Risking detainment to film a Russian icebreaker

Not just anyone can say they've filmed on an icebreaker ship in Siberia or been interrogated by Russian authorities, but Vincent Kralyevich can. Here Kralyevich, the CCO of New York-based KPI, writes of the interrogations, polar bears and 24-hour sunshine he encountered while in Russia shooting a History pilot.
September 29, 2008

Not just anyone can say they’ve filmed on an icebreaker ship in The Northeast Passage in Siberia, but Vincent Kralyevich, the CCO of New York-based KPI (a unit of Lightworks Producing Group) can. Here Kralyevich (pictured furthest on the right), who has developed and produced nearly 300 hours of TV programming, writes of his experiences in Russia during the shoot for a pilot for AETN’s History.

You need sunglasses to stand on the deck of an icebreaker during the day. The blinding white ice of the Arctic Ocean is unimaginable. It is all you can see to the horizon. The Russian captain I am with turns to me and asks, ‘What do you think of global warming now?’

When I first board the Russian nuclear icebreaker Taymyr I notice the ship is strangely quiet. You hear a low murmur of cracking ice below and occasionally feel large angry blocks of the stuff hit the bow. There are no smokestacks rumbling out diesel smoke here; we run on nuclear fuel and the engine purrs.

The reason I am on the ship is to produce a History Channel pilot about a Siberian sea route known as The Northeast Passage. It covers roughly the distance from Finland to Japan. It is less a route than it is a theory. It is more ice than it is sea, and it is only passable because of the might of a fleet of Russian nuclear icebreakers. The fleet is used to cut a passageway in order to get Siberian raw materials such as zinc, copper and nickel to the rest of the world. Most of these metals are mined in the Siberian city of Norilsk. Then the ore is distributed to the rest of Europe.

You can’t just fly into Norilsk – it is a ‘closed’ city. Under communism, Norilsk and other Soviet cities with sensitive military installations were simply declared off-limits to foreigners. Even Soviet citizens needed special permission to visit. Even today, long after the fall of communism, Norilsk remains a closed frontier town that doesn’t welcome outsiders.

The reason it remains closed is because outsiders take it to task for its pollution. It ranks as one of the top five most polluted cities on the planet. The city’s factories emit more sulphur dioxide in one year than the entire country of France. With so much metal in the air, a factory worker’s life expectancy here is just 51.

So my ‘angle’ for permission into the city was to follow the journey of the metals, rather than do an exposé on Norilsk’s industrial pollution. The plan was to take a KPI crew into Norilsk, film the mining operations and then board a nuclear icebreaker as it leads a convoy of ships. The convoy would be a 1,200-mile journey smashing through the through the ice of the aortic ocean and ending at the Russian port of Murmansk by Finland.

KPI spent months navigating the Russian permissions needed to get it in. Once everything was in order we left New York for Moscow. After two days in Moscow, we were scheduled to fly into Norilsk to begin shooting. Ten days later, however, we were still in Moscow and our icebreaker, The Taymyr, would be leaving shortly – with or without us. In Moscow, I was tossed curveball after curveball by Russian bureaucrats. A week passed and my crew and I felt the Russians were stringing us along. We waited another two days. Nothing. Finally I decided to fly into Norilsk to see what would happen.

‘No Vincent, you can’t do that,’ my translator said. This is not how Russia works. ‘It is not a nice city. You and your crew can be detained in jail for days with Russian criminals.’ I asked the crew if they were willing to go in. They said yes. They were tired of Moscow.

That night we boarded a massive Soviet era jet that flew east from Moscow. Four time zones later we reached Norilsk. Upon landing, a policeman boarded the plane and escorted us off. We were taken to another building for interrogation by the FSB, which is the successor to the KGB. The questions were ‘Why are you here? Do you belong to the military? What are you going to say about nuclear vessels?’ and so on. The local FSB guys in Norilsk seemed right out of college – young and nice enough kids – the kind you’d want to send a Christmas card to every year just to see how they are doing.

Our risk had its reward. After being detained for a day we became the first American TV crew in Norilsk. Problem was, our icebreaker had left Norilsk without us. Norilsk is a city that only communism could have built. It is 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, there are 23 hours of darkness in the middle of December, 23 hours of daylight in the middle of June, and winter temperatures regularly fall below minus 50. No one would live there unless they had to. Its first inhabitants were political prisoners Stalin sent to mine its copper, palladium, zinc and nickel. They problem is that these metals are inconveniently deposited hundreds of feet below the frozen ground. Building tunnels to access them cost the lives of more than 100,000 gulag workers.

Today no mine workers are forced to work here. Instead, men and women line up for the well-paying mine jobs. One has to keep in mind that these are factories that were built under Stalin in an era that placed little regard on human life or industrial waste. Today Norilsk Nickel is doing its best to fix the pollution problem communism created.

In order to locate our departed icebreaker, I charter a helicopter. The price is $12,000 and these guys don’t take Visa. The pilot had enough gas for two hours. Additionally, the blizzard conditions were creating a whiteout. The pilot says he’ll try, but can’t guarantee he’ll find The Taymyr.

We lumber into the air inside a soviet military helicopter nicknamed the ‘Molotov cocktail’ because it is little more than a flying gas tank – no seat belts (or seats, for that matter). The windows are open to let freezing air in and gas fumes out. Two Russian men sit in the back of the helicopter smoking.

Norilsk falls below us. It becomes a sheet of white. Our eyes can no longer tell land from sea. Producer Ryan Miller elbows me and points out the window. Below us is a shipwreck with its frozen bow sticking out of the ice. We are apparently over water.

We hear excited chatter in the cockpit and the door opens. We rush into the helicopter’s cockpit and see the icebreaker Taymyr below. It is tugging a 600-foot cargo ship. We circle in and hover six feet above the ice. A member of the helicopter crew jumps out with a tire iron to make sure the ice is strong enough to support us. It is. We rush our camera gear from the helicopter and get hoisted onto The Taymyr by its cargo crane.

We were now the first-ever American TV crew to board a Russian nuclear icebreaker. The ship has been at sea for two months and we had not slept in two days. To add to the unnaturalness of the situation, the sun remains up 24 hours a day this time of year when you are so close to the North Pole. The ship pulls away, the helicopter flies back to Norilsk, the rocking crack of the ice bellows below us.

During our stay aboard The Taymyr, I kept expecting my cabin door to be kicked open by Russian secret police. I thought they’d say the last two weeks were a horrible bookkeeping mistake that went too far and I thought they’d confiscate my tapes. It never happened. We were too far off the grid for anyone to care what we did anymore.

The crew of The Taymyr fed us. They let us wander with our cameras from the captain’s bridge to the nuclear reactor. The crew would knock on our doors when they spotted polar bears and we’d rush out into the sunny but frozen polar night looking for the white bears. We got a few.

After a week aboard The Taymyr the port of Murmansk appeared. It was time for us to go. The crew hugged us, we hugged back. We were all sadder than a kid who just lost his puppy.

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