QUATTING IN THE SHADOW of the Fremont Bridge, Vladimir Ivanov tried to steady himself on the steep embankment without spilling his vodka. "Blyat'," he cursed, looking into the canal below. "I keep slipping." He snapped his fingers at Alexander Dobrenko, who was watching the drawbridge above. "Sasha, you'll get me if I fall into the water, won't you?"

"Hui, be quiet," Dobrenko swore back at him. "You're making a lot of noise."

Their voices already thick with alcohol, Ivanov and Dobrenko shushed each other a few times and then went back to staring at the yachts and sailboats that were waiting for the bridge to open. Ivanov and Dobrenko were themselves moryaki--Russian

sailors--who were also waiting, stuck in place.

Their ship, a crab boat from a remote northeastern Russian port in Kamchatka, was under INS-mandated port arrest at the Northlake Shipyard in nearby Wallingford, but these sailors, along with shipmate Yevgeny Stepanchuk, had decided to break the port arrest and find a new place to drink. They spoke little English, had no identification, and were hell-bent on getting drunk off of their bottle of vodka, which itself had been incomprehensibly difficult to find in stores. The sailors had chosen to drink in hiding on the steep embankment under the Fremont Bridge not so much because people were looking for them, but because they themselves were so sorely out of place in the streets and shops above.

The story of their ship, a 170-foot crab catcher-processor vessel called the Northern Wind, had been widely reported in the local media, on the news wires, and even in Russia itself: Upon its arrival in Seattle, the ship had been raided by a multi-agency task force from the Coast Guard and the FBI. The task force was looking for evidence of illegal fishing in American waters. The very next day, the INS paid a visit and placed the entire crew under port arrest, forbidding the sailors to leave the shipyard grounds for the length of their stay in Seattle, because a sailor from the ship's earlier crew had defected. Not only that, but the ship repairs were interminable, and the men ended up staying in port under arrest far longer than they had planned.

In all, the sailors were detained for nearly two months, and though they became increasingly comfortable sneaking out of the shipyard, there were the lingering frustrations of simply being a moryak stranded in Seattle: They lost money for each day they were not at sea; they missed their families; and it was nearly impossible to find a cheap prostitute in lower Wallingford.

Yet even in the shadows underneath the Fremont Bridge, during the first of many fugitive evenings, there was a clear strength in the way that the three men consumed the entire bottle of vodka while squatting in the underbrush. I had the feeling that as harsh as their prolonged stay in Seattle was, it was just one summer in the long and uncertain life of a Russian crab fisherman.

Vodka is also to blame for my involvement with the crew of the Northern Wind, in a sense. Five years ago, I spent a summer in a rented flat in central Moscow, having gone to Russia with the naive intentions of blending in, making friends, and getting slightly drunk every night. But those times were brutally hard in Russia, with a military war in Chechnya and a mafia war in Moscow, and "slight" drunkenness had gone the way of Brezhnev. If I was to make friends with the Russians of my Narodnogo Opolcheniya district, I would have to meet them in the evenings at the ubiquitous kiosks that sold cheap stakanchiki-- tumblers of straight, noxious vodka. I tried this method of socializing in the beginning, but found that more often than not, the kiosk sessions would end humiliatingly, with me vomiting in the gutter or one of the Russians pissing himself, or both.

Chastened, I gave up my nativist pretensions and spent the rest of the summer safely drinking Guinness at Murphy's, an expatriate pub in downtown Moscow. The place was frequented by several slightly dissolute British journalists from The Moscow Times, an English-language daily newspaper, and once I ascertained that they were the kind of drinkers who pissed in toilets, we became friends. Just before I left Moscow, the journalists promised me that they would publish any article I could write about Russians.

I completely forgot about the Russians until a day in early July, when I was staring blankly out of my apartment on Lake Union. Suddenly I saw the huge, rusting Northern Wind, with its shirtless Cossack deckhands and faded Cyrillic lettering on the hull, churn into the Northlake Shipyard like a massive, stinking ghost ship.

