'Where We Eat Fish' by Richard Adams Carey


I remember the birds: scores and scores of cormorants that nested in the willows that lined the narrowing Volga waterway. The slough was just a few yards wider than our motorboat and shrinking. The cormorants raised their black skulls and beaks in alarm as the boat approached, then rose complaining from their nests of knotted sticks. The wake of the boat opened in a funnel of foam through trunks that had been drowned in the river’s spring flood, through trees that were bare and skeletal. The birds unfurled their wings, spreading like a mob of crows against the white sky. We ran on, a noonday darkness gathering behind us.

 We were enroute to a tonya, one of the myriad fishing camps that line the banks of the Volga as it divides and divides again, into nearly a thousand separate channels, toward its mouth on the Caspian Sea. About three hundred rivers drain into the Caspian, but all are dwarfed by the Volga, whose waters provide eighty percent of its volume. By now the river has sifted ten million years’ worth of  organic debris into a seabed that cooks over a seismic hot spot — a place where oceanic crust creeps northward from the Mediterranean, undercutting the continental crust that lies beneath the sea’s upper basin. The region is wracked by earthquakes, peppered with boiling mud volcanoes, laced by hydrocarbon seeps. Before the birth of Christ, Zoroastrians built temples at the jets of flaming gases that issued from the naphtha-rich sands of Azerbaijan’s Apsheron Peninsula. In the thirteenth century an amazed Marco Polo witnessed natural fountains of oil. 

 By Marco Polo’s time control of the sea had passed from the Jewish Khazars, who were renowned merchants, to the Golden Horde of Batu Khan — the same Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis, who in 1240 provided the first written reference to caviar in his record of a meal at a Volga monastery. The Khazars believed the sturgeon to be without scales, and therefore unclean. But the Mongols built wooden weirs in the Volga to capture migrating sturgeons, structures that would be maintained into the nineteenth century. They fished in the Sea of Azov as well, and from there provided Italian merchants with the very salty sort of caviar that was first introduced to the West.

 Four hundred species of fauna are unique to the Caspian, but historically the sea has been more remarkable for the density of its wildlife. Its waters have boiled with vast numbers of fish: species of sturgeon, of course, but also herring, kilka, shad, salmon, inconnu, carp, roach, bream, catfish, stickleback, mullet, perch, goby, and more. There are birds as well: almost all the waterfowl of eastern Europe visit the Caspian along their migratory flyways. Five to eight million winter along its eastern shore, from the flamingo to the Siberian white crane, and hundreds of species besides cormorants nest in the Volga delta. Meanwhile the wilder parts of its wetlands # its outlying sloughs, creeks, and channels, its reed and cattail meadows and thickets of willow, ash, and mulberry, its floating plantations of lotus and white water lily # still support numbers of wild boar, bear, fox, raccoon, and beaver. It was enough to charm even a Bolshevik; in 1919 Lenin set aside a portion of the delta as one of the Soviet Union’s first nature preserves. 

  There were four of us in the motorboat on the delta that May morning: Anatoly Babrovsky and Nikolai Kodyakov, two off-duty members of Russia’s fisheries police; Katya Godunova, a Russian university student; and the American writer who wished to see how sturgeon were caught. Anatoly and Katya had picked me up at my hotel in Astrakhan early that morning. Katya was the English-speaking daughter of Galina Godunova, a journalist and environmentalist, and the first source I had called in Astrakhan. Anatoly was in his late fifties — barrel-chested, white-haired, moustached in gray, with round spectacles and big hands, his bearing a mixture of gentleness and steel — and a friend to the Godunovas.

 Skirting the flat western edge of the delta in Anatoly’s Toyota SUV, we had driven through streets lined with simple farmhouses, through rural areas with free-ranging cattle and flocks of chickens, and past hills planted with the eight-pointed crosses of the Old Believers. These hilltop crosses were monuments, said Katya, to Stenka Razin, the Cossack bandit hero who in 1671 raised a rebellion from Astrakhan that stormed up the Volga and nearly toppled Tsar Alexis. Anatoly pointed to a railroad line under construction at a place where the German advance had reached its farthest point south in World War II. Hitler coveted the oil fields of Azerbaijan, and the Volga for carrying oil to Germany. But his Sixth Army was surrounded and destroyed at Stalingrad, and at last his war machine ran dry. By then, some 50 million Russians had died.

