Traveling to Russia’s Northernmost City to Be Its Only Tourist

No one really travels to Murmansk for fun. Except for Dave Hazzan.

Two degrees north of the Arctic Circle, in the town of Murmansk, the Russian railway ceases. One hundred and 28,000 kilometers of passenger and cargo line can go no further — this is the end of the road, Ivan. Past you is nothing but the great grey expanse of the Arctic Ocean.

The train from St. Petersburg north to Murmansk is largely filled with bored-looking Russians, returning to their Arctic homes. Most of them are miners, stevedores, and merchant seamen. One train car was entirely full of sailors — Murmansk is home to Russia’s Northern Fleet, and the whole Kola Peninsula is dotted with signs that read, “KEEP OUT!” because they house the nation’s nuclear-powered and-armed submarines.

But they aren’t heading to their igloos — they’re heading to town. Because if you’re going to live north of the Arctic Circle — and hundreds of thousands of Russians do — then you might as well make it livable. As a Canadian, I have never been to our Arctic, because, well, it’s the fucking Arctic, with all the frozen and desolate loneliness the Arctic evokes when you’re born and raised in Ottawa.

We can learn something from the Russians here. There’s talk of increasing the Canadian population to 100 million people by 2100, a prospect I wholeheartedly embrace. But not every new Canadian can move to Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Why not build cities in the Arctic? Can we make the Arctic someplace people would want to live?

The Russians say yes.

Murmansk is exactly 100 years old, a toddler in European terms. Built during World War I, the Russian Empire saw the value in an ice-free port on the Arctic Ocean from which to smash the Germans from above. The port was built, and most importantly, it was connected to the rest of Russia by rail. Murmansk was fiercely fought over both during the Russian Civil War, when it was invaded for a time by the British, and World War II, when it was reduced to smithereens by German bombing.

Today, Murmansk is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle by far — slightly fewer than 300,000 people live there, making it about the same size as Pittsburgh or Halifax, NS. By contrast, 107,265 people live in Canada’s three northern territories per the 2011 census, and that includes an enormous area well south of the Arctic Circle.

At the center of Murmansk is a great square where both the city’s main hotels are located — the splendid Meridien and Azimut. We couldn’t afford either, so we stayed at the Tri Zaysta Mini-Hotel, a sort of B&B in an industrial looking low-rise, just up from the train station.

Tri Zaysta means “Three Hares” in English, and we assumed it is named after the three middle-aged women who take turns running the place and mothering the guests. Even through the miracle of Google Translate, they weren’t interested in what we were doing visiting the High Arctic at the end of November. But they were extremely interested in making sure we were well fed, stuffing us full ofblinys (pancakes stuffed with cheese and/or meat), hard-boiled eggs, muesli,kashka (porridge), yogurt, cakes, tea, coffee, milk, and triangular pieces of foil-wrapped processed cheese.

On that first day we visited the Atomic Icebreaker Lenin, the most prized tourist attraction in a city that does not get tourists. It is the first nuclear-powered icebreaker in the world, built in 1959. We toured the bridge, the stateroom, the officers’ mess, the crew cabins, and of course, the nuclear reactors themselves. These have been long-since decommissioned, but there are mannequins in radiation suits dropping tubes of Uranium-235 into the reactor, which reminded me of Homer Simpson dropping a glowing stick of it into his shirt.

Throughout the Icebreaker Lenin there are statues and profiles of the ship’s namesake, along with quotations exhorting the crew to spread the proletarian revolution to the polar bears, or whatever it says, I can’t read Russian. There are pictures of Russian sailors playing soccer on the sea ice, and a poignant shot of Fidel Castro being shown around the bridge by Brezhnev — Castro had died earlier that day, and the tour guide sniffled a little as he showed us.

There was one other foreigner in our tour group, an Italian dude dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, who was an engineer in Murmansk on business, and asked a lot of questions to the tour guide about the ship’s inner works. When he asked us what we were doing in the city, we said we were tourists. He was incredulous. “What are you doing up here?”