The Moscow Times did give me a contract to write a piece about the ship and its crew, but really that was just an added perk for me. In the end, I wanted to hang out on the Northern Wind because my old, bizarre urges to make friends with Russians were once again getting the better of me.

I would learn, however, that sailors from the volcano- and ice-ridden province of Kamchatka are unlike any Russians I'd ever met, particularly when it comes to their brutal but lucrative careers as crab fishermen.

Their vessel, the Northern Wind, was supposed to be a model for the increased civility and efficiency of cooperation between the Russian Far East and the Pacific Northwest. The boat was manufactured in America, sails under a Russian flag, and is owned by a Bellevue company run by Russian émigrés. The multimillion-dollar boat is one of the most state-of-the-art crabbing vessels to operate in Russian waters, and the tons of snow crab and king crab legs it can catch and freeze go on to fetch up to $25 a pound in the marketplace. Additionally, the ship's advanced engines and generators require that it receive its annual overhaul in America, which means that each July, the ship is supposed to arrive in Seattle for a two-week service stop, switch its crew, and head back out to its crabbing grounds in the polar waters a thousand miles to the north.

But even in a somewhat modern boat, the dangers of fishing for crab are legendary. American crab fishermen are up to a hundred times more likely than the average American to die on the job, and Russians, who often have poor equipment and few safety standards, face even greater risks. They work from September to February in the thuggish waters of the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, where ice floes and rogue waves are a constant danger, where ice buildup on the deck is fought off with a sledgehammer and a pickaxe so that the 750-pound crab traps don't slide and knock workers into the water. If a sailor does go overboard in the polar darkness, he has less than three minutes to find a way back on board, and even then it may be too late.

However, whenever I asked about these dangers, Ivanov always replied with the same crooked smile and joke: "Luchshe umirat' v morye chem zhit' v morye"--it's better dying at sea than living there.

When I convinced Ivanov and the others to take me on a tour of the inside of the Northern Wind, however, I realized there might be some truth behind his humor.

The main hall in the windowless belly of the Northern Wind is a two-story crab factory where most of the sailors work for up to 20 hours a day, turning live king and opilio crabs into box after box of frozen crab legs. Dobrenko, one of the workers of the so-called "disassembly line," showed me around as Ivanov looked on. Station by station, Dobrenko pointed out the remarkable efficiencies and attendant dangers of the seaborne slaughterhouse.

In the dark, frigid waters at the bottom of the Bering Sea, snow crabs climb through the mouth of a large metal crab pot, attracted by the smell of the thawed herring within. Once inside, the crabs can't escape, so it's just a matter of waiting till the Northern Wind swings around again and attaches the trap line to the heavy winches onboard. The trap jerks upward and screams to the surface so fast that many of the crabs die before even reaching the boat. Once above water, the pot lurches over the ship's deck and the crabs plummet through an open hatch in the hull into a metal vat below.

Ivanov, waiting inside, picks a crab out of the vat and turns around to face the stainless-steel kill trough. Ivanov smashes the crab against a dull blade protruding from the trough, cutting the crab in half. He then grinds the body halves against a rotating blade that sloughs the organs and shell into the trough below, leaving only the legs intact. Ivanov throws those legs on a conveyor belt that slopes down to the lower floor of the ship's factory; meanwhile, more blades inside the trough further mulch the discarded organs and shell, which are eventually excreted out of the ship's hull as a thick, rich paste.

Ivanov repeats this simple kill, which takes about five seconds, thousands of times in a day; it would be a typical factory job if it weren't complicated by the constantly changing, nauseatingly high seas. In the waters of the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk where these men fish, the waves can reach up to 15 or 20 feet in height. At 170 feet long, the Northern Wind is a large boat, but it still pitches heavily and unexpectedly in seas that size. Yet at Ivanov's station, he stands only on two slim metal beams. Slip one way, and you're pitched into a vat of snapping, angry snow crabs. Slip the other way, and you catch yourself on either the protruding blade or the revolving blade.