 And we had driven through Ikranoye, the dusty village named after ikra, the word for “caviar” in Russian. There, sturgeons still swam by fishermen’s doorsteps, and the village remained a center of legitimate and black market fishing. Against the delta’s wide horizons, the ramshackle houses suggested both the tenacity of their hold on this land and the frailty of all that supported them. It took no stretch of imagination to see the village, with the sturgeons gone, as starved as that other Caviar, the town of that name on Delaware Bay that was the center of the nineteenth century American caviar industry, but that first became a ghost town, and then disappeared, both from the landscape and our memory.

 Houses disappeared beyond Ikranoye. Eventually the road turned to dirt and we stopped near a grove of trees, wide stately willows with catkins lifting in the breeze, to wait for a ferry. Katya, a tall flower stalk of a girl with blue Slavic eyes, climbed gratefully out of the Toyota and breathed in the springtime scents of the river. Anatoly got a bucket and sponge from behind the vehicle’s rear seat and began rinsing the dust off its fenders with river water.  A few minutes later we saw the ferry breasting its way across the mile-wide breadth of the water. The ferry was an old tug with a steel platform welded over its deck behind the wheelhouse, charging a fare of eighteen rubles, or about sixty cents.

 Twenty minutes later we arrived at Nikolai Kodyakov’s house, a sturdy brown clapboard affair hidden behind a chain-link fence and banks of lilac bushes blooming luxuriously in white and lavender. Nikolai had Tatar blood in his veins: swarthy and powerful, with gold teeth at either side of his smile, he was dressed like Anatoly in rubber boots and military camouflage gear, but with an automatic pistol holstered at his side.

 Nikolai’s boat, a sixteen-foot skiff with camouflage paint and a muscular outboard, waited beneath a covered berth in a slough behind house. “This is a working boat,” Nikolai observed. “It’s not for tourism.”

By ten AM, we were speeding down the slough and then out into the Volga. The water in our wake boiled up brown and white, then settled into sparkling expanses of blue. We raced by a fish processing plant with racks of fish drying like strings of pearls in the sun, a sunken ship with only its two rusty smokestacks showing, and an unfinished brick building with its windows like empty eye sockets against the horizon. Nikolai nodded in its direction. “Perestroika monument,” he said. “We have many of them.”

 “What’s a perestroika monument?”

 “Gorbachev started building that factory during perestroika. Then the money ran out.” He laughed harshly, easing the skiff past a drifting log. “Now it’s another government monument.”


The channel grew even closer, so that the nodding heads of more low-lying reeds whipped against our faces, and the cormorants in even greater numbers swarmed into the sky. The slough seemed to be a cul-de-sac, ending in a drowned tangle of brush, but at the last second Nikolai heeled the boat to starboard and we broke free again into a much larger and wider portion of the river. The clamor of the birds faded behind us as Nikolai bore toward the farther bank of this water.

 We passed a fisheries police post, a low grey building nestled among trees, a twenty-foot motorboat tied to a dock. Then a series of tonyas, one after another, but widely spaced along the riverbank. “Fishing collectives,” Nikolai shouted over the motor. “They pool their equipment and their labor and fish for one of the licensed quota holders, if they take sturgeon.” He gestured back to the police post, adding, “It’s easy to observe poaching in this area. Everybody’s boat is well known.”

 The tonyas were cleared areas of the riverbank, some with trucks or cars, others accessible only by boat, all fringed at the shoreline by skiffs, motorboats, barges, or houseboats. At one a group of eight men uniformed in the same yellow oilskins waded in the Volga water, drawing a circular net tighter and tighter, raising a silvery swarm of small fish, maybe Caspian shad, to the surface. At another a diesel-powered net reel puffed and strained from the stern of a barge to retrieve a much larger net from the river.

