The blind lighthouse keeper who defied odds in the Arctic Circle
In Russia at the dawn of the 20th century a lighthouse-keeper lost his sight—yet he defied the odds and continued to tend to his isolated lighthouse in the Arctic
According to the 1875 regulation passed by Tsar Alexander II for the recruitment of lighthouse-keepers in the White Sea, any keeper ought to be familiar with the tough living conditions on the northern coast, they should be competent, well-disciplined, of good moral standing and endowed with the robust health capable of tolerating the challenges of the task.
In addition, it was essential that they master the operation of the lighthouse and of the meteorological equipment, as well as possessing elementary knowledge of medicine and hygiene.
The story of the Svyatonossky lighthouse-keeper
At the dawn of the 20th century, Bagretsov, the Svyatonossky lighthouse-keeper, lost his sight. First he found difficulties writing in the logbook, later he noticed that he was struggling to make out the ships on the horizon that were changing course from the Barents Sea towards the Holy Nose peninsula, and finally he realised he could barely make out the wicks of the bulbs. But Bagretsov was a tenacious man. Besides, his wife helped him out with the more complicated tasks. And so, far from asking to retire, determined to remain in post, he sent notification of the diminishment of his faculties to the manager of the White Sea lighthouses, Colonel Vasiliev, who, having been most impressed by the excellent operating conditions, assigned him an assistant.
Life in the lighthouse continued as normal until 1913 when Rear Admiral Bukhteev’s ship turned up unannounced on the Tersky coast. The news that a blind man was in charge of the Svyatonossky light had reached St Petersburg. A number of opportunists keen to take Bagretsov’s place had sent letters to the Hydrographic Service claiming again and again that it was quite impossible to entrust the working of this facility to someone who couldn’t see. Bukhteev’s unexpected visit was intended to ascertain whether there was any truth to these claims. Following a very thorough inspection, the rear admiral wrote in his report: Though blind, Bagretsov has a serious commitment to his work and shows great skill in discharging his role. He has a special facility for detecting any anomaly in the functioning of the light or any disturbance in the turning mechanism. With the help of his wife and his assistant who is charged with the meteorological observations, he is capable of adequately managing all matters related to the lighthouse. It is proper that he should be rewarded for so many years of good performance.
The blind lighthouse-keeper carried out his work until the start of the Russian Revolution, subsequently passing on the baton to his son. By that time, Nicholas II, the last of the tsars, no longer had the time to deal with the lighthouses of the White Sea.
The Svyatonossky Lighthouse
Date of construction: 1862
Date of lighting: 1862
Tapered octagonal wooden tower
Height of tower: 22m
Focal height: 94m
Range: 22 nm
Following the construction of the Svyatonossky Lighthouse, a head keeper and six assistants were assigned to its upkeep. The conditions of this posting, located above the Arctic Circle, were particularly extreme, and during the first two winters almost the entire team died of scurvy.
However, the lighthouse’s final keeper, Mikhail Ivanovich Gorbunov, took on the post in 1966 and managed to keep doing his job for 36 years.
Extracted from A Brief Atlas of the Lighthouses at the End of the World by José Luis González Macías (Picador, £20)
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