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The Rus-project
(Finland) —
Voyage 2000

Viking ship
Heimlosa Rus

Fredrik KOIVUSALO,
captain of the Heimlosa Rus

The Voyage of the Viking Ship Heimlosa Rus in Russia in the Summer of 2000

The Finnish Viking ship Heimlosa Rus has now completed its 5th sailing season since its departure from Finland in 1996. During five summers, we have sailed around Europe, making the project known to the sailing nations of Europe. This summer's project was sailing on the Russian rivers Don and Volga. These rivers have, through the centuries, served as important commercial routes. Don, flowing into the Black Sea, and Volga, flowing into the Caspian Sea, were already well known among Nordic tradesmen and warriors during the Bronze Age. The ship-shaped megalithic monuments on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea, similar to the ones on Gotland and in Scania, bear witness to the early contacts on the Volga River.

During the Bronze Age, the Nordic peoples probably had an interest in the copper from the area east of the Caspian Sea. The Nordic merchants traded, for instance, Carelian fur-skins for copper. This region was also well known during the Viking age. The Icelandic author, Snorre Sturlasson (1179-1241) tells that the god Odin had his resort Valhalla, the home of the death soldiers, east of the river Don. Also in the Finnish Kalevala mythology the river Don (Tuoni) symbolizes the border to the world of the death (Manala).

Sarkland, which is mentioned on Viking Age rune stones, probably refers to an indefinite area east of the Black Sea. Here the east-west silk route and the north-south trading route between the Nordic countries and the Arabic world crossed each other.

Heimlosa Rus passed the winter in Rostov, where the river Don flows into the Black Sea. When we arrived at the ship on the 26th of June, we discovered that the rats had been gnawing on the equipment. Our stock of T-shirts and part of the ropes apparently were especially tasty. Bigger two-legged rats had carried away a part of the lashing around the ship. As a whole, we found that the ship was in good shape, and after caulking (packing the seams of the planking with hemp), we pushed the ship into the river. We rigged the ship, as the 9 meter mast could remain raised all the way to Astrakhan, and our standard procedure was to set sail whenever the wind was favourable.

The journey up the River Don started on the 29th of June. Foreign vessels are not allowed to navigate on Russian rivers. So, to avoid problems with the authorities, the ship sailed under the Russian flag.

The crew of Heimlosa Rus was Russian-Swedish-Finnish. With a crew of 14 men, including equipment and load, on a surface of 18 square meters, there was not much space aboard to move around. On one occasion, we had 20 persons on board, luckily for just one day! One of the Russians, Max Pryazheysky, spoke English, so he was nominated our interpreter.

We were striving against a stream that varied in velocity between one and three knots, depending on where in the riverbed we advanced. Thanks to our early experiences on the European rivers and by observing the shape of the shoreline, the wave shapes and the presence of river grass, it was easy to find the places where the current was weakest. This was the way the Vikings proceeded in unknown waters; by carefully observing and interpreting the surrounding environment.

The first two days, we stuck to the oars, but soon we got a west wind that blew steadily for several days, allowing us to reach Volgograd under sail in only ten days, a distance of 550 kilometers. Volgograd is situated at the Volga, at the end of a channel which connects the Don with the Volga. Most probably this channel was built where the Rus people (the Arabs knew the Vikings by that name) and other ancient river farers hauled their ships between the two rivers.

About a third of this part of the journey crossed artificial lakes formed by dams and floodgates built in the 1950s. When these dams were completed, the ruins of the city of Sarkel disappeared under the water. Sarkel was taken by the Rus in 965 A.D. Today the shores of the Don are strikingly uninhabited. There are only a few signs of crossing traffic, like bridges or ferries. The landscape is beautiful and the fauna is rich. Eagles are sitting in the tree-tops, kites are gliding in the sky and herons are strutting on the riverbank. There is no pollution from industry so the water is clean and the fish abound. Each night, we laid out a couple of nets and each morning we boiled fish soup. Some crew members brought their own fishing rods to try their luck, but it seemed only the nets were good enough. In the night, the mosquitoes bothered us. They were smaller than the Finnish ones, but much more aggressive.

