When an excess of alcoholism, pornography, industrial pollution, radioactivity, and bribery all come together in one place, you know you are in the Arctic.
There’s something strange about standing in a city that isn’t yet one hundred years old, but there are many odd things about Murmansk, not least that the third of a million people who call the world’s largest city North of the Arctic Circle home live several hundred kilometres closer to the North Pole than they do to Moscow – at nearly 69 degrees North, the closed city of Norilsk is the only settlement of any size lying closer to the top of the world.
Murmansk was founded in 1916 as a supply station for getting goods to the Russians during World War I, its location as Gulf Stream terminus meaning the Kola Bay inlet remains ice-free year-round. As Tsarist Russia became the USSR, the city’s strategic significance increased and for the two years following the Soviet Union’s entry into the Second World War, Murmansk received over 70 of the Arctic convoys of ships which provided a key lifeline to the Eastern front and keeping Leningrad just about alive as it underwent its near 900-day siege. The city suffered heavily for its efforts, with only St. Petersburg and Stalingrad sustaining greater devastation, and was named a “Hero City” for its citizens’ contributions to defeating Nazi Germany.
Few people have ever stayed in Murmansk willingly, least of all foreigners. Those with the convoys who were forced to winter there as the seas to the north clogged spoke of a desolate hell and tried to lock themselves away, often undergoing irreversible psychological or physical damage by the time their ships could sail come spring. Not much has changed since then: the majority of inhabitants work with shipping to some extent; the long winters when the sun sets for six weeks continue to cause catastrophic health issues (even by Russian standards); and few foreigners visit out of choice.
However, many do come for work, and as our taxi pulled up at the Polyarnye Zory Hotel – one of two in the city then registered to house foreign guests – we were greeted by several of the sights which define life in the high Arctic: first, it was summer and although my watch showed 23:19, the sun was still in the sky; second, there were three different pornographic magazines in the gutter outside reception; and third, the street outside the hotel bar was crammed with Norwegians, Finns, and other Scandinavians so drunk that the toxic fumes they were belching out threatened to turn into a solstice Northern Lights.
If there is anything I have learnt in trips to the Far North around the world is that the following things must be present in excess for human life in the Arctic to exist: guns, alcohol, violence, and pornography. In Murmansk prostitution was evidently a fifth entry on that list and after negotiating what seemed like an entire red light district of overly made-up peroxide blonde 20-year olds (most dressed in the replica skins of animals definitely not native to such a northerly latitude) to reach our room, it wasn’t just the sun streaming through the curtains which didn’t come close to shutting which kept us awake, but also the incessant ringing of the phone and knocking at our door asking us if “Sir, perhaps you like the sex?”
None of the ladies of the Arctic night were present at breakfast the next morning, presumably because they were all learning how to say “perhaps you like the sex” in various Nordic tongues as none of the Scandinavian oil workers or metallurgists were present either. We enjoyed having a breakfast room set for 300 to ourselves, had the traditional Russian breakfast of Soviet champagne and caviar, and headed out to the city. It looked little different at midday than at midnight – streets empty apart from a few babushkas picking up empty vodka bottles, trolleybuses which had come disconnected from the overhead cables, crumbling Soviet architecture which looked set to last little longer than the USSR itself, and innumerable statues and busts praising Lenin and the captains and admirals who had sailed out of the port at one time or another.
Despite being the second week of June, it began to snow. As it was also my birthday this seemed the perfect moment to get warm in a bar with a drink. Only there weren’t any bars down by the docks, just the traditional Russian drinking spots of parked (but engine running) Ladas with a bottle of vodka on the bonnet and an array of plastic cups. And a man in an ushanka passed out in the gutter in his own vomit. As we continued up toward the giant statue and flame known as Alyosha, we checked the price of a half-litre of vodka in one of the many kiosks which lined the street: 25 roubles, less than $1. They didn’t have any beer.
After bracing a wind which was so cold all of us we left checking we had the full complement of extremities on leaving the hill hosting the war memorial, we flagged down a cab and asked him to take us to a bar. Forty minutes later in the nearby city of Kola we were warm, had a beer, and also a menu of cocktails made from Amazonian fruits which would have cost us a small percentage of the gas extracted in the Barents Sea fields to the North. We also had a mapbook of Murmansk oblast as we intended to hire out the gypsy cap driver who had taken us there the next day to see the region. It wasn’t the most helpful purchase I have ever made, we counted that out of the 20 double pages, 12 didn’t have a single settlement listed, and four didn’t even show any road. We narrowed down our list and rang and arranged our pick-up early the next morning.
It didn’t take too long for Sergei, our driver, to decide for us where we were going. Out of the four possible towns we had chosen, two were closed to foreigners, and one needed a special permit for even locals to come within 20-kilometres of. The Kola peninsula is littered with these ¬_closed administrative-territorial occupations_ (ZATO), holdovers from Soviet times either run by the Ministry of Defence or the Atomic Agency. Of the publicly-acknowledged ZATOs, around a quarter are in Murmansk region, meaning we had to follow a rather circuitous route to our destination – Lovozero.
