And then Nikolai Ageyev, the lighthouse keeper, heard this: “A decision has been made regarding reduction of the number of lighthouses, and your service is being terminated.” For Nikolai and his wife Lyudmila, who had been working as caretakers of Zhuzhmuy lighthouse for seven years, the news was devastating.
Prior to this cutback, there had been several dozen lighthouses on the White Sea under the navy’s purview. Zhuzhmuy – one of the oldest in Russia – had been lighting the way for ships since 1871. First it was a wooden structure, later it was rebuilt out of steel. Each lighthouse has its own unique call sign and flash frequency. Zhuzhmuy’s sign was “wineglass,” and it flashed a series of four blinks, each lasting four seconds. Its beacon was visible from 30 kilometers away.
Nikolai was the third generation of lighthouse keepers in his family, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father. He was even born at the lighthouse. Since his parents could not immediately travel to the mainland to register their son’s birth, he is “officially” a month younger than his true age (his birth certificate gives January 13, 1958, as his birthday rather than the actual date: December 13, 1957).
Nikolai did all his schooling on Zhuzhmuy, and worked as a mechanic at the lighthouse. He then left for the mainland, returning to visit his parents and the cemetery – the entire dynasty of keepers is buried on the island, and it is the only lighthouse-keeper graveyard that has been preserved in Russia’s North.
Lyudmila Ryntsina lived in the village of Shuyeretskoye, in Karelia’s Belomorsk District. As the head of the town’s electoral commission, she would fly to Zhuzhmuy. In the 1990s, lighthouse keepers and meteorologists were still living on the island and all needed to be guaranteed their right to vote. Lighthouse keepers only left the island in extreme situations, so Nikolai’s parents asked Lyudmila to collect their pension for them, and hand it off to their son, who lived in Belomorsk (a city not far from Shuyeretskoye).
And so, during that money handoff Lyudmila and Nikolai became acquainted. By that time, Ryntsina had split from her husband and was raising her six children (five girls and one boy) alone. Nikolai came to visit her and took a look around: a broken-down stove; laundry drying on lines... It was immediately apparent that she was having a hard time of it alone, so he declared, “I am going to live here.”
Lyudmila hastily replied, “Kolya, do you see what I’ve got here? Six!”
“What of it?” he answered. And he stayed.
AN ISLAND OF TWO When Nikolai’s parents died, someone not from his lighthouse-family was hired to take charge of Zhuzhmuy lighthouse. He drank and neglected the lighthouse and its upkeep. So he was fired and the job was offered to Nikolai. Given that there was basically no work in Shuyeretskoye, Lyudmila and Nikolai discussed the offer and agreed to resettle on the island.
YOU CAN ONLY GET TO BOLSHOY ZHUZHMUY BY BOAT. IT’S A 50-kilometer journey that takes five to ten hours, depending on the weather. The island itself is huge, with boulders, sand, and forest. In the winter it is covered with impassable snowdrifts and buffeted by icy winds. The lighthouse and the official keeper’s house, where Lyudmila and Nikolai were to live, sits on an elevated spot about a kilometer from the shoreline. The only means of communication with the mainland is shortwave radio. There is no doctor, and there are no stores – nothing but wilderness.
The couple brought their entire household to the island, including goats and chickens. They built a sauna, fixed up the home, and basically put everything in order. Their bosses praised their efforts.
During the summer, there were seasonal workers on Zhuzhmuy, gathering seaweed. But in winter the island emptied out, and the caretakers were the only two left behind.
But they were not lonely, as the demands of their work filled their days. Morning and night, they were required to communicate via shortwave with neighboring lighthouses, to report that everything was as it should be. Then they had to charge up batteries, do repairs, and turn on the beacon according to the set schedule. And every day they had to make entries in the official journal.
During the day CB:2 battery was recharged (10 hours).
The day was taken up with hauling wood to the plant.
Communications at 9:00. Could not make contact with Zvezda.
The lighthouse lamp was turned on. It shone without issues.
“In the evenings, Kolya and I would stand at the top of the lighthouse and look out over the sea and up at the starry sky. It was beautiful,” Lyudmila recalls. “We would watch the ships come toward the lighthouse and sail along the waterway. We were not lonely or afraid. We were happy.”
In the winter, seals swam along the icy shores, and fox tails flickered in the forests. In the summer, the caretakers gathered berries, and endlessly cut the grass. Nikolai fished all year round. And they trod up and down, up and down the lighthouse. 110 steps. Up and down. Down and up. They survived the winters without difficulty. And in summer they occasionally took a boat to the mainland, to visit relatives and stock up on groceries. The rations delivered to the lighthouse annually (canned food, cereals, sugar, tea) were never enough.
Every outing on the sea was risky and, as Lyudmila put it, brought “grey hairs.”
“Storms on the sea are horrific and sudden,” she said. “You head out on quiet seas, and then a few hours later waves rise up taller than the boat. At such moments, it was always a joyful thing to see the beacon of the lighthouse in the darkness: there was a warm feeling of home, of life. The light is burning, calling us; dear one, soon we will be there.”
