Boris Pil'niak


The Blue Sea

Translated by Michael Pursglove and Gareth Owen.

On the 14 November 1854, during the Crimean War, the British warship Black Prince sank without trace in the Black Sea just off the coast of Balaklava.(1) Mankind keeps a register of all the ships which sail the high seas of the world. The Black Prince was a British troop-carrier, the first iron-built vessel in the Navy, a two-and-a-half- thousand-ton, four-boilered ship which was also fitted out with sails. The ship approached the Crimean coast on 12 November 1854. Balaklava bay was occupied by the allied fleet which was at war with Russia and laying siege to Sebastopol. On 12 November the Black Prince dropped anchor in the outer Balaklava roads and extinguished its boilers. The ship had brought from England four million pounds sterling (forty million Russian gold roubles) to pay the troops. Queen Victoria, the Englishwoman who had tricked Russia, had sent a diamond sword on the ship to present to the British commander.

At midday on 14 November a very severe storm broke over the Black Sea, the memory of which has remained with Balaklava fishermen even to this day. They recall that even the Genoese towers, standing about half a verst inland,(2) were drenched with the spray of the waves breaking on the shore. The storm is recorded in the annals of military history as having destroyed thirty-two ships of the allied fleet, including the Black Prince.

The Russian historian of the Crimean War, Lt-Gen. Bogdanovich, described the storm and the destruction of the ships in these words:

The French and English ships tried in vain to cast their anchors into the sea, the savage waves snapped the chains and severed the anchors, the ships became playthings of the storm, crashed into each other, broke up and disappeared into the watery depths. It was impossible to remain on deck without holding fast to the rigging.(3)

Nothing – or very little – is known about the fate of the Black Prince. The storm drove the ship towards the shore. The boilers had been extinguished. It was impossible to use the ship’s engines, to manoeuvre her by her sails or to turn her round. The anchors dragged. The captain ordered the masts to be chopped down in order to relieve the anchors. The masts began to fall into the sea. The result was a catastrophe. The mizzen mast fell into the sea before the hawsers could be cut, was dragged under the stern-post and the hawsers got entangled with the rudder. The ship, now out of control, was doomed. The captain gave his last order; “Abandon ship!”. Of the 255 members of the crew, only one survived to describe the last hours of the Black Prince.

No-one knew anything more about the Black Prince. The storm raged throughout the night. On the morning of the 15 November the sea was blue and quiet again and a golden sun shone in a blue sky. Together with 254 people, the gold and Victoria’s diamond sword had gone down with the Black Prince. Her last resting-place was forgotten and all that remained was the legend of the Black Prince’s gold, gold which anyone could find and raise. A cruel legend, for gold – riches – enrichment – is one of the cruellest and most horrible of the forces which motivate mankind.

During the Sebastopol campaign, by the Malakhov Redoubt, on the Karabelnaya defensive line,(4) scarecrow soldiers and corpses did sentry duty; half a million poods of gunpowder were used,(5) two million artillery shells and forty-five million rifle cartridges. All this is now forgotten.

Not forgotten, however, is the Black Prince’s gold. Frenchmen, Italians, Russians and Greeks have searched for it but found nothing because the spot where she went down has never been found, lost as it is in the watery elements.

How much blue, how much sun there is in the world! In winter, in December, at night it is pleasant to think of those countries which are termed “midday”, which are bathed in sunshine and blue. I remember the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean, the sea around Tsushima and the great ocean around Japan. I remember the lands around these seas and always when I think of them, I see and feel the sun and the blue, the unusual sun and blue, the blue of the sky, the blue of space, the most miraculous blue in the worId.

Once in Moscow, on Povarskaia Street, my friend the Japanese writer Otokichi Kuroda, told me that tomorrow he was going to the Crimea for a few days, to Balaklava, where his compatriots were scouring the sea-bed in search of the gold from the Black Prince.

I remembered the gold of the sun, the miraculousness of the blue and decided to go down to the sea-bed. I set off for the Crimea with Kuroda for a night. It turned out that in the international carriages of Russian trains you can choose your own motifs. I have been to the ruins of Hellenic culture in Greece and there too I have seen relics of the Genoese. I know Turks who bear a fraternal resemblance to Crimean Tartars. I have been to England and know this ruler of the waves. I have been to Japan and find it difficult to imagine Japanese in Balaklava, which, before the birth of Christ, in Hellenic times was called Symbolon. Under the Genoese it was called Cembalo and only with the arrival of the Turks in the fifteenth century did it become Balaklava, where to this day there remain the ruins of a Genoese fortress and marble Hellenic paths. I wanted the place which had been a crossroads for Greeks, Turks, English and Japanese to be a crossroads within myself. The international carriage was lulled by the silence and by the night from Moscow to Kursk and by the endless, restful day spent between Kursk and Alexandrovsk.(6) Kuroda-san kept his kimono on all day.