This season, the cherries were mature, and we bought buckets of cherries for just a few coins in the small villages we passed. There were no signs of agricultural activities. The population seemed to make its living from breeding cattle and growing fruits and vegetables.

At Volgograd, we moored to the fishing police station and stayed for a couple of days waiting for a change of Russian crew members. The fishing police did not seem to carry out any regular activity. The vodka flowed in such abundant streams that my crew nearly drowned in it. Food was just a bit of sauerkraut or salted pork slipped in between shots. After a couple of days, it began to dawn on us that the activity at the police station couldn't suffer the daylight (or any other light, for that matter).

The city of Volgograd, earlier known as Stalingrad, is known for the site of one of WWII's most decisive battles. The battle turned the fortune of the war against the Germans, at a cost of a million human lives. We visited the huge war monuments, to which the Russians make pilgrimage in great numbers from near and far.

The new Russian crewmembers that arrive in Volgograd are youngsters from Smolensk. The youngest was only fourteen. These youngsters had a more active and willing attitude towards the tasks on board than the older Russians, and this inspired a little optimism regarding the future of Russia. The youngsters told how the post-Soviet educational system has changed and the political indoctrination has disappeared. One can only hope that the problems of Russia do not lay too deep for one generation to change. We could see for ourselves that the country is rich in natural resources, but where is the capacity and the will to use them in an appropriate way? On the other hand, what is appropriate? We measure everything from our western point of view, which differs notably from the way the Russians see things. In Russia, to get anything done with western efficiency can appear hopeless. At times I got the impression that Russians really loved having problems.

On the 14th of July we leave Volgograd. We headed south towards Astrakhan. During the day, the south eastern headwind blew strong. The stream pushed us ahead at a speed of three knots, but to keep up steering speed, we had to row at least one knot faster than the current. In other words, we had to maintain a speed of four knots.

In the afternoons, the contrary wind got stronger and it was a hard task to keep up steering speed. When the wind and current came from opposite directions, the waves became high and short and the river got choppy. The wind, blowing freely across the open plains, raised small sandstorms on the surrounding sand banks. Heimlosa Rus jumped on the waves, but still advanced with the stream, against the wind, like a "Flying Dutchman". To maintain the necessary maneuvering speed and thus keep away from other river traffic, we decided, after a couple of days, to row mornings and evenings. Towards the end of this stage, we started rowing only at night when it was calm and the air was cool.

When we reached the Kalmuck territory, across which the river Volga flows, I noticed that the Russian crewmembers became restless and scared. They had nothing good to tell about the Kalmucks. The Russians did not want us to go ashore and they kept telling us what a threat the Kalmucks were. The relations between the Russians and Kalmucks are not the best, and never have been. The Kalmuck territory was an independent republic from 1920 to 1943. We needed to replenish our food supplies and, despite the protesting Russians, I decided that we would go ashore. The Kalmucks have typically Mongolian lineaments. These primitive people, who have always lived as nomads, have never accepted Russian supremacy. They continue to fish for sturgeon in the Volga river, as they have always done, in opposition to Russian law. We bought one of these "outlaw" sturgeons and grilled it in the shore. It tasted marvelous! I did not detect any hostility amongst the Kalmucks. On the contrary, we were met by more open curiosity and waving hands than ever during our journey. I couldn't help reflecting on the internal political problems of Russia. Maybe it would be better if the regions got larger autonomy. The superpower utopia would dissolve, the but people would be happier.

The intense rowing made us consume lots of water. We often landed at villages in order to replenish our water supplies. When we found that the locals pumped their drinking water directly from the river and used it "as is", we started boiling river water for our daily needs. The water was a little muddy, but the river couldn't be too polluted as we still got lots of fish in our nets.

The night time rowing was quite a strain, at least for me. The crew was inexperienced and lacked sailing and navigation skills. On a couple of occasions, there were "close calls", such as when we almost collided with a passenger ship! I had to keep my eyes open during the off-duty watch.