 We passed a collection of low-slung roofs that Nikolai said was a sturgeon farm, and then, steaming in the opposite direction up the river, a government fisheries research vessel: white, well-scrubbed, and jaunty, about the size of a small tug, with the crisp white, blue, and red bars of the Russian Federation flag snapping in the breeze.

 The river broadened, so wide at this point that the other bank was just a fringe of green across the horizon. Anatoly said that we would be seeing banks of lotuses in some places were it not for the high water. We swept by a nesting pair of mute swans at the mouth of one slough, and then watched a ragged skein of gray geese pass overhead, bearing north. But Nikolai headed west, turning suddenly into a narrow slough that shrank down almost as tightly as the previous reed-fringed bottleneck. Again we burst into open water, into a parallel strand of the river that was wide, but only a fraction of the width of that other channel. Along its western bank stretched chain-links of soft low hills, partially wooded; along its eastern a mile-long swath of open grass and sandy beach, part of which was populated by the largest of the tonyas I had seen that day. Nikolai slowed, allowing the motorboat to drift muttering into the midst of the camp, killing the motor as its keel struck sand.

 We splashed in our rubber boots to the shore, joining a group of twenty men as they watched another motorboat move in a slow arc three-fourths of a mile or so out in the river. Scores of white plastic floats, like loaves of bread cast single-file on the water, curved from the shoreline to the stern of the motorboat. Beyond these an aging fish tender, its wheelhouse spiked by radar and communications antennas, lay at anchor against the opposite hills.

 These were all men well-known to Nikolai and Anatoly. They ranged in age from twenty to seventy, and there was nothing uniform in their dress: woolen watch caps, cotton baseball caps, tweed hats, oilskins of various shades and states of repair, patched-up sweaters, grease-stained jerseys. Their faces were as creased and brown as wallets, their palms as hard as formica. They laughed and shook hands with the off-duty policemen, and then with me. They preferred not to give their names, preferred also not to be visible in any pictures that I took with my camera, though they said there were surveillance cameras anyway in the tender offshore, which bought their fish from them. Why, then, were they shy of photographs as they hauled their net? “There might be red fish,” an old man said simply.  

 “Red fish” is the generic term, in Russian, for sturgeon, though there is nothing literally red about any of the Caspian species. I think it has more to do with all the meaning bundled with krasnaya (red) in Russian. The color is thought to bring good luck, and krasnaya also means “beautiful.” So to be lovely, as a sturgeon is to a lucky Volga fisherman, is also to be red. I wondered if, in murky water, the fish might also give off that ruddy glow described by fishermen for the lake sturgeon found in and around the Great Lakes in the United States. One sees it sometimes, said another fisherman.

 This water was murky, the color of wet sand, darkening to a scrubbed-denim blue near the tender. A series of double-ended wooden skiffs, long and gracefully narrow, were tied end to end along the beach. These served as fish bins, and their bottoms were layered in the fish taken from previous sets of the net. There was perhaps two thousand pounds of bream: broad, silvery, hump-backed fish, twelve to eighteen inches long, three or four pounds each, the little staring head attached like an afterthought to the fleshy lump of its body. Littered across these, or piled heavily at one end of a skiff or another, were several dozen big carp, twenty-five to fifty pounds. Anatoly stood in one skiff and grunted to lift one in each hand by the gill plate. The scales on the biggest fish were the size and shape and — on the upper body — even the color of tortoise shell guitar picks, one overlaying two others in a chain mail pattern from the gills to the tail, lightening to pearl on the belly. The dorsal fin was low but long, lending one touch of aerodynamic elegance to an otherwise fat and stocky fish.

 There were no sturgeons so far. The old man who told me there might be red fish surveyed the catch with obvious disappointment and said that these were the worst of times. “I have been fishing since I was twelve years old,” he said. “I am seventy-one now. The fish are fewer now, and fewer than there were in the ’90s. The red fish numbers are the worst of all. We only make enough money for food.”

He spat on the sand, letting his eyes roam to the opposite hills, when I asked him about the impact of poaching. “Poaching?” he said finally. “I’m not connected with poaching.”

