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By John Helmer in Moscow

The arrest for debt of MV Lyubov Orlova, an Arctic and Antarctic cruise ship almost as famous as her namesake, a Soviet movie star, continues to mystify industry sources in Moscow. That is because noone is owning up to owning the vessel, and thus to responsibility for the court-ordered seizure by marshals in the Canadian port of St. John last week.

The ship’s crew of 49 Russians and 2 Ukrainians is being repatriated, according to announcements of the Russian Embassy in Canada and the federal Transport Ministry in Moscow, because their stores of food and water have run low. Represented by the Canadian and Russian branches of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the crew also says it has not been paid for four months, with salary claims of about $273,000.
 

The vessel is now flagged at the end of the world — in the Cook Islands, 2,000 miles northeast of New Zealand. There, a tiny shipping registry confirms that just yesterday, October 5, a certificate of registration for insurance against oil spill was issued. But not for long – expiry date is given as February
20, 2011. Without the certificate, the vessel would not be allowed to operate in and out of the ports on its Arctic summer and Antarctic summer cruise schedules.

Still current advertising indicates that the vessel has been under charter for the Arctic summer season by Cruise North Expeditions, which makes this disclaimer: “the ice-strengthened ship…is a far cry from luxury. In many ways, the company doesn’t want a fancier ship. The owners are more interested in attracting passengers who relish the informal and almost scrappy ambiance — those who don’t concern themselves with the relatively mediocre food, simple cabins and basic facilities.”

The Cook Islands register also shows that the owner of the vessel is the Lyubov Orlova Shipping Company Ltd, with an address in Birkirkara, Malta. All the international shipping records show about that company is that the nationality of control is Russian. For such an illustrious vessel to disappear so ignominiously into the archives of two remote islands implies that something embarrassing or nefarious is going on, possibly both.

So does the refusal of the Russian Ministry of Transport to say what it knows of the Russians who own the Lyubov Orlova. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow has announced to the press that it is closely monitoring the situation, and has requested assistance of the local Canadian authorities. But Igor Gerenko, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, refused to clarify the debts of the vessel owner; the current whereabouts of the crew; or to say who the Embassy understands to be the owner of the Malta company. In Moscow, there is a sensitivity to Russian company machinations on the part of Valentin Markov, senior advisor to the Foreign Press Centre at the moment, and he declines to speak.

First built in Yugoslavia in 1976, the ship was named by its then Soviet state owner, the Far Eastern Shipping Company (Fesco) after the comedienne who was one of the most popular actresses of the Soviet cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. Her first hit — see top and right images –was Jolly Fellows of 1934. The plot concerns a singer who can’t hold a tune and falls for a shepherd whom she mistakes for a celebrity conductor. The hit of the show was “Как много девушек хороших” — “Such a lot of nice girls”.

After twenty years of cruising, Fesco sold the Orlova in 1996. The company remains so fond of her that she still occupies pride of place in the Fesco fleet museum. The ship was refurbished in 1999, and again in 2006. But the buyer of the vessel from 1996 is registered in Malta as nothing more than the Lyubov Orlova Shipping Co.

Two Russians have been named in industry media in Moscow as the de facto owners – Oleg Ulyanchenko and Oleg Abramov. Pyotr Osichanskiy, an inspector of the International Transport Workers’ Federation based in Vladivostok, told Fairplay: “Hardly anyone knows the name of the shipowner for sure. But the director and probably the owner, or co-owner, is an Oleg Ulyanchenko from Novorossiysk, a former policeman. He has lived in France lately, and has been operating the vessel for at least 5 years.”
 

“All these years the ship has been taking passengers in the Arctic for cruises. In December last Ulyanchenko was in Vladivostok, where he claimed to be the owner, not only of the Lyubov Orlova, but also of the SC Atlantic, formerly Rus (see right image). However, it has been recently revealed that the Rus was, to put it mildly, removed from his control.”

“But with the Lyubov Orlova,” according to Osichanskiy, “[Ulyanchenko] is not only bound by administrative relations. At least as of today, he has debts of more than half a million dollars over this vessel, and he took responsibility for it. Simple [non-owning] directors don’t behave like that. Usually they shift all the blame on their bosses, without identifying their names.”
 

A Russian press report this week claims that Ulyanchenko may own the Lyubov Orlova with Oleg Abramov, a former resident of Togliatti now living in Switzerland (image). The report alleges the pair were involved in export of cars whose ownership was disputed, and other transactions which have been a target of interest for the Russian General Prosecutor’s office. The Lyubov Orlova, according to one of these reports, has been used as a haven by Ulyanchenko and Abramov.

They have not responded yet in public to the claims, and appear to be uncontactable. The Moscow prosecutor has not replied to questions of whether there is an ongoing investigation, and whether Ulyanchenko and Abramov are being sought. In the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, Gerenko was asked if he will confirm that the owners of the vessel are Ulyanchenko and Abramov. He won’t say.

The tour agent for the Lyubov Orlova has announced it is “not operating in Antarctica for the 2010-2011 season.”

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