In Russian, voicing the word “Murmansk” properly would mean to voice it intensely, with the accent on the “u” and a pitch that naturally deepens. The tongue should roll with the “r”, and it should conclude definitively with a crisp “k” click, allowing the word’s powerful phonetics to ring in pulsating waves emanating from the speaker’s vibrating throat. The name Murmansk was born from the local Sami word murman, meaning “the edge of the earth”.
My friends and I stepped out of the train station into a thick fog produced by our own heavy breaths. The immediate city was gray and coated with a crust of dirt, apart from the sea foam green façade of the station, a circular building with a garish obelisk overhead that could be spotted all the way from Alyosha’s peak three miles away. Why sea foam, I wondered. Its attempt to be cheerful was depressing, like a lone balloon in an empty circus tent. Plastered above the door was a festive mosaic, spelling out MYPMAHCK along with cartoonish depictions of disproportionately sized fish and boats, no doubt an homage to the city’s prolific fishing industry. Beyond the happy mosaic was a shipyard brimming with cranes and jagged machinery that punctured the perch-belly clouds. It was the infamous Murmansk shipyard; once young and alive, it was now rendered decrepit as its workers flee elsewhere in search of more robust economic enterprise. This was the heart of Murmansk’s story, the key to its glorious history and the victim of its flailing present. Mosaics aside, all this made for a sad, sober, Soviet welcome.
The wheels of the taxi splattered and splashed as we sailed through the streets in ankle-deep slate-gray slush. During the ride, I became fixated on all the Lenin monuments we were passing. Snow stuck to the tired crevasses of his faces making him look like a series of skulls with stocky mismatched bodies, ironic considering the man’s flesh is still well preserved in a box in Moscow. His coattails gloriously crystallized in mid-flap, almost all of Lenin’s left arms reached far and determinedly, and pigeons would settle on his iron fists as if he were trying to set them free.
An older woman with muddy hair and gray roots greeted us in the entranceway of our sterile bed & breakfast. Her name was Tatiana. She accepted us warmly even though it was clear we overwhelmed her as a six-pack of young Americans who had just plopped onto her doorstep like unannounced cargo. Tatiana was accustomed to hosting Scandinavian businessmen attracted by the industrial potential of the Russian Arctic. And there we stood with the naiveté of foreigners without a purpose, tracking mud and dripping wet with dumb smiles on our faces, harboring no interests in the Shtokman gas field or any other Arctic fissure that leaked rubles.
I later joked with Tatiana as she swept the tile floors of her office. I said, “You know, we don’t really have a reason why we’re here.” She stopped sweeping, layered her soft hands casually at the end of the broomstick, smiled sweetly, and said, “No, no, everything has a purpose.” She then looked wistfully to her right and continued to work.
There’s this dream in the collective memory of a fabled Soviet Union, a fantasy that accounted for Murmansk’s venerable history. The dream is best portrayed in a fast-paced sixties video montage of a handsome and clean-shaven Russian man laughing with his family before heading to work, of a happy and fulfilled face regardless of the menial tasks it was assigned (although they were painted as large and important tasks!), of sincere and hearty comradeship in the midst of his equals (and everyone supposedly was). Papa Lenin! The State! Collectivization! Security! Leisure! A grand picture indeed.
Pripyat, the bustling town inhabited by the employees of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, was such a city before it blew up.
Dejected and abandoned like an old dog, Murmansk was once the epicenter of Arctic vitality and purpose. The city’s birth transcended notions of economy and society, as it was born honorably during wartime, intended to furnish Russia with convoys of goods and equipment from Western allies. Its supply port served the anti-Bolshevik forces of America, Britain and France, just as it housed Russia’s shipbuilding activities and processed its fish.
The waterways leading to Petersburg were impenetrable during wintertime (cut to Peter, as I step hesitantly onto the Neva River), so during the Second World War, Anglo-American convoys meandered through Arctic water, warmed by North Atlantic currents, to supply the USSR at the mouth of Murmansk.
While bombers and battleships tormented each other in the sloshing seas to the north, Germans had Operation Silver Fox stealthily underway. Along with Operations Reindeer, Platinum Fox, and Arctic Fox, the general plan was to seize Murmansk by way of Finland and Norway and cut off the Soviets’ ability to communicate with Leningrad.
History dictates that assaulting Russia is not without its costs. It soon became clear to both sides that the Germans’ epically-named operations were just that – words and ideas with no substance behind them. The aggressors became overstretched, outnumbered, sluggish in progress, and maladroit regarding the demands of Arctic warfare. Result: the German death toll reached tens of thousands while the Soviets basked in the spoils of a glorious victory, the story of which schoolchildren in Murmansk would be able to regurgitate for the rest of their snow-ridden lives.
Alyosha was erected in honor of the valiant efforts unveiled during that turbulent era; he faces West towards the history and the gore.
Then in the nineties, that lovely and reassuring Soviet dream was dead. The installation of a market economy shot it in the heart as it cowered in a corner, puncturing its soul along the way. “Post-Soviet depopulation” commenced. Hundreds of thousands of laborers dispersed to Moscow, Petersburg, and indeed the entirety of a brand-new Russia with fresh dreams of work and subsequent prosperity. One must dream.
The shipyard in particular suffered. Its fishing and shipbuilding industries couldn’t adapt to supply and demand economics overnight. And people didn’t want to stick around long enough to wait.