In the USSR there was a certain institution which had the ability to look not only forward into space but also many sazhens downwards into the ground or into the sea.(7) This institution was called OGPU.(8) OGPU, among other things, controlled economic organisations such as EPRON,(9) a body responsible for recovering sunken ships from the sea-bed. EPRON has a diving school, although it is not called a school as such, but, after nautical tradition, a “party”. The director of the diving party was Dr K.A. Pavlovsky. The divers Chumak, Galiamin and Fedotov found the remains of the Black Prince on the sea-bed. The honour of finding her, this golden legend, belongs to Dr Pavlovsky, but the rights belonged to EPRON. It had always been safely assumed that she had sunk in deep water and would therefore be impossible to find. The diving party, where young divers were trained, worked in the shallows.

Here are extracts from the divers’ log-book covering the days when the Black Prince was found:

17 November (1925)

At 6.50 Diver Chumak went down to survey the second half of square III3. The bottom was stony. Depth – 5-6 sazhens. He surveyed the whole area but no objects were seen. From square III3, a large object was noticed in square III2 and was investigated. On closer inspection he discovered it was made of iron and resembled a steam boiler. At 9.20 the diver was brought up. At 9.30 Diver Galiamin went down for a thorough examination of the object seen by Chumak. Diver Galiamin examined the object and confirmed it was a ship’s boiler. A little to the right and further out to sea a second, rather more damaged, boiler was discovered. Proceeding further, a little to the right and further out to sea, he found a third boiler which was completely smashed in and nearby he found a fourth, also very badly damaged. Found a ship’s funnel near the fourth boiler and two strips of channel iron. Brought up two fragments of flues and a piece of iron (apparently a piece of the deck).

19 November

Diver Chumak saw on the sea-bed large pieces of iron, a funnel, a steam boiler and two bitts.(10) A complete shrapnel shell, another shell (damaged), a medicine chest (inscribed in English with town and manufacturer), an earthenware jar and a piece of copper from a type of hatch were recovered from under the stones and brought up. Diver Gavril Fedotov brought up an old type of grenade and a boiler pipe.

10 December

... on the sea-bed part of the ship’s side was seen with its ribs and three portholes.

14 December

On the sea-bed the divers noticed a lot of iron... Diver Voronkov saw a piece of lead piping sticking out from under the stones. Diver attempted unsuccessfully to winch it free. We need to raise a few stones and then we will be able to recover more objects. It would be an interesting exercise to remove a stone with explosive to discover what lies beneath it.

From 17 November to 14 December the log-book also included, apart from the above, the following entries:

20 November

At 3.40 strong winds blew on Shaitan Der.(11) The diver was brought up and we returned to Balaklava.

26 November

Moderate swell from the south-west. Stepan Fedotov went down. Winds intensified. Swell increased. Diver began to roll. He was brought up and we returned to Balaklava.

1,2, 3-8 December

Storm at sea. No work.

Although the Black Prince had been found, not once did its name appear in the diver’s log-book because nobody had ever thought that the ship could have sunk 100 sazhens from the shore at a depth of six sazhens. At this depth on calm days she was visible to the naked eye. The diving party did not suspect that it had found the Black Prince, as it were, on a main thoroughfare right under the cliffs, on top of which stood the ruins of the Genoese Don Tower. They wondered what sort of ship they had found and why it was buried under boulders.

That winter, a copy of the diver’s log-book found its way to EPRON in Moscow. All ships which have ever sailed in the worId have been recorded by mankind, have been registered and, like people, have passports. The deaths of all ships are noted, as are their names, tonnages, draughts, steam-power and number of sails. When the diver’s log-book was studied in Moscow, it was noted that mankind was unaware of any iron ship sinking off Balaklava apart from the Black Prince. An exact manifest and plans of the Black Prince were found in British shipping registers and they were checked with the objects recovered from the depths off Balaklava – boilers, their sizes, the teak fittings, the biIge. The Black Prince had been found – or rather, what remained of her.

The diving team had established that the remains of the ship were buried under huge boulders. Dr Pavlovsky reported: “We have to lift these stones and put them to one side. Using explosive would not have been feasible because the bigger stones, shattered into smaller pieces, would have covered the exposed parts of the ship even more. Further investigation without removing these stones will be fruitless.”