One day, we went ashore on an island in the river, where a forester lived with his wife and two children. He is Chechenian. It was an interesting encounter. The salary of a forester, 300 rubles per month -- about 11 US dollars -- doesn't buy much in today's Russia. He praised the Breschnev era when 300 rubles allowed one to live well the whole month. He also complained that people steal much more nowadays. For obvious reasons, he didn't want to talk about the war in Checheny. The huge Russian inflation rate had forced the family to develop a self-sufficient household, which seemed to work quite well. When we wanted to buy some eggs, the forester brought us two full buckets. The family also bred horses for slaughter. They allowed us to ride their saddle horse. I had never been riding before, but after a few brief instructions, I was off along the river shore of Volga.

The self-sufficient household is widespread in Russia. It permits people to stay alive despite overt political and economic changes. Western society and life is more sensitive in this respect. The life aboard our Viking ship is well adapted to primitive conditions and we have got on, and found our way, in both the west and the east.

Every now and then in our journey, we passed decayed holiday villages. The cottages had characteristic steep roofs and looked all the same. These villages are relics from the Soviet time and nobody uses them anymore. About 35 kilometers from Astrakhan, we went ashore at one of these villages and found a guard who lived there with his family. They grew peaches in the area and, as the peaches were ripe, we bought as much as we could carry. In the evening, we bathed in the sauna of the village.

On Sunday, the 23rd of July, we reached Astrakhan, situated in the river delta of Volga. We had traveled approximately 1000 kilometers since leaving Rostov. The Astrakhan area was hit by a high pressure front and we experienced what is known as the "Russian heat". The temperatures reached a lethal 42 C in the shade!

Astrakhan is a traditional center for trading fish from the Volga and the Caspian Sea. The crew visited a fish market and bought lots of dried fish. By this time, I had learned to appreciate dried fish, which is quite a common food in Russia. The fish is dried without taking away the viscera, which makes the meat more tender.

Somewhere here in the river delta, Atil, the capital of Kazar, was situated in the 10th and 11th centuries. Here the Nordic tradesman had to pay tolls for their goods. The ruins of the city of Atil have never been found. In Astrakhan, I made the acquaintance of Professor Pjotr Bukharitsin, who has spent years looking for the ancient city. He wanted me to join him in his search.

The Rus Project has now attained the goal set in 1994 - to sail to Astrakhan. Our original plan was to sail to Lake Lagoda and down the Russian rivers straight to Astrakhan in about 3 months, but we did not get permission from the Russian authorities. Instead, we had to detour around Europe and the voyage took five years, but we reached our destination at the end! In this connection, it can be mentioned that the project was realized without any public contributions. No tax revenue has been "wasted" on the project and the "turnabout" of our plan permitted us the opportunity to discover how the Vikings navigated in tidal water areas. We now know that the Lapuri ship (a Viking Age shipwreck in the Gulf of Finland), of which Heimlosa Rus is a copy, was an all-around ship which could also cross less sheltered waters. At Astrakhan, everybody tried to convince me to leave the ship there over the winter and continue next summer on to the Caspian Sea, as it is known that the people of Rus sailed along the coasts of the Caspian Sea. After thinking this over, I was convinced that it was better not to continue, as a voyage on the Caspian Sea would not give us much more knowledge than what we had learned already. Also, it is difficult to find qualified Russian collaborators skilled in foreign languages, just to mention one of the difficulties related to an eastbound expedition. The voyage through Ukraine and Russia was the hardest part of the project, not only because of the economic aspect, but also because of the bureaucracy. Westerners are, at times, charged with great expenses by local authorities. However, the cost of living is cheap and if it wasn't for our responsibility toward our vessel, a voyage in the east could have been quite pleasant. The Caspian Sea is fascinating and interesting from an archaeological and historical point of view. There is no hindrance to the Rus Project returning to the Caspian Sea, but it will be without Heimlosa Rus.

Heimlosa Rus was brought by truck to Vyborg, near St. Petersburg, on the 13th of August and is wintering in the harbor of the Vyborg Yacht Club. Next summer, we will sail back to Finland.




 
 
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