Downstairs, where the legs are boiled and then flash-frozen, the risks are even greater. The legs are first sorted by size and then thrown into metal cages, which are suspended on hooks attached to a track on the ceiling. The hooks pull the hundred-pound cages from station to station, swinging them perilously just above the heads of the factory workers. The first stop is the boiling station, which consists of three lidded vats of supernaturally hot boiling water--Dobrenko claimed the water temperature hovers near 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, the sway and roll of the ocean are added dangers, as it is not uncommon for this boiling water to slosh out of its container and burn nearby workers. Even the vapors from the boiling station can be dangerous, according to Dobrenko, as the snow crab shell has naturally occurring chemicals that are used in small doses as medicines in Kamchatka. In large doses, the chemical-laced fumes can make men dizzy or even render them unconscious.

At the end of the tour, Ivanov and Dobrenko stood and smoked a cigarette by the final station where the legs were boxed and sent to the massive holds further up the boat. The factory's weak yellow lights flickered on and off, and it smelled like what it was--a place where invertebrates from the bottom of the sea are dredged up to be slaughtered, boiled, and composted. Appropriately enough, Dobrenko suggested we have a drink in the crew quarters.

The crew quarters were no better. Each cabin had two bunks, but only enough floor space for one person to stand at a time. Sailors tried to tape soft-porn calendar pictures and family snapshots to the walls, but the wallpaper was waxy with grease from the adjacent kitchen. In fact, every creature comfort in the crew quarters had been ravaged by stale air, shoddy ventilation, or generally bad hygiene. The linoleum was moldy; the cabinetry was rotting; and the floors were caked with marine sludge and flecks of crab. Unlike the sweetly perfumed spaces that Americans inhabit on shore, the compartments of the Northern Wind had a utilitarian stench to them: The kitchen smelled like food; the cabins smelled like bodies; and the bathroom smelled like urine. But even the sweetest aromas could not have distracted from the fundamental, harsh truth of living onboard the Northern Wind. Every night for five months, you crawl into your bunk knowing that a few inches of steel are all that separate your entire existence from the vast, angry seas of ice that stretch out for hundreds of miles in each direction.

* * *

In light of the grueling five-month tour that awaited them after their layover in Seattle, even the wary Ivanov had been looking forward to time on shore. When I first met him at the Northlake Shipyard, he told me that when he heard he was going to Seattle, he thought of "some nice parks, big trees, and Boeing airplanes." He paused for a second and then continued. "What I got, though, was this." He waved his hand in mock grandeur at the main dock of the Northlake Shipyard, the only 50 yards of Seattle that the sailors were legally allowed to visit. Towering stacks of lavushki, or crab pots, framed an assortment of other objects: five Honey Bucket portable toilets, a half-dozen shipping crates used as card tables, and an oil drum that had been cut in half lengthwise to serve as a trash can, barbecue, and fireplace all at once. By mid-afternoon, the piney smell of the Honey Bucket toilets and the light stench of the crab pots had gathered strength in the warm air.

The Northern Wind was leashed to the side of the dock, with a plank leading up to its starboard gangway. The sailors came and went between the ship and the dock, working and socializing both places as they saw fit. They were only allowed to go as far as the gate of the shipyard, which itself was always open. But there were no posted guards, and many of the sailors soon learned that they could pass through the gate, walk across Northlake Avenue, and walk a few blocks on the Burke-Gilman Trail into Fremont or Wallingford.

But there was still an attendant risk in leaving the dock, as the INS held intermittent head counts and roll calls, so the sailors spent almost all of their time at the shipyard, where they were supposed to be. The worst part, Dobrenko once told me, was the incredible view: From the dock, the sailors could see from I-5 to the Space Needle. The sun bounced invitingly off of the green hills and soft brown buildings of Seattle, but for the sailors of the Northern Wind, it was just the mirage of a largely unattainable shore.