The concession for raising the Black Prince’s gold was awarded by EPRON to the Japanese diver Kataoka. Kataoka completed the picture of the loss of the Black Prince, thereby explaining why she had not been found for so long and how she had been lost. The description of her loss was traced in drawings and recorded in mathematical formulae. The Black Prince, having lost its steering and become the “plaything of the storm” as Lt-Gen. Bogdanovich had described her, struck the rocks broadside, was smashed to pieces by the waves and sank there and then, a hundred sazhens from the shore. That same night, when the waves were hurling themseIves three hundred sazhens into the air, to the Don Tower, there was a landslide and the cliffs fell into the sea and crushed the Black Prince, concealing her from human eyes. Terrible must have been that night, the November gloom, the torrential rain, the hurricane and storm, when vessels were being hurled at cliffs and cliffs were collapsing onto vessels, utterly annihilating the iron and the people who propelled the iron.

We arrived in Balaklava at a time when twenty-five Japanese a day were diving to the sea-bed and shifting boulders about, each one weighing 1500 poods, in order to clear the area where the Black Prince lay and gain access to her remains. Kataoka-san, the leader of the expedition, a former sea captain, was a man with a worId-wide reputation. Before the Black Prince, he had salvaged gold from the Japanese ship Yasaku Maru, which had been sunk in the Mediterranean in 1915 by a German submarine in 200 metres of water. The Yasaku Maru was carrying gold and sank in the open sea but the precise location of its loss was unknown. The British, French and Italians refused the opportunity of finding the Yasaka Maru because of the depth of the water and the uncertainty of its location. Kataoka located it with mathematical formulae and invented a new diving apparatus based, once again, on mathematics and a study of the physiology of the blood. Kataoka raised from the bed of the Mediterranean, from a depth of 200 metres, three million roubles and a worId-wide reputation as a diver.

We remained in the compartment throughout the whole journey. Kuroda-san was in his kimono and all his belongings smeIt of Japan. In the intervals between our conversations about the Black Prince and our memories of Japan, I read the History of Genoese Settlements in the Crimea by Nikolai Murzakevich, published in Odessa in 1827 (12) and the academic journal Antiquities of Taurida. My friend Kuroda-san sat opposite me, his legs on the seat in Japanese style and smoked, smiled and wrote an article about Murman where he had spent a week before our journey south. Every hour that the train got further south it got stuffier and stuffier in our compartment and the sun and the blue intensified. The southern lands rose up before our eyes and with them, Japan. In the evening, Kuroda-san talked about his childhood in Japan. During the night I watched him sleeping, his legs crossed in a way no European would sleep and I thought about how anthropologically and culturally different East and West were, even where sleeping habits were concerned.

The monasteries of Inkerman woke us up with the sun. There was a holiday atmosphere in the train. The sun bathed the land with its pellucid light. Kuroda-san and I put on white suits and sun helmets to mark the holiday. The train flashed through the coal-black suffocation of tunnels and patches of sunlight before finally pulling into the cool, white stone station of Sebastopol. Here the shadows were green. Tartars’ teeth were blue in the sunlight. Greeks looked the colour of lilacs. A night separated Russia from Taurida, Kazyria, Crimea. On the steps by the buffet, under some palm trees, stood a Japanese, our interpreter, who came forward to meet us. He waved to us with his straw hat. We exchanged visiting cards. A broad-beamed car roared up, jolted to a halt and bore us off in a swirl of dust. Poplars, a bit of sea, a bullock-cart, our companion’s smile, a short stop at a sleepy pharmacy and a telegraph office. The expedition had got down to serious business. Yesterday they had brought up a copper coin of Queen Victoria, dated 1854. Kataoka was now at sea. Breakfast and a bath were ready for us. Kataoka would spend the evening with us. Very many Russian fruits and fish go well with Japanese food but rice was not available. Rice had to be ordered from Moscow by telegraph.

Balaklava, (Symbolon, Cembalo) is like a Norwegian fjord. Huge cliffs hung over the sea and the bay. On top of the cliffs are the ruins of a Genoese fort. The water in the bay is completely blue. The road is dusted with poplars. The little houses have birds’ nests sticking to them. The sea-front is at least two thousand years old.

We were given a room in the Hotel Rossiia near the house leased to the Japanese. We too plunged into Japan. A Japanese servant brought us tea and took us to the bath set up behind the kitchen and made out of a sort of Japanese barrel in which the water was aImost boiling. The house was empty and smelt of sea and Indian ink. The clerk handed me his visiting card. Divers’ suits hung in the corridor, their legs upwards – divers look like Wells’ Martians. In the bathroom we were given Japanese towels with which you had to wash and dry yourself simultaneously. Breakfast awaited us in the dining room: pickled plums, green tea, fish in soya sauce and rice. The chopsticks instead of knives and forks and the flavours of the food transported me back to Japan. We smoked Virginia cigarettes. A motor-boat was waiting for us to take us out to the divers. On shore, the holiday mood of the morning continued; men and women were strolling along the sea-front, northerners who had come for the sun, dressed in barbaric bathing costumes which disfigured the already not very beautiful northern Hellenes. The boat began to roll in the blue of the bay, took us to the shore of the open sea, in the blue of the water, in the blue of the sky, and the engine began to chug in neutral. The Japanese helmsman had bound his head with a towel. His national working clothes left his arms and legs bare in a logical and beautiful way.

