee, Julia, you know how to keep a man away from his lawful occasions! Fascinating, as usual. Thanks.

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