The legal troubles that bound them to the shipyard started immediately for Ivanov's crew, even though they themselves had done nothing wrong. On their first evening onboard the Northern Wind, when Ivanov and the replacement crew had just flown in from Kamchatka and the old crew members were preparing to leave, the vessel was raided by an armed task force of FBI and Coast Guard agents. The search and seizure was the result of allegations that the owners of the Northern Wind had illegally accepted over 283,000 pounds of crab from other Russian ships in American waters. Those charges still haven't been corroborated to this day, and even if they were true, they would have been crimes committed by the old crew, not Ivanov and his shipmates. Regardless, the federal agents shook the boat down for hours, eventually confiscating a series of logbooks and the ship's computer hard drive.

The crew members, naturally, were never informed what was happening, nor were they aware that there was a chance that the entire ship itself could have been confiscated by the federal government, thereby ending the crab season before it even started.

The next day the INS showed up.

Our immigration service has a reputation for being heavy-handed with all Russian nationals on the waterfront, and people in the maritime industry gave me plenty of conflicting reasons why this might be. Some say the INS is still pissed from episodes in the early 1990s with deadbeat Russian companies or drunken sailors rampaging through downtown, while others told me that a Polish American INS agent had reportedly bragged about how he hates Russians on principle.

Whatever the reasons, the INS does seem to have it out for Russians. Nearly all of the maritime people I spoke with agreed that if a Norwegian crew has to stay a bit longer than expected in town, the crew members get immediate and courteous visa extensions, while Russians in the same situation are immediately placed under port arrest. The best example of this may have come last fall, when the INS kept the Sea Fox, another Russian vessel, under guarded port arrest even after the crew ran out of food and had to live on donated salami.

In the case of the Northern Wind, a member of the earlier crew had run off with his passport and disappeared some time in early July. In retaliation, the INS forbade all sailors to leave the shipyard premises.

Under those conditions, the sailors did their best to stave off boredom. By day Ivanov and the others worked on the boat, repainting the hull, remounting the engines, and rerouting the pipes. By night, when the dock was illuminated by the ship's floodlights, the sailors set the trash in the oil drum on fire, played cards, and smoked Marlboro Reds. In this setting, the sailors talked and argued about any topic that came to mind, from predicting how the Chechen war would end to speculating whether Boris Yeltsin in 1996 would have even had the energy to yebat' Monica Lewinsky like Clinton did.

The most remarkable thing about these discussions was the stunning vulgarity of the sailors' language. Every sentence began and ended with one of three stock Russian expressions: blyat' (whore), hui (cock), or yob' tvoyu mat' (fuck your mother). The last one was said compulsively as if it were one long word-- fuckyourmother--and, as with the other expressions, it came across as filler, not an actual insult. To test this intent, I pretended to be offended after Ivanov unleashed a particularly salty question, something like "Cock, is it always this hot in Seattle, fuckyourmother?" He thought I was seriously offended, though, and himself became deathly earnest as he said, "No, no--you misunderstand me. I don't mean your mother at all. In fact, many blessings on your mother, wherever she may be." I laughed at this, to which he responded again with complete sincerity, "No, I mean it. Many, many blessings on your family, fuckyourmother."

After that exchange, Ivanov instinctively restrained his language somewhat, but old maritime habits die hard. This was especially true of the sailors' attempts to find female companionship. After some weeks of sneaking out at night, they finally located a strip club in Ballard, but that apparently wasn't all they were after. "What kind of town is this?" demanded a heavyset ship's mechanic who had just come back to the dock one night. "How could it be that there isn't a single prostitute in all of this Ballard?" Dobrenko then said that he had met one, but she had asked for $300. Ivanov, himself a married man, rejoined with an emphatic "blyat'!" and everyone returned to their card game.