In all his benevolent glory, Stalin in the 1950s decided Lovozero would be the capital of Russia’s SÃ¡mi population. This meant the forced urbanisation of each and every one of the nomadic people in a pre-fab village which basically became a giant vodka bar where the SÃ¡mi could drink or shoot themselves to death, drive their pick-ups into the half-frozen river, or mutilate their dogs. Although reindeer husbandry has recently been revived and a cultural centre established in the town, Lovozero stank of a place where people come to die. We decided to get out and walk to the nearby lake but our way was barred by tundra with a half-metre of half-melted sludge on top, magnetic and probably radioactive rock deposits rendering our compass useless, and a wall of mosquitoes which came closer than anything we saw to blocking out the 24-hour sun.
After snacking on dried reindeer meat and the ubiquitous shot of vodka we drove on to the nearby copper and nickel smelting mono-industry towns of Olenegorsk and Monchegorsk. Following established Russian place-naming convention, a town ending with the suffix -gorsk will undoubtedly be an horrific shithole. Despite the first half of the town’s name coming from the SÃ¡mi word for beautiful, Monchegorsk kept this statement true – 20 minutes before we even saw the chimneys, the earth in all directions was scorched a mixture of reds and blacks, with the odd smouldering tree-stump the only sign of life. Blessed by abundant precious metals, few places on earth have witnessed the wanton and blatant environmental destruction of the Kola Peninsula and in addition to the toxic by-product of leeching process, the region was also subject to all manner of nuclear industries and tests. For all the beauty of some of the landscape shots we took that day, the photos only remain so picturesque because a camera which can visually show Geiger counter readings has yet to be invented.
As part of the launch of Russia’s first-ever budget airline (every bit as horrendous as it sounds), we were given a free second trip to Murmansk, so long as it was taken in winter. Six months to the day later we returned to near identical temperatures and weather conditions, but this time landed in mid-afternoon in perpetual darkness. We had decided to go local, and were picked up by our host Alexei at the airport. Alexei was dressed in black, was wearing black sunglasses and drove us to the apartment we would rent from in a black BMW with blacked-out windows and black rectangles where the license plates should have been. Black was certainly the predominant adjective of winter in the Arctic.
Alexei’s apartment was Soviet in both décor and scarcity of furniture, including missing the beds we were expecting. He left us by telling us to help ourselves to the contents of the fridge – a bottle of (opened) vodka. We consoled ourselves by knowing we didn’t plan on spending much time inside, we had come back to see three things, and although two of them were technically off-limits, a little advance preparation saw us come armed with the names of some friends of friends from Moscow and a wad of 500-rouble bills – the unofficial visas we hoped would get us in.
Our first trip was with a contact to Nickel, which the Lonely Planet – never one to avoid sensationalism of the horrors of life – once called the single worst place on Earth. That was enough to interest us and although we wouldn’t be able to come within 10 kilometres of the city itself, we would be able to see some of most polluted terrain on the planet. The 250-km drive on snow covered and potholed roads in pitch black took five hours, during which time the only other vehicles we saw were either camouflaged army people movers at checkpoints, or Saabs or Volvos sticking out of roadside trees at various angles.
As we got nearer to Nickel, which sits just seven kilometres from the Norwegian border, our wad of bills got smaller with each passing patrol and the treelines thinned out. We were only a little more than halfway there when we last saw what could euphemistically be termed greenery – whenever the headlights caught the roadside scenery during the next 100 kilometres, what we saw looked like a cross between the Moon and Bhopal. We got out of the car before the final checkpoint leading into the city itself for a view of the destruction. The chimneys of the city’s smelters were floodlit and from them extended as far as the eye could see barren and blackened earth, the nearest tree to the plant apparently grows in Sweden, a country Russia doesn’t even share a border with. We couldn’t stay long, the twin threats of Russian officialdom and the burning in our throats becoming permanent saw to that, and we turned back to Murmansk.
The next day our target was closer to home, the northern district of Severomorsk – home of Russia’s fleets of nuclear-powered submarines and ice-breakers, and most definitely off-limits to us. We didn’t have much in the way of bribe money anymore and were only saved arrest by the FSB due to two things, one of my companions being a smoker with unopened packets of Marlboros from the airport in his bag, and the fact that one of the officers’ daughters was enjoying a take-your-child-to-work day and wanted to practice her English. Her “Goodbye Mr. Canada” to my friend evidently made her drunken father as immensely proud as it made us relieved. We also now definitively had no 500-rouble notes left.
After another day disorientating ourselves with a bizarre type of jetlag in the darkness of midwinter Murmansk, we caught sight of the third thing we had wanted to see on our return by chance during the trip to the airport – the Northern Lights. Luckily the temperatures had plummeted and the wind was blowing the smoke from the city away from the open country we were now in, meaning the green and purple hues of the aurora borealis were briefly and clearly visible. So was the carpet of empty vodka bottles at our feet as we watched – a clear image of the juxtaposition of stark beauty, horrific pollution, and rampant alcoholism that colour life this far North.