The diving party, consisting of a steam-powered barge with cranes, a motor-boat, two diving barges and some dinghies, lay on the blue sea under the blue sky, in a stretch of water marked off with little flags on buoys, under the Don Tower and the sheer cliffs.

Kataoka came to meet us on the steam barge, a small man with a brown face the colour of roasted coffee, a man of world renown dressed in an oil-stained European working shirt and white gloves, just like all the other Japanese working on deck, whether deck hands or engineers. He smiled at us revealing perfect teeth, waved his Panama hat, shook our hands and introduced us to the other Japanese and to the Russian Dr Pavlovsky, the man who had found the Black Prince.

When we arrived, on the sea-bed they were blowing up the reefs with dynamite.

After the greetings, I said I would be pleased if I could go down in a diving suit to the bottom. Kataoka agreed provided Dr Pavlovsky permitted it, in other words, provided my health would allow.

We moved to the side to observe without interfering.

The divers would sink into the water leaving trails of bubbles behind them, looking something like enormous beetles or maybe beetle larvae. On the sea-bed they laid high-explosive dynamite charges under the reefs and then came up. The boats would fan out. The foreman would press the detonator. The sea would shriek and shudder and the boats would come together again. Dead fish floated to the surface. The Japanese caught them expertly with their thumbnails, gutted and beheaded them, swallowed the raw, still quivering fish and spat their tails into the sea. Like a fearsome larva, the diver went down again, signalled, and tied ropes around the huge fifteen-hundred-pood boulders. The crane creaked into action and the steam barge removed the rocks to deeper waters.

Doctor Pavlovsky, in the uniform of a Russian sailor with a gold-braided peaked hat on the back of his head and a vest revealing his chest, suggested a swim. Under the cliff, which hung like a roof above us and among the stones which had fallen into the sea and where the water was not so much blue as green, I whiled away my hours of sunshine, water and leisure. I lay in a crab-cool crevice between two enormous stones, my legs trailing in green water. A gentle wave washed over my shoulders with a sound of pebbles. This was the gentle slowness of leisure. Konstantin Alekseevich Pavlovsky listened to my heart in order to decide whether it was fit for these watery elements. The blue haze of leisure and cigarettes looked white against the blue heat of the sky.

And so the day passed. At dusk we dined, Japanese fashion, from ten tiny little dishes. At sundown we walked along the cliffs. Night fell, a night of female laughter along the promenade and in gardens, of enormous stars, of choral singing from the sea, of guardsmen’s whistling, of heady perfumes and spicy darkness – a southern night.

We went to see Kataoka. He was waiting for us in his study. This was the nerve centre of the expedition. Alongside black American suitcases which, in essence were portable wardrobes, lay unfamiliar instruments. One corner of the room was full of bits and pieces which had been raised from the sea-bed.

The walIs were covered with drawings and plans and behind them stood a camp-bed.

On the table Japanese tea and delicacies of sweet beans and seaweed were served, European-style, together with English cigarettes.

Kataoka was wearing his evening attire, a cream flannel suit. He was all white save for his brown, sunburnt face.

He was slow and business-like. Kuroda interpreted for us.

I asked whether there was a fair chance of not actually finding any gold.

Kataoka replied that the barrels of gold, the hundred barrels which had been on the Black Prince had of course been shattered on impact. They would have to search the sea-bed with pumps and put it through a sieve. And even then they might not succeed in finding any gold if it had been dispersed by the waves.

In that case, I asked, what had made Kataoka-san take the concession?

Kataoka smiled and answered briefly: “The gold”.

“And if there isn’t any?”

Kataoka’s answer was firm. The whole worId of diving was watching him, England, America, Japan, the whole world. If he didn’t find the Black Prince’s gold, then he would at least destroy the legend. That seemed to him to be worth the money.

Before me sat a man, an artist, whose work was creative work. Kataoka-san began to speak again before I could question him further. He asked Kuroda to convey to me that he and his twenty-four colleagues and compatriots, his diving team with whom he had already raised a large number of vesseIs, great and small throughout the worId, considered their work to be, above all, a responsibility to mankind. They felt this every minute of the day. Kataoka sat there, this brown-faced Japanese, smoking and eating his bean sweets. Great people have simple gestures. He showed me the Victorian copper coin which had been eaten away by molluscs and his face glowed with pleasure, pure and simple.