Ivanov had a backup plan, though, that consisted of trying to convince me to bring my own female friends down to the Northlake Shipyard. It was an unsettling proposition at best; even if I had any friends who advertised in the proverbial "young American woman seeks old Russian sailor" section of the personal ads, the thought of bringing a girl into the shipyard's den of clammy sailors was so disturbingly wolfish that I had to tell Ivanov just how unsuited he was for Seattle courtship, even at the risk of insulting him. He was unflappable, though, and pressed his case in all of our meetings afterward, telling me to assure my friends that he would be leaving town soon and that he was married anyhow, as if adding transience and adultery to his résumé would somehow make him more attractive.

On the streets of Wallingford, Ivanov's libidinal instincts were similarly fruitless. One evening late in the summer, after he sneaked out of the shipyard and was about to enter the liquor store on 45th and Wallingford, three teenage girls in a Monte Carlo pulled into the parking lot, waved a $20 bill at Ivanov, and asked him nervously if he would buy them a bottle of Seagram's gin. Ivanov, who knows maybe five words of English, listened intently to their long-winded question, and then, smiling just enough to show a bottom row of tiny, gold-capped teeth, he invited the girls, in Russian, to come party on the Northern Wind. The girls, already nervous about buying their gin, were completely unnerved by Ivanov's incomprehensible yet clearly predatory response. The small blond girl in the passenger seat exclaimed, "Ohmigod, he doesn't speak English!" and the Monte Carlo hastily backed out onto 45th Street and peeled off toward Ballard.

If Ivanov himself was upset at the girls' terrified reaction, he didn't let on. But in nearly all of his interactions with Seattleites, Ivanov seemed like a confused grizzly bear who had accidentally wandered into a city. Although it's by no means a justification for his sexual rapaciousness, it is true that Ivanov was only behaving as sailors have for thousands of years. Now, upscale communities like Fremont and Wallingford are encroaching on the sailors' natural habitat: Though the shipyards and sailors still line Lake Union, the outlying boweries are gone. There are no more cheap bars and brothels, and no more euphemistically named "seamstresses" to work them. Fremont and Wallingford are defined by Adobe's corporate campus and one of Seattle's highest boutique-to-resident ratios; there's simply no place for 25 untethered, besotted sailors looking to get drunk and laid on Fremont Avenue.

The more time they spent loose in the community, the more Ivanov and the others understood this inherent incompatibility. That's why the INS' classification of the sailors as "high flight risks" was so ironic: The more time they spent in Seattle, the less they wanted to stay. "I tell you," Ivanov said one night, looking across Lake Union at Seattle's skyscrapers, "the city looks nice, but I had a thousand times more freedom in the Soviet Union than I do here. I don't know why the INS thinks I'd want to be a Russian American."

The sailor's interactions with the Russian American community were frequent, but not always positive. The ship's Russian American owners frequented the Northlake Shipyard to supervise the repairs, but they mainly appeared to be putting on a display of new wealth for the sailors' benefit by parking alongside the vessel in luxury sedans with personalized license plates that said things like "VLAD#1." They would get out, say a few words to the captain, and then invariably be pulled away by a ring on a cell phone, at which point they would flip down their sunglasses as a clear signal that they were not to be interrupted.

Somewhat less antipathetic to the crew were the Baptist missionaries, themselves Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, who came from Everett at least two nights a week with a plate of cookies, a box of pamphlets, and a Casio keyboard. They set up as close to the ship as the captain would allow and sang hymns to the sailors hanging over the railings and playing cards on the dock. They were decent people who spent a lot of time trying to bring companionship and a little touch of Christ to the Northlake Shipyard, but in the end, many of the crew members kept their distance from these born-again, Americanized Russians. As Dobrenko uncharitably noted, "They won't be sucking my blood, that's for sure."