 Another fisherman told me that the net they used was a kilometer long and twelve meters deep. Each spring the bottom had to be prepared, smoothed by a steamboat trailing a sort of plow, before they could start fishing. Then they worked through the spring, until fishing was halted by law in June, setting their net for ninety minutes at a time, and hauling ten times during the course of a day. “We can catch as much as twenty tonnes of fish with one set,” he smiled. “We can fill one of those skiffs ten times over, but not so far this year.”

 By then the motorboat had dragged the far end of the net back to the shore, and many of the other fishermen were in the water, kicking up mud and wrestling the float-line into a closed noose that they gradually cinched tighter. A squalling school of bream boiled out of the silt, their flanks flashing like coins in the sun. These were seized one by one and tossed spinning into the narrow skiffs.

I moved closer, and saw that beneath the bream there were red fish in the net. I could see them only in coiling glimpses, representatives of a whole different kingdom from the bream, creatures that might have been serpents or dragons: a leathery patch of armored skin here, then the flicking tip of a scimitar tail elsewhere, or a snout nearly as long and sharp as a unicorn’s horn. The bream were cleared away, layer by layer, until finally the monsters were revealed in the sun and silt and foam. They were stellate sturgeons, about a dozen of them, their pink scutes flashing like neon lights down their flanks, their Pinocchio snouts making their slender bodies look all the more serpentine. 

  Later, we would take one of these fish to a sheltered slough somewhere in this maze of reed and water, where Nikolai kept a houseboat. The overhanging willows moved gently in the breeze, as did bunches of dried shad  tied to the eaves of the boat. Nikolai boiled water over a stove fashioned from a 55-gallon oil drum, butchered his sturgeon, obtained through some sort of transaction at the fish camp, and prepared ukha, the famous fish-and-potato soup of tonya fishermen. We ate at a table spread with radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, all eaten fresh and raw, and thick-sliced bread spread with home-made currant jelly or crocus-blossom honey. The soup was savory and filling, the meat as sweet as butter. We drank tall mugs of beer and shot-glasses of vodka. We shared toasts, the last of which was to the health of the Caspian Sea. 

 Anatoly kept silent, letting Nikolai have his say, while his friend complained that the government was the biggest poacher on the Caspian, that scientists once again were parroting whatever the government wanted them to say, that the disasters to come with the development of the north Caspian oil reserves would be conveniently blamed on natural forces, that the sturgeons would be lucky to last five more years. “But it is normal for government to lack honesty with its people,” he said. “And it is always the same — common people are not heard. Only those with money have a voice.” 

Outside, voices filled the air: a symphonic chorus of mating frogs and nesting birds. Nikolai smiled and poured himself more beer. “But here there are only natural sounds,” he sighed. “Here you can eat fish.”

 We would return to Astrakhan that night, where the Godunovas would put me up in their two-room apartment before my flight to Azerbaijan the next day. On the television news there were ghastly film clips taken during a Victory Day celebration yesterday in Kaspiysk, a Caspian town to the west of Astrakhan. A bomb stuffed with bolts and nails had been hidden in roadside bushes by Chechen separatists, and then was detonated as a military brass band passed by. Thirty-four died, musicians and spectators, among them twelve children. The camera lingered at the blood-streaked body of a little girl in a jumper and dark ringlets, a stuffed animal at her side. Several feet away a trumpet lay on the pavement. Katya and Galina and I watched in horror. Finally tears fell down Galina’s cheeks. 

 But for a moment at the tonya that history, and all history, were held in abeyance. The fishermen paused for just an instant, and even the movements of the sturgeons and remaining bream seemed for just that second to have been arrested. Then a pelican — one of the Caspian’s white-feathered Dalmatian pelicans — fell spiraling into the river, pursuing a fish, its breast striking the water with a report like a gunshot. At that the fishermen and their quarry were in motion again, the floats bunching up and the stellates rolling about in all their red and fatal beauty. History moved forward as well, even there where we could eat fish.  

Copyright © 2006 by Richard Adams Carey from The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography of Desire. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.