All sorts of things happened at sea. Once, Lyudmila was submerged up to her neck in the water during a storm, holding onto the boat while Nikolai tried to moor it. Or there was the time Nikolai and his young granddaughter fell into the icy water near the shoreline, and the child, freezing to death, cried out, “Babushka, I am dying!” Or the time that a wild seal chased after their grandchildren along the shore. (“We never thought they could run on their fins, but they can go at an inhuman speed.”) Or the time that the sea washed headless seals ashore – the gruesome result of a poachers’ raid.
Yet, on balance, when considering their quiet life on the beautiful island, all of this was trivial. Life was good on Zhuzhmuy.
Lyudmila and Nikolai worked on the island for seven years. Then came the message over the shortwave. The keepers were given a few months to gather up their belongings, and they gradually transferred all of their possessions, all of their livestock, to the mainland. They put the lighthouse and the residence in order. The final entry in the watch journal was made by Nikolai Ageyev on August 7, 2010.
The lighthouse beacon was turned off. We weighed anchor at 20:00 and set course for Belomorsk.
There is no description in the journal of how the caretakers made their way to the mainland. Yet Lyudmila remembers it well.
“When we were leaving Zhuzhmuy, we found ourselves in a storm unlike any we had ever seen. The waves towered over us, and it was impossible to leave. Over all the years we had worked there, we had never had to return to the island due to bad weather. But that time we returned, and then we waited it out on Zhuzhmuy for a few days, until the waters settled. The lighthouse did not want us to go.”
NEVER ABANDON ONE’S OWN
Zhuzhmuy lighthouse was not demolished. The large beacon was turned off, but the back-up light was left on in automatic mode. This smaller light is far dimmer and not visible from so far away, yet it does offer a reference point. And the larger beacon is no longer necessary: lighthouses are being replaced by GPS navigation.
After being let go, Nikolai and Lyudmila spent the fall, winter, and spring in Shuyeretskoye. They thought about Zhuzhmuy often: there was not enough work in the village to keep them busy. And so, when the shipping season began, they started to worry. How are things at the lighthouse? Is it still standing? What if someone goes there and pillages it? The old lighthouse has many valuable parts: brass handles, the plate with its name and the date of its founding, the rock crystal lens.
“We watched on TV how they deal with old lighthouses abroad,” Lyudmila said. “They convert them into tourist destinations, even turn them into hotels. But for some reason in Russia no one needs them. It was terribly sad. And also, there was our home on the island, in which we had invested so much! And so, Kolya and I got in a boat and headed to Zhuzhmuy, to take a look. As we approached the island we saw the dim light burning, and it made us happy – it was alive! We beached the boat and started to put everything in order. Then we stood there, thought about it, and decided to return and take care of the lighthouse each summer. So we ended up going to Zhuzhmuy for another eight years. As soon as the shipping season began, we would get our things together and go. We would clean up everything, clean the lens. Whoever stopped there to turn on the [smaller] light would change the batteries, but leave the old, used-up ones there, on top of the tower. It was messy and awkward. So we hauled them down the stairs. A lighthouse should be tidy.”
Despite their volunteer labors, they did not succeed in saving the lighthouse from theft. One year they arrived to find that someone had been in their home. The doors were open, the lighthouse’s brass handles and name plate were gone. Nikolai Ageyev’s heart ached: “If I had known, I would have removed them myself and kept them at home. Such barbarians!”
Another time someone stole an electrical line. And a third time they arrived to find dirt all over the place and the beds bloodied. “Some sort of stabbing took place there – we never found out what happened,” Lyudmila said.
The authorities knew that the former keepers were still looking after the lighthouse. They did not forbid them from doing this, but they didn’t encourage them either. The attitude was, “If you like, go ahead. If not, don’t.” They wanted to, and so they went, until, at the age of 60, Nikolai passed away.
Lyudmila lives alone in Shuyeretskoye, in the home where she was born. Next door is the empty house where her mother lived before she died, not long before Nikolai.
It has been almost two years since Nikolai passed away, but his photos are everywhere: on Lyudmila’s telephone, in the kitchen, on the shelf in the guest room. The home is cold and dark. Summer this year on the Shuya River felt like fall, but Lyudmila rarely stoked the stove or turned on the lights. She says she is saving wood, which is hard to come by here, and electricity, which is expensive. Yet it almost seems as if she simply does not notice either the chill or the darkness. Time has not yet healed her, and her life without her dear husband has yet to find its groove.
The first sign of Nikolai’s illness was when fish started making him nauseous. It had always been his favorite food, but now every time he ate it he would feel ill. Then his stomach hurt. They went to the city, to the hospital, and Nikolai was diagnosed with stage two esophageal cancer. There was chemotherapy, then an operation. They removed Nikolai’s esophagus and created a feeding port. Lyudmila fed him through a tube, pureeing his food. She herself hardly ate at all during this time: “How was I supposed to eat when Kolya was completely unable to?”
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