This unease with America runs contrary to a deeper American bigotry that assumes that a poor Russian soul like Ivanov (or any Russian, Cuban, Red Chinese, and otherwise brutalized current or former Communist) would die for the chance to live in or even visit America. Even though I learned in Moscow firsthand that most Russians would no sooner leave for America than give up their stakan of vodka, I was still susceptible to this simple bigotry. The assumption that I had about the sailors, frankly, was that they would love Seattle dearly, even if that love was clearly unrequited. I thought that when I asked Ivanov what he thought about Seattle, he would sing the praises of our unbelievable wealth and stunning architectural baubles. He would say in effect that the city was like some kind of gorgeous Babylon to him, and he would ask if it were true that downtown is filled with fabulous window displays and bars with scores of yuppies in soft leather jackets drinking liqueur laced with flakes of gold. I would nod serenely, and Ivanov would then, I figured, probably end his praises with one of the cutely naive things that Soviets abroad always used to say, something like, "And your cabbages are so fresh!"

Instead, when I brought him Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, he only half-jokingly referred to it as macha', which is Russian for urine. When I bragged about our nearby mountain ranges, he made it clear that the mountains of Kamchatka were far bigger and more beautiful. When I mentioned salmon, our own pink gold, he scoffed at the price of the fish here, telling me that in Kamchatka, salmon is so plentiful that fishmongers can barely give the stuff away, and anglers can cross a river by walking on the backs of fish.

The more I got to know Ivanov, the more I realized that these idyllic portrayals of life in Kamchatka were more than just defensive boasting. At one point in mid-August, Ivanov surprised me by passing around a photo album that he had brought from back home. It was small and dog-eared, but the pictures inside revealed a surprisingly attractive existence back in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the Kamchatkan capital where he lived. Ivanov's 10-year-old son, whom he called Shurik (an improbable but common nickname for Alexander), posed in one picture wearing a sleek new ski outfit, standing in front of a huge powdery slope that made Snoqualmie look like Beacon Hill. In another picture, Shurik and his ruddy-cheeked friend stood on a beach in far-away Sochi, a Mediterranean-style resort on the Black Sea.

Ivanov's wife, the woman who seemed so dispensable before, appeared often in pictures next to Ivanov himself, who was grinning madly and tugging at her waist, looking every bit like he was completely in love. As he showed me a parade of pictures of the two of them together on anniversaries and birthdays, he told me, quite disarmingly, that missing her was the worst part of any trip to sea. Then came pictures of the possessions: the well-furnished apartment, the monstrous toys for Shurik, and the brand-new Mitsubishi 4x4. Though Ivanov spends six months a year at sea or in a foreign port, the other six months seemed to be filled with nothing more onerous than camping, hunting, or barbecuing.

By then, I had spent a lot of time with the sailors. We had powered through lots of beer and vodka. Shane Carpenter, who had started coming by to take pictures for the article, also took to drinking with the crew. They told us they really wanted to see Bruce Lee's grave, so we took them. And then we drank some more.

But despite all the socializing, and despite the fact that the sailors were clearly relieved to have found Americans who didn't want to arrest them, there was something ineffably distant about Ivanov, Stepanchuk, and Dobrenko. It's not just that they were tougher than me, or older. It has more to do with the fact that neither I nor anyone I know in Seattle has the kind of raw guiding principles that these men have. Our main goal in life seems to be staying happy; Ivanov, even at his most relaxed, seems clearly to be fighting for much more, as I realized on his last night in Seattle.

Ivanov and Dobrenko were playing a game of cards on the dock, listening to one of their shipmates tell them about an ice-fishing accident near Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Two truckloads of men from the city had driven out onto the frozen ocean to fish and drink vodka, but the weather had been unseasonably warm, and before they knew it, an entire square mile of ice, including the section they were on, broke clean off and quietly headed for the ocean. When the inebriated fishermen finally realized that the ground was moving, they radioed for help, but it was too late. Rescue helicopters didn't find them till the next daybreak, by which time six of the men had already died of exposure to the cold.

The mechanic telling the story then leaned in, as if telling a secret, and said that he had heard that the survivors left the bodies of their comrades out on the ice and instead used the helicopter's excess space to take fish back home with them.

I looked at Ivanov and the others, but the horror of the story didn't seem to impress them even slightly. "At least they had vodka," Dobrenko said flatly after a pause. Ivanov agreed: "When you go out to fish for your family, anything can happen. At least somebody brought the fish home." *