Far north of the Arctic Circle in the almost 24-hour darkness of a far northern winter, the Soviet port of Murmansk bustles with activity. The Norilsk, a 20,000 deadweight ton (d.w.t.) container ship and one of a class of 15, steams toward the Barents Sea along a passage that keeps this port, on the 69th parallel, open the year around. The Norilsk can navigate through ice up to one meter thick and will operate in temperatures as low as -58 degrees F.
A few days earlier the nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin, based at Murmansk, sailed for the Barents. Since 1959, when it was commissioned as the world's first commercial nuclear vessel, the Lenin has sailed half a million miles and escorted 2,800 ships through all kinds of ice conditions.
In the ``Rybnaport'' (fishing port) that occupies much of Murmansk's harbor, the 16,000-d.w.t. Grigory Lysenko, named for a World War II Ukrainian partisan fighter, is undergoing a refit. The Rybnaport is so jammed that fishing vessels moored alongside each other must be separated by giant synthetic-rubber fenders.
As a ``mother ship'' the Lysenko plays a double role: It is a supply base at sea for the smaller factory trawlers and a seagoing fish-processing plant. The Lysenko belongs to one of several classes of these multipurpose vessels.
These three ships are typical of the type of vessel the USSR has produced itself or ordered from abroad since 1960. They are part of the largest commercial fleet (merchant plus fishing vessels) in the world. As of Jan. 1, Soviet commercial tonnage reached 25 million d.w.t., of which 21 million d.w.t. is in the merchant navy alone, making it the fifth-biggest merchant service in the world, according to the United States Maritime Commission.
With so many ships available for the cargo business, the Soviet Ministry of the Merchant Fleet has become an important participant in the West's shipping trade. It offers cut-rate prices on ship charters. These compete fiercely with the higher rates of Western European and Far Eastern shipping conferences. A year ago the West German Association of Shipowners estimated that Soviet ships now carry 5.6 percent of world cargoes.
Especially lucrative for the USSR, with its chronic hard-currency shortages, are cross-trades in the noncommunist sphere. In a cross-trade, a ship carries cargo between two nations other than the vessel's country of ownership. Between 1985 and 1990, competition from Soviet merchant ships will increase: Moscow's long-range plans call for 250 new cargo vessels, many of which will replace aging ships now in service.
The Soviet cargo fleet earns $2 billion annually in vitally needed hard currency by carrying cargoes (such as Canadian grain) from foreign ports to the USSR. It brings in another $1 billion from cross-trades. Officials say 10 percent of the total merchant navy tonnage is involved in cross trades.
Many reasons are given in the West for the pace of Soviet ship construction and port development. The chief one offered by US strategic analysts is that so many ships have been built to supply the Soviet Navy in wartime with a ready-made maritime transport facility. But the Soviet Merchant Fleet Ministry, which applies both cost accounting and efficient shiphandling methods to construction and operating procedures, builds many types of ships that appear to have little direct naval application.
Timofei Guzhenko, minister of the Soviet merchant fleet, told the Supreme Soviet (nominal parliament) in 1982: ``Soviet merchant vessels that once moved cargoes only in Soviet waters now serve about 1,300 ports in 124 countries.'' Those numbers are not thought to have changed appreciably since then.
Soviet officials say they need a merchant shipping fleet of this size because of a commitment to self-sufficiency in maritime transport -- and to meet the large Soviet consumer and industrial needs for overseas imports of grain, fish, industrial equipment, and raw materials. Ocean fish are cheap, plentiful protein for the USSR.
Whereas Western European maritime nations build only selected types of ships in a single building program, the Soviet Merchant Fleet Ministry approves construction of all major types of cargo and passenger ships at one time. As a result, many of the new Soviet ships built since the early 1960s have come from the shipyards of communist-bloc states, chiefly Poland and the East Germany -- and to a lesser degree from Western Europe and Japan.
Take the three types of ships at Murmansk. The Norilsk class of ice-strengthened container ships is Finnish -- built in 1982. The Grigory Lysenko class was completed at Poland's Gdansk State Shipyard in the late 1960s. The Lenin icebreaker was Soviet-built, although Rossiya, the USSR's fourth nuclear icebreaker, was built by Wartsila Shipyard in Helsinki, the world's largest builder of icebreakers.
Today the Soviet merchant fleet includes passenger ships (the world's largest number of these), supertankers, timber and liquefied natural gas carriers, RO-RO (roll-on, roll-off) ships, chemical carriers, and hundreds of hydrofoils for passengers and cargo. Soviet development and use of the hydrofoil vessel outpaces the rest of the world, with an estimated 600 craft in service, mainly on the nation's vast internal river systems. There are another 1,500 dry cargo ships, half the total number of ships in the entire Soviet merchant navy.
The Merchant Fleet Ministry in Moscow recently started huge port expansion programs. Because many of the major nation's ports share the remote geography of Murmansk, the cost has been great. The new Far Eastern deep-sea ports of Nakhodka and Vostochny, near the Soviet naval base of Vladivostok, are the USSR's major Pacific commercial outlets. Ships from these ports export Siberian coal for Japanese industry. Many of the modern cranes in these two harbors were built in Japanese yards.
The population of Nakhodka, a one-time fishing village, has grown from a few thousand 25 years ago to 180,000 today. But Murmansk, with a population of 412,000, remains the world's largest Arctic city.
John Harbron is a Canadian-based writer who specializes in foreign affairs and has written extensively about shipping.