He suggested we go to a little restaurant on the sea-front and have a glass of beer. The night was warm and dark; such nights are often described as “veIvet”. I was able to form a picture of the life of this “Master of the Waters”. He worked from dawn, in his study on drawings, mathematics and knowledge whilst in the sea he worked on the watery elements using experience and muscle. This was for him a distant, alien and incomprehensible country, just as some provincial port in Hokkaido would be for a Russian. In the evenings he would read Japanese newspapers and journals which arrived a month late, smoke cigarettes, eat rice with chopsticks, walk along the sea-front at night before retiring at midnight in order to begin work again at dawn – working in the mysterious elements of the sea, mindful that he was being watched by the world which had recognised him as the greatest diver on earth.

That evening, in a most deferential manner, I took my leave of Kataoka-san.

The next morning, for the first time in my life, I experienced an incomparable feeling, a feeling of the miraculous: I was going down to the sea-bed.

I have flown above the clouds, losing sight of the land below, have been in the theatres of East and West, sailed over oceans, visited the Arctic and the tropics – but all this cannot be compared with what the sea-bed offers.

In order to descend to the sea-bed in a diver’s suit, one has to be in good health, especially the heart, ears and nerves. The heart has to cope with the blood, for with every sazhen of depth, pressure increases by one atmosphere, nitrogen forms in the blood and it begins to fizz like Narzan mineral water when you uncork the bottle. The ears must have strong ear-drums so that they do not burst when used air is expelled from the diver’s suit and there is an immediate change in air pressure. As for nerves – man is a terrestrial creature, fish die in air, pilots take me up into the skies, but under water in a diver’s suit, my life is in my own hands and one must have strong nerves to remain in control of it. Learner divers first practise in diver’s suits on land before going one sazhen under water, and then one and a half sazhens.

It was a golden day. The motor-boat took me and the friends who had appeared in the course of the evening, in particular Vera Inber, out to the diving party.(14) Having heard that a writer was going under water, the Moscow-Balaklava Hellenes in their bathing costumes gathered around the exclusion zone in their dinghies. It was a beautiful day, very hot. I was to descend to the sea-bed under the supervision of Dr. Pavlovsky but under the guidance of the Japanese who could not speak Russian any more than I could speak Japanese.

The Japanese smiled and welcomed me. Dr Pavlovsky went through the checks and the signals with me: heart, ears, nerves; good, bad, return. I now put myself in their hands. The Japanese, sun-browned Japanese whose teeth, like those of the Tartars at the station, flashed blue in the sunlight whenever they smiled, sat me down on a small bench and began to undress me. One unlaced my shoes and another undid my tie. They left me my underwear. In my state of dependence, my nakedness afforded me no shame. They then dressed me in a woollen undershirt as thick as a finger and a pair of socks and a pair of drawers of the same material. I immediately felt as if I were in the tropics and began to joke. Taking off his headband, the Japanese wiped the sweat off me. They put me into a rubber sack, having first laid me and the sack on the deck, then pressed my shoulders with their feet so that I could climb into it. Inside it was Shanghai suffocating. Divers’ boots made of lead and copper were then put on my feet, each one weighing a pood. A length of canvas was then wound round me. They then placed me by the side of the deck. As roughly as a tyre is forced over the rim of a car wheel, the edge of the rubber sack, into which I had been shoved, was forced over a copper collar, weighing one and a half poods, which had been placed on my shoulders. The rubber was then bolted to the collar. Two sinkers were hung from the collar, one on my chest and one on my back, each one weighing about thirty pounds. Weights were attached with lanyards under my arms to prevent them floating about. They tied a signalling rope, the “signal end”, around my hips and tightened it, as if they were tightening the hame-strap on a horse-collar, bracing their feet against my hips. Already five poods or so of weights were attached to me. Holding me under the arms, they put me on the ladder, up to my waist in the water. I felt hot and happy. For the last time Dr Pavlovsky said “heart, ears, nerves; good, bad, return”. I held the signalling rope in my hands. From her dinghy Vera Inber was looking at me with concern, while Kuroda was beaming at me. Pavlovsky placed over my head the Martian-like skull of the diving suit, my last one and a half poods of weight and pointed out the valve which I had to press with my head at a place between my right ear and the back of my head in order to release the used air. The doctor took my glasses off. They began screwing the diving suit to the collar like a hermetic cork. The process was completed.

I was cut off from the world. My head began to buzz with the noise of air being pumped down to me. Pavlovsky waved.

