“A Crime Against the World,” by Vladil Lysenko

Polar Star, by Martin Cruz Smith

Polar Star, by Martin Cruz Smith

The blog has been busy, busy, busy!  We’re just back from the American Society of Environmental History meeting in Toronto (more on that later, but so nice to see so many historians engaging with fishy topics). But the big news is that I’m going to be teaching a class on Oregon fisheries history fall quarter at Oregon State University. It’s going to be a two-credit class in the Honors College and I’ve been pulling together resources and writing an overview of the development of fishing off Oregon.

I always thought it if got to teach a fisheries history class, I’d start with a novel, by Martin Cruz Smith, Polar Star. Published in 1989, the mystery novel is the third of a series starring a disillusioned Moscow detective, Arkady Renko.  The first book in the series, Gorky Park, was turned into a movie starring William Hurt. It’s a complicated, sprawling tale and it ends with Renko on the run, pursued by the KGB. He winds up in Siberia, cleaning fish on the “slime line” of a factory processing ship, the Polar Star.

Soviet fish processing ships

Soviet fish processing ships

When the ship’s huge net trawls up the body of a women who worked in the ship’s kitchen, Renko is called in to investigate. Smith writes a fast-paced story, with Renko moving back and forth between the factory processing ship, the American catcher boats, and a day visit to Dutch Harbor, where another killing takes place.

Polar Star is set in the North Pacific, but these giant factory processing ships operated off Oregon during the 1960s, decimating stocks of Pacific Ocean Perch, as Bob Hitz has blogged about.

I want to use the novel to reach out and grab students. It powerfully evokes a world that most of us can only imagine, working on a ship in the Bering Sea. There is a great deal of political intrigue (it is, after all, set in the Cold War and the Polar Star is engaged in tracking American submarines.)

But I’ve just discovered a book that Martin Cruz Smith might have used for some of his basic information about the Polar Star. It’s called “A Crime Against the World,” by Vladil Lysenko, a soviet fishing captain who defected to Sweden. The book was originally published in Swedish, in 1980, and translated into English by Michael Glenny in 1983.

Lysenko’s crime against the world is Soviet fishing practices, which he describes as wasteful, short-sighted, irresponsible—in short, crimes against humanity. Lysenko tells a story of systematic waste, fishing on immature stocks, and the destruction of fish in the Barents Sea.  The indifference about the fish is matched by indifference for the safety of the crew, with dangerous working conditions and an appalling lack of maintenance for vessels and their equipment.

It will be good to have Lysenko’s book at a counterpoint to the novel by Martin Cruz Smith. A major theme in Smith’s book about the Soviet Union is how dysfunctional the system really was and the alienation of his characters, such as Renko. Polar Star doesn’t have too much to say about the fish that the Soviet fleet are catching. But Smith’s powerful indictment of the Soviet system makes Lysenko’s memoir all the more believable.


About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in Carmel Finley, Environmental History, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Sebastes rockfish, Soviet environmental history, Soviet fishing, World History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “A Crime Against the World,” by Vladil Lysenko

  1. Vera Schwach says:

    Just a small detail, but Vladil Lysenko’s book was published in Norway already the previous year, 1979, with the title Rovdrift ( in English: Ruthless Exhaustion). The meaning of the English title is very different, focusing foremost on the Cold War, The Swedish edition most likely was published the same year or before. You reminded me of the the attention the book got back in the late 70s and early 80s in a period with political tensions between Sweden and the Sovietunion, due to the assumed surveillance of the Baltic Sea by Soviet submarines (hence the English title?)
    .. .


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