We explained we had come up all the way from Indonesia by bus, train, and ferry, the idea being to cross from the Equator to the Arctic Circle without flying, a goal we had achieved only a few hours ago. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. I also explained I was a writer and researching a story. He shook his head, dreaming of sunny Florence, no doubt.

He also refused to have dinner with us because he thought we were weird.

In terms of restaurants, we had expected log cabins with animal pelts all over the walls, free-flowing vodka cooled in the snowbanks, and game roasted on a spit outside. Failing that, we knew from Lonely Planet that the world’s northernmost McDonald’s was here.

What we didn’t expect was Dandy, a suave bistro that served deer burgers with caramelized onions and potato wedges sprinkled in rosemary, a bar where each premium bottle gets its own neon floodlight, and mirrored walls for Murmansk’s gold collar elite to admire themselves in. This is the Russian anti-Soviet, the counter-revolutionary palace of the bourgeoisie. And the food, incidentally, was excellent.

It turns out Murmansk is full of these places. The city is in the thrall of a sushi craze, and every second restaurant offers raw salmon and tuna, California and Philadelphia rolls, and new age creations to boot. Torro Steakhouse, we were promised, was the place to get the city’s best cuts of meat for about the cost of our train tickets from St. Petersburg. Amigos Bar and Grill had Tex-Mex. The bars all featured exotic cocktail lists and fashionable tapas for nibbling.

There was a mega-mall with an H&M and Zara, a Megaplex cinema, and an active food court, all open until (at least) 10 PM, and I was promised there were many more. I knew the Russians had embraced capitalism since the end of Soviet rule. What I didn’t know was that they had embraced it so enthusiastically at the 68th parallel.

It also bears noting that the temperature, though cold, was not anything near what we were expecting. It averaged around -10 degrees, some days a bit warmer, some a bit colder, but a far cry from the -35 we had recently endured in Kazakhstan. Apparently, the Arctic is a solid 20 degrees warmer this year than it should be, which is murderous for the planet, but pleasant for the foreign idiot traipsing along Lenina Avenue half-drunk on Russian Standard.

All of this can pain the tourist who wants something “authentic,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. We did discover a bar on the way home from Dandy that was built like a log cabin, on the inside at least, and had a respectable collection of taxidermic birds, rodents, and reindeer heads.

One guy in the corner was having a lengthy conversation with himself, but it turns out he was only drinking tea. In a private room, there was something untoward going on around the table, but we would never find out, since they slammed the door on my face when I tried to stick my nose in.

The beer and vodka were fine, but I couldn’t get out of my head the idea that this was built for tourists, or at least visiting businesspeople on their evenings off, since, as I was reminded again and again, no tourists come to Murmansk.

On the last day, we got a proper blast of icy Arctic cold when we climbed the hill behind our hotel to visit Alyosha, the 15-meter high Soviet soldier who guards the city, and acts as a memorial to all the Soviet soldiers killed fighting in the Arctic, in what must have been the most unpleasant front to have served in. The wind blew in gusts off the ocean and by the time we reached the peak, our extremities were beginning to numb.

But it’s from up here you can see the joint sunrise-sunset that Murmansk gets in late November. It isn’t dark all day — polar night was coming in another week or so. But at the same time, there wasn’t what anyone could reasonably call daylight. It’s more like a band of blue light that shines off the horizon for a few hours, and then disappears.

From atop Alyosha’s mountain, though, you can see the orange glow of the actual sun. The bare top rim of it sticks up above the horizon, and the clouds glow orange before fading to blue. It’s dawn and dusk stuck together, skipping the daytime altogether. It starts around 11 AM and it’s over by 1 PM.

You get a good view of the city itself, and can appreciate what a miracle of modern technology it is that we can create livable places at these latitudes. A fine place for defeating the Nazis. Or on the other side of the world, settling millions of new Canadians.

Follow Dave Hazzan on Twitter.

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