Lyubov Petrovna Orlova is one of Soviet Russia’s great actresses, and the first real Soviet film star. Although she died nearly 40 years ago, her legacy lives on, with an asteroid and a ship named after her. The asteroid can be found on the far side of Mars, 12.86 light-minutes away. We don’t know where the ship is (though earlier this year, some people were convinced that it was infested with rats and heading for the coast of England).
The M/V Lyubov Orlova probably sank months ago, when red lights started flashing on panels around the world as her emergency transmitters contacted water. After all, nobody has seen her since she was spotted a few hundred miles from Newfoundland a year ago, a ghost ship drifting eerily across the North Atlantic.
But I don’t like to think of her slipping under the ocean, alone, in an unceremonious end to her glorious escape from the scrap yard. Instead I imagine her victoriously charging up on some Irish shore, unleashing her payload of cannibal rats upon the unsuspecting island.
But that’s just me. We sort of have a history.
I have an awkward memory of sitting across from my mother at one of my first meals onboard the M/V Lyubov Orlova. I paid the ship what I thought was a compliment: “You know, my mom always said this ship was a dump,” I remarked. “But I think it’s really nice.” She kicked me under the table as the passengers tried to gracefully move on; they had paid thousands of dollars to be there. With my more refined manners and larger brain, today I see why it was inappropriate for a staff member to call the ship a “dump."
My mom was right the first time, though. Unlike her namesake, the ship was an ugly old lady. 90 metres long and 4,251 gross tonnes, Lyubov Orlova was a rugged beast, built for withstanding light sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. Despite a new refurbishing job, she was cramped and unflinchingly utilitarian. The tiny crew quarters where my brother Euan and I slept reeked of diesel fumes, and a rogue spring in the mattress gave me a scar on my left knee that I can still see. But she got us where we needed to go, and her crew taught me to ask for more ice cream in Russian.
This was 2001, and I was 13 years old. My parents were working as naturalists, lecturing about the history of the Celts as we steamed up the outer coast of Great Britain on our way to Iceland and, eventually, some magical iceberg called Greenland. It was an expedition cruise, meaning that the food is worse and there’s no casino, but you actually get to go places. We never made it as far as Iceland.
We were on the tail end of a force nine gale in the middle of the North Atlantic, so things were already bad enough when we found out that the company chartering the ship had gone bankrupt for the second time in two years. It was a fly-by-night operation called Marine Expeditions, and it owed money—lots of it. The company didn’t own the ship, but rather leased it from its Russian owner, Oleg Abramov. He was pissed that he wouldn’t get paid, so he instructed the captain to get money from us: $20,000, or we wouldn’t dock. He ordered the captain—his employee—to set sail for the Black Sea, several days away.
I didn’t know any of this at the time, really. I knew there was some far-away Bond villain shaking us down, and that I’d never find out what Greenland is. I also knew that it was officially an adventure, and that I got to raid the Marine Expeditions storeroom for M&Ms and T-shirts with puffins on them. Euan gave me a beer. Like I said, adventure.
Meanwhile, the passengers and my parents were trying to figure out how they were going to get home from Gibraltar; the plan was to drop us off in inflatable boats while the ship kept chugging toward its home port. Although the crew continued to be hospitable, even apologetic, and kept us fed, they refused us access to the ship’s phone or fax. My dad’s satellite phone—a gadget his archaeology firm had given him to field test—had thus become our only means of communication to the outside world. In the middle of the night, with the wind still howling off the last of its gale, he sneaked up onto the top deck with my mother and the expedition leaders. They called my uncle, a retired spy living near Toronto.
According to family lore, the call came at 2AM, waking my uncle. He flicked on the light and turned to my aunt, asking her to “get my red book.” The red book, a holdover from his former life, held contacts in London and Dublin where, embassy workers quickly got to work.
They tracked down an investor of the now-defunct company, who ponied up what people onboard had started to refer to as “ransom.” After five days of uncertainty, frustration, and M&Ms, the captain agreed to let us disembark in Dublin.
Lyubov Orlova’s engines never stopped. An American embassy worker came aboard wearing shorts and a loud Hawaiian shirt. He explained that we were cleared to enter Ireland temporarily, and that we would be responsible for finding our own way home.
As soon as we were clear of the gangway, Orlova threw lines and made for the Black Sea. I thought I would never see her again.
Eleven years later, though, I did. I had grown up, but time hadn’t been kind to her. She languished at the pier in St. John’s, Newfoundland, rusting and abandoned. I was getting ready to board a ship as a staff member myself, following in my parents’ footsteps as a naturalist. She had been passed from company to company over the years, running aground once and being impounded several times due to deadbeat owners’ nonpayment of fees.
The latest time she had been let down by her owners was when Cruise North, another Canadian company with ties to Marine Expeditions, had sued her owners, stranding her Russian crew in St. John’s when the ship was seized. The famous Newfoundland hospitality saw the crew provided with food and smokes, and eventually repatriated. Orlova did not receive the same treatment. Abandoned by her owners, she decayed alone, tied to the dock in a foreign country and held ransom over their debts.
Months later she would finally get her revenge.
She had been sold for scrap. She would be towed to the Dominican Republic, then stripped and dismembered, pried apart until the valuable steel hull and frame were gone and she was reduced to a pile of worthless Soviet-era fittings, the only reminders of her glorious past.
She had no such plans, however. While they dragged her to her death on January 24, 2013, a storm blew up. Among the three-metre waves and foaming sea, she saw her chance. Orlova slipped her bonds and drifted to her freedom, disappearing into the storm.