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'Land of the White Death'

If you’re thinking of the commotion that was kicked up by the recent presidential election, you can imagine the commotion kicked up in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. With this in mind, imagine how one of the thrilling accounts of Nordic adventure, Valerian Albanov’s “Land of the White Death” — written by a Russian but published in America only in 2000 — should have remained unchecked out all these years in the stacks of Widener Library at Harvard. Now, with some 70 years of delay, following the bestseller — and movie — success of such tales of high adventure as “The Perfect Storm,” Albanov’s experiences in the Siberian Arctic have come into their own.

Setting out from Murmansk in 1912, with 25 men and one woman aboard, the Saint Anna had the modest aspiration of scouting the sea for whales and walruses, in addition to maybe reaching the North Pole. Having been frozen in the ice for, not one, but two winters, with two-thirds of her crew lost to disease, those remaining were clad in rags. Everything loose aboard ship had been burned in the furnace for heat.

For all those who have been reading the recent outcrop of excellent adventure magazines that have appeared in America, I should point out sadly that the voyage of the Saint Anna was no fun. Endless fighting over scraps, the only light from a smokey smudge pot that produced as much smoke as light, the constant worrying over how much fuel was left — would it be enough to make it back home? In addition to which within four months the crew of the Saint Anna was suffering from a terrible plague of scurvy.

A bold young woman with some training as a nurse had volunteered to serve on the Saint Anna but with no notion of what she was in for. “This will take from two to three weeks and I’ll come home from Archangel by train,” she wrote to her father. “The goal of the expedition, it seems,” she explained, “is to hunt walruses, bears, etc. … And then we’ll try to traverse toVladivostok, but you can be sure, none of that concerns me.”

Seduced by the first leg of the journey, the young woman stayed aboard — the ship completely frozen in the ice — until her death, as did most of the other crew members. Albanov and 13 crewmen left the ship, hoping to reach distant land traveling over the frozen sea. Their trip took them 90 brutal days, covering 235 miles, usually in sub-zero weather. “It was time for a great journey by sledge. We all wore a double layer of undergarments because of the cold and I carried only one personal item, an icon of Saint Nicholas the Miracle-Worker.”

“Whether boiled or roasted, seal meat remains dark and tender with a pleasant taste, similar to venison,” he wrote of what they ate, when they were lucky enough to shoot some game. “Seal meat I had eaten in the Kara Sea often had an oily blubbery taste. Polar bear meat is without doubt much tastier.

“In my opinion, seal meat is entirely edible, the liver of the seal is even a delicacy. All of us when on the ship ate with relish, even when we had abundant and varied provisions. Seal brains fried in seal oil also taste very good. The front flippers, well baked are reminiscent of calves feet. Initially my companions overindulged in seal blubber. They would cut it into small pieces and fry it thoroughly, producing what is called cracklings. If we ate them with ship’s biscuits, we would quickly become sated.”

The book contains some very moving sequences of the men staggering about, half dead from exhaustion, snowblindness, blizzards, attacks from polar bears and walruses and the ever-present cold. “I was particularly shaken by his vacant, terrified eyes, the eyes of a man who had lost his reason,” he writes of one of the trekkers. “We cooked some bouillon and when we gave him a cup full he drank half of it, then lay down again. We had no doubt that Nilsen would be dead by morning.” Symptoms of which Albanov complains throughout his book — weakness or even paralysis of the legs, mental stupor, and vision troubles — were not the result of scurvy as he thought so frequently as of severe vitamin deficiency.

A terrifying moment came when Albanov wakes to find himself soaked in icy water, with him inside his sleeping bag headed for the bottom. During a brief instant as in a dream he sees the deaths of three comrades and all he can think is, “Who will ever know how I died? No one!” he answers, filled with outrage. And this seems to be enough to bring him back. But he comes to finding himself standing in icy water. Would he die now of cold? His kayak is intact, but he realizes then that it was the heat generated by the hard rowing with his last remaining strength that saved him.

But not so fast. Once again on the ice his legs began to swell, and painfully. But this too passed, and he reflects sadly that of all the jolly companions that had left Saint Petersburg in July 1912 only two of them have survived the ordeal. Miraculously rescued after so many hardships, “We
finally disembarked at Archangel on September 1, 1914.”

Just as the Big Show began.