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Full Circle

Day 21: Vladivostok

Michael Palin - Full CircleA day off in Vladivostok. I had hoped to spend it mastering the Russian song 'Poliushko Pole' which Igor has taught me and which I am to sing tomorrow with the Pacific Fleet Choir. However, Anatoly, the conductor of the choir, with the dark moustache and debonair smile of a 1930s band-leader, has suggested an outing. He's laid on a helicopter to take us to Russkiy Island, out in the bay, and brought along some of his colleagues from the choir. The island is dominated by a massive gun battery built in 1913 by Tsar Nicholas II to protect his Pacific fleet. Each cannon weighs 50 tons and is dug down 50 feet into the ground. The whole emplacement is meticulously preserved, and we clamber down into the cool underground chambers where the 1100-pound shells were stacked. Then, after the serious work, the party begins. Accordions and vodka and a video camera are produced and an impromptu song recital from Anatoly and his colleagues leads to dancing and general festivity in the shadow of the Tsar's gun barrels.

The spontaneity, the music and the infectious need to share feelings is very Russian. It's what makes them great huggers, great embracers, great celebrants of either joy or gloom. Mood-swings are part of the national character and I know of few countries where they are so unconcealed.

Perhaps this accounts for the schizophrenic attitude to the Russian Pacific Fleet. This was one of the great, if not the greatest, naval forces in the world. Vladivostok, its home base, was so jealously guarded that the city was off-limits to foreigners until 1992. Now, only three years later, we are allowed to fly over, and even photograph, coves and inlets choked with beached and rusting warships. The helicopter pilot makes no attempt to prevent us catching sight of the half-submerged deck of a frigate, its revolving gun turrets peeking up above the water; or a submarine belly up on a sandy beach, with others keeled over in the turquoise water beyond.

The idyllic patchwork of waterways around the islands is one huge naval graveyard.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 21
  • Country/sea: Eastern Russia
  • Place: Russkiy Island
  • Book page no: 43

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