“I thought someone was setting off fireworks somewhere,” a friend told me. “I would’ve never guessed a Russian Destroyer was in Reykjavík harbour firing a cannon.”
But it was, and it – the Russian Destroyer Admiral Levchenko, a part of Russia’s Northern Fleet – sailed in last Monday and was open to the public from 14:00 to 16:00 last Tuesday and 10:00 to 12:00 the following day. The cannon shots – 21 in all – were fired in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.
The opportunity to board a Russian Destroyer was too good to pass up, so our Production Manager Oddur and I went down to the harbour. I brought the camera, and we joked on the way out, “Let’s see how many weapons systems we can take pictures of.”
There was a long queue to board the Destroyer, which was moored next to a fish processing plant. As we approached, two men handed us photocopied flyers which objected to a “death machine” in Reykjavík harbour. I guiltily pocketed the flyer and walked to the end of the queue, which was flanked by a group of commando types in berets and camouflage and a man wearing a fleece-lined leather jacket, a tall white cap and the proudest moustache in the Northern Hemisphere. If he wasn’t the captain of the ship (and he wasn’t), he should be hired as such for his appearance’s sake alone.
We stepped on board and stepped out of the queue, which was moving towards the bow, and looked around. The ship hummed quietly and looked freshly painted. Officers and sailors stood at attention here and there. I noticed one officer, in a blue uniform, addressing a group of Icelandic Coast Guard officers in smooth English.
“In Russian this is actually called an anti-submarine warship,” he rattled off quickly. “The term ‘destroyer’ is a NATO classification. To your right are our anti-submarine torpedoes, which are launched with an oxygen- and nitrogen-based fuel.”
Easily four metres long and wide enough for a grown man to lie down inside of, four torpedoes were lined up in a row beside a length of small, steel railcar tracks that ran the perimeter of the ship. These tracks, I learned later, were for a small, anvil-like car used for carrying torpedoes away, one by one, to be loaded and fired. If I hadn’t been told they were torpedoes, I would’ve thought they were just lengths of huge pipes capped at both ends and emblazoned with a red and white star.
The tour walked past a collage of black-and-white photographs taken in 1944 entitled “Allies Convoys Brotherhood,” which chronicled the joint British and Russian naval effort against Germany in the Second World War. Our guide took us up a small length of stairs to the crane deck, where he pointed to two enormous gun turrets, the red tips of 12 small missiles visible within their barrels.
“This is our reactive bomb launcher,” said the guide. “It fires depth charges. It has a range of six kilometres.”
As I continued taking notes on the guide’s narration, an Icelandic Coast Guard officer snuck a look at what I was writing, gave me a suppressed but annoyed glare, but said nothing. The guide continued:
“At full speed, the ship can run on up to 63,000 horsepower at a speed of 32 knots. For most sea battles, we use 4.30 mm Gatlin guns, which can fire up to 5,000 rounds a minute.”
The guide turned and began walking up another flight of stairs. “And now we will go to the bridge,” he said, and the officers followed. I took a step towards the stairs, then I got the feeling I’d better ask someone to take me up there without a tour group. I took pictures of the reactive bomb launchers, the torpedoes, the Gatlin guns, and even the famed cannons, their barrels capped with a red star on a white background.
Oddur and I walked past the stern and headed down port, where we met a Russian sailor standing next to another photo collage. I asked him what the tracks on the deck were for, and he answered me in Russian. When he could tell I couldn’t understand, he laughed and smiled broadly. That’s when Oddur told me what the tracks were for.
When we reached stern, there were some people milling about a search-and-rescue helicopter. We had to admit, this was by far the strangest search-and-rescue helicopter we’d ever seen. There was no stabilizing propeller on the tail, for example. Instead, there were a pair of rudders. Also, Oddur took a few turns around the helicopter and couldn’t find a single door that you could pull anybody into other than one of the two doors to the cockpit, which sat two.
“How do they rescue people with that?” Oddur asked, and it was a fair question. When I saw a man in an officer’s uniform being handed a camera by three young men who wanted their picture taken together with the helicopter, I thought we’d found someone who could answer it. I waited for the man to finish taking the picture before I approached him.
His name was Vadim, and he told us he was the captain of the ship. Here was our ticket onto the bridge, I thought, but when I then asked a question about the design of the helicopter, he just shrugged his shoulders and smiled, looking almost embarrassed. I, in turn, felt bad for not knowing Russian.
On the other side of the helicopter pad, I noticed a cameraman and the editor for the Russian television station NTV. They’d been by a couple months ago doing a story on Bobby Fischer. The editor waved me over. After chatting for a bit, I asked him, “Is it possible for any journalists to get on the bridge?.”
“What?,” he said with a laugh, “No, no way.” I guess I should’ve thought as much.
When Oddur and I got to the gangplank, there was traffic control in effect. One sailor let people onboard, another let them off. As we waited to cut in, an officer with the good portion of the left side of his chest covered in medals talked to an Orthodox priest. Before Oddur and I stepped up to disembark, a boy of about four came to the top of the gangplank and saluted the two sailors, and they each snapped one out in return.
The ship left last Thursday, trailing a plume of diesel smoke behind it, headed to the West Fjörds to lay a wreath on the water over a spot where a Russian convoy sunk in 1942.