I pushed myself away from the ladder to experience the sensation of sinking into myself and into the water. The green water closed over my head with a splash. The red bottom of the dinghy in which Kuroda and Inber stood, began to rise. The arms waving above on the boats began to blur and assume impossible shapes, elongating and flattening. The wooden bottom of the boat swayed and heaved as if it had come to life. Then it dissolved into the blue and disappeared. The element, blue and unaccustomed, enveloped me. I caught the rays of the sun. They reached me in two ways, like very sharp arrows and like pancake-shaped faces. I released the valve and air gurgled out; there was a ringing in my empty ears and my heart was dumb. The pump forced in new air and my heart resounded like heavy artillery as it circulated the thickening blood. And then, through the blue-green murk, I saw the dark stones of the sea-bed. A little fish swam up to the face-panel of my diving suit. I tried to catch it but it calmly swam off to the side and again came up to me. I was amazed at my hand. It moved oddly, zigzagging back and forth like an accordeon being squeezed and stretched. I had dived headfirst, a fact I first realised when I saw the stones on the sea-bed. I moved my head and shoulders and realised that the pood weights attached to me no longer had any weight. I was weightless. Next to me was a reef, twice as tall as me, overgrown with seashells and seaweed. The sunlight streamed down like arrows and pancakes. Everything was a murky, greenish-blue and moon-like. My eyes strained into the blue darkness. The sea-bed resembled an enormous goblet, the sides of which rose and disappeared into an opaque lunar murk. It was totally unlike the human world, totally impervious to human rules. I wanted to touch the reef which was alongside me. My hand would not reach so I stepped towards it. The reef moved away. Stones half as big as me lay underfoot. I walked like a cyclops. I approached the reef, reached out to touch it, stretched up above my head and my feet took off from the bottom. A large fish swam out past me from under the reef. Weightless, I climbed the reef, my hands lightly touching the stones. I stepped off the reef and found myself amongst the shattered remnants of a ship’s bilge. The portholes looked sinister, a three-eyed monster moved along in the fractured rays of the sun in the opaque blue of the water. The ship’s ribs were heaped with stones. Here it was, the Black Prince, the human legend of gold. A fish swam out of a dead porthole. My heart was choked with blood and my ears were ready to burst. I had forgotten to release the used air. I opened the valve and legs, heart and head slumped feebly. Here it was, the Black Prince, the legend and the terrible fate, the sea-bed and death. From above, signals kept coming down to me. “All right?” I regretted I had no signal to say “Incredible!”. The fish had accepted me into their society, swimming around me without the least concern. Never and nowhere had I ever seen anything like this. Here on the sea-bed, the watery elements have their own laws of physics, visibility, density, breath and life, laws which do not exist on land. Sunlight slanted down like green arrows. The dead Black Prince moved, but the movement was lifeless. An incredible lunar blueness hung all around it.

From above, signals came down to me more and more frequently. “All right?” I got the signals mixed up.

Suddenly, I began to crawl slowly upwards, against my will and hung a few sazhens above the Black Prince. This minute of suspension was like an eternity. I rose another sazhen. The sea-bed disappeared. Land was not yet in sight, just a blinding blueness. Blueness and nothing else. My heart bubbled in its struggle with the blood, which was on the point of boiling. In order to prevent the blood from boiling over as a result of a rapid change of depth, divers are brought to the surface very slowly, a sazhen at a time, and held there for a minute or two. I was the diver and these minutes of suspension were like eternities. I saw the bottoms of the boats – land, human life – and, like a thirteen-year-old, began to wave my arms and legs, kicking out in a frenzy of joy as I greeted land and the people hanging out over the sides of their dinghies.

Dr Pavlovsky wanted to check my heart but I waved him away. Joyously I crawled out of the rubber and the weights, proudly pulled my trousers back on, knotted my tie, warmed myself in the sun and slapped the Japanese on their backs: “Yoroshii gozaimasu il!”, that is to say “Very good!”

In the evening, after dinner, the last Japanese meal I was ever to have in Balaklava, we went to the station to return to Moscow. I mischievously enquired why Kuroda-san hadn’t come down with me to the sea-bed. He made a joke in reply and a knowing expression appeared on his face. He told me that after our departure the Japanese had sprinkled salt over the diving barge and boats in order to purefy them from the female taint left by Vera Inber. From the Crimea of the south we were returning to a Moscow September.

The following morning, in the Ukraine, I woke up feeling utterly shattered. Lumps and bruises had appeared on my shoulders where the diving collar had been placed and on my head where I had released the valve. My legs refused to function.

Months have now passed and more years will pass. Whenever the world is suffused with blue and sun, I often recall, and will always do so, in Decembers, in winters, at nights, those extraordinary moments that I spent on the sea-bed. The more those days recede, the more miraculous those moments seem to become, in accordance with the law that, while they are being experienced, miracles do not seem miraculous. I noted down in detail everything that happened to me on the sea-bed but now it seems different to me, magnificent, yet somehow impossible to communicate. My imagination conjures up improbabilities. And when I think, especially at nights, about the sea-bed, I drift into a strange sensation of blueness which permeates me. Everything becomes miraculous, even myself.

