Arkhangelsk is an inhospitable port city on the White Sea, in Russia's far north, not far from the Arctic Circle. With its crumbling wooden buildings and dilapidated Soviet-era apartment blocks, its best days are clearly behind it. Although its name mean "city of archangels" in Russian, it's not exactly the kind of place that inspires hope.
Most of the people who live here are somehow connected to the sea. That includes Yelena Sarezkaya, 51, a petite blonde with two daughters. Her husband, Sergei Sarezky, is a sailor, and he hasn't been home in quite a while. Sarezky is the captain of the Arctic Sea, the freighter that was hijacked in the Baltic Sea more than 12 weeks ago.
Yelena is at her wits' end -- particularly after having received a bizarre letter from the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General's Office in Moscow. The letter, dated Sept. 10, states that her husband and his fellow seamen have been permitted to return home "at the expense of the federal budget."
The only problem is that Sarezky and three other crewmembers have yet to return home.
Still, Yelena takes some consolation from the fact that she can communicate with her husband via text message. "They're not saying what they plan to do with us," Sarezky texted his wife from somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile, the tale of confusion and intrigue surrounding the Arctic Sea goes on. It's still not clear whether the drama surrounding the Russian-owned freighter, which is based in Helsinki and was supposedly shipping a load of lumber, is a crooked trick pulled off by a competing shipping company or a case of smuggling with global implications.
On Aug. 16, the Russian naval frigate Ladny, armed with large cannons and anti-aircraft missiles, liberated the Arctic Sea from pirate control. The men who had hijacked the ship -- and most of its crew -- were flown to Moscow. The alleged hijackers are now in jail. They insist that they are merely environmentalists who were rescued by the Arctic Sea when their own vessel got into distress.
In mid-September, an official in Las Palmas, the capital of Spain's Canary Islands, announced that its on-board investigation was complete and that the ship's cargo was, in fact, lumber. According to the Russian authorities, nothing had been found that could "incriminate the Russian Federation."
In the runup to the investigation, a rumor had been circulating that the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, had stopped a shipment of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran on board the Arctic Sea. The story seemed to make sense, particularly given the fact that, in addition to the Ladny, Russia had sent two large Ilyushin-76 military transport planes on the 7,000-kilometer (4,375-mile) journey to the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic, where the hijacked freighter was anchored at the time. The fact that two enormous planes were sent -- when a single small passenger aircraft would have sufficed to ferry the 19 men made of up pirates and most of the crew to Russia -- puzzled many.
Alexander Kraznozhtan, a 50-year-old man with a dark, full beard, is doing his best to secure the return of the four remaining crewmembers. The chairman of the local seamen's union is sitting in a smoke-filled office off Arkhangelsk's central market square. "The men survived the attack by pirates," he says. "Let's hope they also survive their rescue by the Russian authorities."