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Lurking in the Port of Long Beach, half-submerged in what's either the shadow of the Queen Mary or water permanently dirtied by the downside of the bustling harbor, is a stark reminder of the last chapter of the Cold War.
You remember the Cold War. It was supposedly the last great hostile hurrah of the second millennium. It ended back in 1989—the year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down—with America emerging victorious and Russia barely surviving as a hollow shell of its former self.
Something like that hollow shell is tethered to a pier in Long Beach: it's a Soviet sub, for more than two decades a mystical killing machine that represented the deep-water, nuclear-tipped-missile threat of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and for the past year a struggling tourist attraction.
No question this diesel-powered, Foxtrot-class, underwater weapon is an excellent illustration of the vast change in U.S.-Russia relations. The submarine used to be known as Podvodnaya Lodka, a name so polysyllabically sinister that the tourist brochure doesn't even bother to translate it. Now it's called the Scorpion, which really doesn't mean much, either, but is almost as scary and so much easier to say and market. And having been auctioned off along with the rest of the former Soviet Union's outdated war chest, the sub is an almost pathetic presence. There it sits, lashed to the pier for the curiosity, amusement and satisfaction of (hopefully) paying passersby, as humiliated as if in the public stocks, serving about the same victor-vs.-vanquished purpose as a head on a pike.
Meanwhile, of course, the post-Cold War "cooperation" that exists between Russia and America has become increasingly tenuous. The Russians still have imperial illusions, just as we do; in reaction to America's bombing of Serbia, the Russians recently invaded next-door neighbor Chechnya; in a tit for tat straight out of the Brezhnev era, each country recently arrested alleged spies for the other. With the future shaping up to be as tense as the past, there may be no better time to take the entire family on a tour of a big, bad, old Russian submarine. Indeed, next thing we know, they may try to reactivate it.
The Scorpiononce traveled all the way from Leningrad, where it was built in 1972, to Cam Ranh Bay, the former South Vietnamese U.S. Navy base that opened its doors to the Russian fleet in 1975. It spent the next two decades dodging American anti-submarine craft and is rumored to have conducted surveillance along America's Pacific Coast before being decommissioned five years ago.
First sold by the Russians to an Australian museum, the Scorpionis now scheduled to spend the next few years sitting somewhat neglected in Long Beach. According to the exhibit brochure, "its displays will promote friendly relations with Russia and give Americans a unique opportunity to experience a part of Russia's maritime history."
What that means is that, for $15, you can take the self-guided tour of the ship. As long as you don't knock yourself unconscious trying to crawl through the trash-can-lid-sized holes that connect one compartment to the next, the tour will take you only about 20 minutes.
Anyone hoping for a glimpse of life inside Red October is likely to be deeply disappointed, however. The boat is tiny and old. Its operating systems feature no computers. Rather, weird knobs and gauges abound. Mostly, the sub seems to rely on technology lifted from a German U-boat. The biggest room in the ship is the officer's mess, a dinner-table-sized room with just enough space for eight officers to munch their lunch.
The tour itself isn't any more sophisticated. It revolves around the heavily accented voice of an invisible narrator whose explanations and observations are piped throughout the Scorpion. Think Yakov Smirnoff, except a little funny. Bottom line, the narrator's tone and pronunciation work to perpetuate America's Cold War stereotype about slow-minded Slavs. "The food on Scorpion eez quite good," Captain Smirnoff announces. "Or zo they tell us. They zay good food is good for men—Duh!" Despite his apparent wit and sense of humor, Captain Smirnoff sounds like he'd be a tough guy to live with underwater, and you can't help but feel sorry for the 78 crewmen who used to be packed into the boat like caviar.
Speaking of oily fish, halfway through the tour, the imaginary captain brags that there are only two washrooms on Scorpion. "I allow only one-minute shower ewery tree days," he says. Deeper into the sub, the rooms get more and more crowded—with pipes, knobs and shafts of various kinds. You learn that crewmates used to sleep in the torpedo room. The bunks are tiny, but with the exception of the captain and the first political officer, they were each shared by two men.
As you walk along, imagining the horror of being stuck in Smirnoff's tiny "wessel," his nagging voice never relents. If you linger too long in one area of the ship, the tape for that section of the tour starts over, finally ending a few minutes—and several dozen "jokes"—later with the inevitable invitation: "Come now, let us see rest of Scorpion," or "Please be following me into next compartment."
When your self-guided tour ends with a hearty dasvadanya from Smirnoff, you realize just how lucky you are that you were never a sailor on a Russian submarine like the Scorpion. On the other hand, Russian sailors didn't have to endure the museum gift shop. I counted exactly 13 mementos available at the store: "Russian Scorpion" shot glasses of various sizes, coffee mugs, beer steins, sweatshirts, baseball caps, golf hats, sailor caps, "Made in Russia" fur hats, denim shirts, tie clips, belt buckles, sugar spoons and tote bags.
Each product boasts the ominous hammer-and-sickle insignia of the former Red fleet below the words "Russian Scorpion." Then, lest anyone forget the fact that Russia and America are now supposed to be the best of friends, "Queen Mary Long Beach." It's still a cold, cold war.