The Japanese failed to find the Black Prince’s gold.

The Japanese found the Black Prince and destroyed the legend.

It was the English who had raised the gold from the Black Prince soon after the loss of the vessel, during the six months they spent in Balaklava after 14 November. The English recovered not only the gold and Queen Victoria’s diamond-encrusted sword, but also stripped out all the bronze from the wreck. Under the stones the Japanese found the remains of an English diver hermetically sealed in a diving suit. He had died on the sea-bed. The English did not bother to bring the body up. The Japanese did. In the diver’s pocket was a page from a diary for 1854. The diver was engaged in recovering the gold from the Black Prince. Everything was now clear. The rulers of the waves and world traders, the English, know how to keep secrets and, a source of national pride, they love a joke. They made light of the legend of the Black Prince but the Japanese made short work of it. The historian of the Crimean War, Lt-Gen. Bogdanovich, in the third volume of his work, noted:

Although on our side nothing was done to take advantage of the allies’ disastrous position, the storm of 14 November nevertheless had dire consequences for them. Cholera and other diseases spread with horrifying speed and increased the death rate in the English camp.

The English were not only concerned with cholera.

The Genoese Don Tower still stands above Balaklava. Under the Genoese, Balaklava was called Cembalo. In the book published in Odessa in 1827, before the Crimean campaign, Cembalo is described thus:

The Europeans exchanged manufactured goods and products for Russian furs, silk from Asia and spices from Hindustan. Caravans with goods from China, Tibet, India and Turkestan reached the Tana (15) safely via Astrakhan. China sent porcelain, India sent diamonds and spices, Bengal sent opium, Malabar sent saffron and sandal wood, Ceylon sent pearls and cinnamon, Tibet sent musk, Ethiopia sent ivory by sea, Arabia sent myrrh and incense. In exchange for these luxury products of Asia and Africa the Genoese sent various sorts of cloth, especially purple and red cloth, belts, necklaces, bracelets, rings and other female adornments, as well as leopard skins. The Genoese obtained precious metals worth considerable sums of money from the Tartars who had acquired them in Russia.

Cembalo was renamed Balaklava by the Turks in 1383. Keduk Ahmet Pasha, the Turkish general, conqueror of the Crimea, took Cembalo by stealth. The Genoese were betrayed by the Armenians and a Genoese, the consul Squarciafico. The chronicler noted:

On the ninth day the conqueror gave a banquet to which he also invited the Armenians who had participated in handing over the town, as well as the consul Squarciafico. After the banquet they all received their just deserts for their treachery. As they left, each was taken down a narrow staircase out of the fortress and towards the sea. There they were put to death and thrown into the waves.(16)

The word “black” in “Black Sea” is an exact translation of the Turkish “kara”. But kara has two meanings, “black” and “evil”. The Turks apply the word kara to the Black Sea in the sense of “evil”. The Russian translation from the Turkish is incorrect.

Under the Greeks, in Hellenic times, during the era of Herodotus and Taurida, Cembalo was called Symbolon. Herodotus writes:

“...further east lies a bay with a narrow entrance which is called the harbour of the Symbols”. (17)

Balaklava, the harbour of Symbols! It is wonderful to live in this blue world!

Iamskoe Pole 10 February 1928

“Sinee more” was first published in the journal Novyi mir, 3, 1928, pp. 97-110 (reprinted 1929, 1934 and 1935; modern reprints date from 1976). This, as far as is known, is the first translation into English.

First published 1928.

Contributed by Michael Pursglove.


The Prince was one of twenty-one British ships, out of a fleet of twenty-seven, which sank in the great storm which hit Balaklava on 14 November 1854. She was known to be carrying winter clothing for the army besieging Sebastopol, and rumoured to be carrying gold to pay the troops. The press guessed wildly at the amount involved: 300,000 dollars, half a million pounds and even ten million roubles were mentioned. Unsurprisingly, expeditions were mounted to search for the treasure, by Italy, France, America, Germany and Japan. In 1923 an expedition was mounted by EPRON (see note 9), the first such project undertaken by this newly formed Soviet organisation. The Italian expedition was responsible for attaching the epithet “Black” to the name of the ship. Its work was described by the writer Aleksandr Kuprin in his Listrigony [The Laestrygones, 1907-11], but its findings subsequently discredited. Like all the expeditions it found no gold and probably did not even find the ship. However, the Japanese expedition of 1927, described by Pil’niak in The Blue Sea, claimed to have found the ship.

When The Blue Sea was published in the journal Novyi mir Pil’niak was at the height of his fame and occupied the prestigious post of chairman of the Moscow branch of the All-Russian Union of Writers. Subsequently Mikhail Zoshchenko, in a piece called Chernyi Prints [The Black Prince], published in 1936, cast doubts on their account and may well have been making a conscious riposte to Pil’niak. Despite the numerous attacks on him, The Blue Sea had been reprinted under the title Pod vodoi [Under the Water] in a 1934 publication by EPRON itself (it also appeared in collections of Pil’niak’s works published in 1929 and 1935). Basing himself on British parliamentary papers, however, Zoshchenko also demonstrated that any gold the Prince may have been carrying was probably offloaded at Constantinople.

In his account Pil’niak uses the names of real-life people: Pavlovsky, Chumak, Galiamin, Fedotov, Voronkov, Otokichi Kuroda and Kataoka. At one level The Blue Sea reads as a piece of factual reportage. The appearance, however, is deceptive. For instance Pil’niak’s assertion, that the discovery of the skeleton of a British diver proves that the British had salvaged the gold, does no such thing. Indeed, it is now thought that the British were attempting to salvage secret weapons with which they hoped to remove the scuttled ships blocking the entrance to Sebastopol harbour. At another level this account of a Russian-sponsored Japanese attempt to raise a British ship in Crimean waters reveals Piln’iak’s fascination with all things exotic. It was in part Pil’niak’s internationalist attitude which contributed to the suspicion in which he was held by the Soviet authorities, leading to his appalling fate a few years later at the height of the Purges. He had been to Japan and written up his experiences in Korni iaponskogo solntsa [Roots of the Japanese sun, 1926] and the combination of a Japanese team, fishing and cooking in Japanese fashion, and the chequered history of Balaklava clearly fascinates him. He loses no opportunity to expand the internationalism of the story beyond Japan and the Crimea through the introduction of apparently trivial details: a Norwegian fjord, the Hotel Rossiia, Virginia cigarettes, a Panama hat, American suitcases, “Shanghai suffocating”. Opposed to this vast diversity is the unifying omnipresence of blueness – the blue sky and above all the blue sea into which he descends.

Ultimately, perhaps, it is Balaklava itself which dominates the story, the town he terms in the last line of the work “the harbour of Symbols”.

Michael Pursglove (formerly University of Bath).

(1) The ship was actually called The Prince. See commentary.
(2) half a verst: about five hundred metres.
(3) The source is M A Bogdanovich, V
(4) Karabelnaya: so spelled in most English accounts of the Crimean War. Strictly speaking it should be spelled “Korabel’naia”. ostochnaia voina, vol.3, ch. 25, St Petersburg, 1876. Bogdanovich does not mention the Prince by name.
(5)pood: an old Russian measure of weight, equivalent to 16.38 kg.
(6) Kursk; Aleksandrovsk: large towns in, respectively, Central Russia, 125 miles west of Voronezh, and Ukraine, on the River Dnieper. Aleksandrovsk was known as Zaporozh’e after 1921.
(7) sazhen: at 1.83 metres, the Russian equivalent of a fathom.
(8) OGPU: from 1922-34 the organisation chiefly noted for running the secret police.
(9) EPRON: Russian initials for an organisation whose name may be translated as “Special Underwater Expedition”. EPRON was in existence from 1923-41.
(10) bitts: a pair of posts on a ship’s deck for fastening cables.
(11) Shaitan Der: ‘The Devil’s Ravine’.
(12) N.A. Murzakevich, Istoriia Genuezskikh naselenii v Krymu, Odessa, 1827. Murzakevich quotes two Italian sources for these details: La Storia della Antica Liguria e di Genova scritta dal Marchese Girolamo Serra, Torino, 1834; Lettere Ligustiche ossia Osservazioni critiche sullo Stato Geographico della Liguria fino ai tempi di Ottone Il Grande, con le Memorie Storiche di Caffa ed Altri Luoghi della Crimea posseduti un tempo da Genovesi, Abbate Gasparo Luigi, Oderico, 1792.
(13) Taurida: another name for the Crimea.
(14) Vera Inber: (1890-1972), poet and prose writer.
(15) Tana: a Genoese port at the mouth of the Don, now part of Rostov. The river Don was known to the Greeks as Tanais.
(16) Squarciafico, Genoese consul in the port of Caffa (now Feodisiia). He was by all accounts a corrupt and incompetent official who betrayed the port to the Turks. Squarciafico was not murdered at this banquet. His fate, however, was no less gruesome: he was hanged from a hook in Constantinople.
(17) Herodotus: The reference may be to Strabo (Geography, VII) rather than to Herodotus.

Michael Pursglove