The world of the Arctic is otherworldly, like that of a whimsical and haunting video game. Up there is a forever kind of snowscape, soft, white, and sparkling with gusts of surface snow flying across the taiga. It’s a lonely place condemned to obscurity and irrelevance. And as with a carefully concocted virtual world, the walks are solitary until you collide with some fortuitous character or encounter. In the Arctic, when you come across life in any capacity, it’s startling and memorable. It’s an event.
As a group of six our dynamic was healthy but slow-moving. Resolving what to do posed one problem, getting there presented another. One late morning we settled on visiting the Lenin, the world’s first nuclear icebreaker.
Murmansk’s urban planners developed the city like a giant staircase consisting of three steps, adhering to the valley’s natural terrain: Level One, the bay, the shipyard; Level Two, the city center; Level Three, the hills, the residential blocks and obscure businesses that don’t want city-center rent. As I type, new structures are mushrooming above and beyond, leading to a promising Level Four.
To access the Lenin, we crossed a rusty graffiti-ridden bridge connecting Level Two with One; underneath spaghetti train tracks met at a distant vanishing point that eventually ended in Petersburg. The bridge alone felt like a portal a video game hero endured to transition between worlds, and the hero’s task was to surpass the homeless men soliciting coins. Drunks swayed so treacherously close I could sense the vodka leaking from their pores, as if they were a host and the drink, the parasite, was using their bodies for mobility and other dubious agendas. Smart for the parasite, better for the host: vodka doesn’t freeze.
Portal navigated successfully. On to Level One. The grounds were still, apart from intermittent movement in my periphery, as if something was interested in us but was too bashful to emerge from the shadows. Occasionally, a bundled-up person would pass us with eyes focused on the ground or dead ahead. Several shacks skewed outwards like a house of cards; they had promising signs like “Bar” and “Café”, but with that kind of silent deadness one best abandon any notions of a promise. The ice-dirt parking lot in front of the fish processing plant was half-full, indicating there were living people around and enough dead fish to keep them there. We continued down the inauspicious road in search of the Lenin.
That day our efforts bore no fruit. I soon found myself in the trunk of a dirty jeep; a Russian man and his Georgian friend kindly drove us to the Lenin (we had missed by a lot). We then discovered that only one tour was available on weekdays and we already missed it according to one grumpy gentleman in a blue jumpsuit who was cracking ice stuck to the dock and sweeping it into murky water.
We ventured back into the Level One world of the shipyard. For no reason at all, we turned left in an attempt to negotiate the level. Down the winding snowy road we went. On our left were mustard yellow cranes surrounded by royal blue construction fence and unmarked buildings choked by barbed wire. On our right was a grand view of Murmansk from the bottom up.
We then happened upon the end-all train depot, marked lavishly by a titanic Hammer & Sickle. These siblings were permanent fixtures of Murmansk’s architecture just like windows and doors. I snapped a shot of the emblazoned symbols when a stout bowling pin of a women with bleached hair emerged from nowhere and yelled, “photography is forbidden!”
And so we exited Level One. With only one life acquired and left, we resolved to visit Alyosha.
Murmansk, a narrow but long city, is cradled by surrounding hills; to the west is the Bay of Kola, to the south is the town of Kola (a dreary place with an old church and excellent borscht), and just north, still in town, is a park sitting on top of a foggy knoll. At the edge of that park stands Alyosha, and so we decided to catch the number three bus up the hill, trudge through the park, and reach the Defender before dark.
The park was a bumpy piece of land peppered with various points of interest: a cabin decked out in Christmas lights that lit up in sync with the heavy techno beats produced from within; a whimsical sphere of a building modeled after a snowball that housed performing seals; a white lake that ominously resembled the ground; uninviting Soviet apartment blocks like giant, gray, and sharp Legos; and, finally, Alyosha.
And so we six labored through the ice and snow often passing these bizarre landmarks that provoked our natural curiosity, the same curiosity that brought us to the Russian Arctic. The hike was a miniature epic in itself: along the way, my friend Alan would randomly run ahead and belly-flop onto his newly-acquired sled whenever he met an appropriate gradient; we were temporarily followed by a whimpering stray puppy with glassy eyes and a cuddly disposition; and my comrade Brian began singing a song so contagious it was impossible not to join. In short: there was sliding, singing, and a puppy sidekick. This is where Margo, lover of all things small, furry, and sentimental, would clasp her hand to her heart and gently squeal.
During the time of our choir, the inclement weather worsened. As we neared Alyosha, the wind began to moan and flurries were being thrashed around in a violent and cyclical fashion as if we were in a snow globe placed in the perilous hands of four-year-old with a sugar high.
And then, the base of his majestic frame appeared. Alyosha’s top half wasn’t visible; his chest, shoulders, and head were consumed by an opaque and abrupt fog. With his portentous back turned to us, I felt happy but nervous while approaching him. I imagined the giant might suddenly animate, spring around with youthful agility, and stick his rifle in my face as if I were German.
Suddenly I found myself under the fabled Soviet himself. We gathered around the eternal flame at his feet hoping to catch some of its glow. The snowflakes that entered its realm disappeared abruptly creating an impervious bubble of heat. There was no sweet spot, stand too far and you wouldn’t feel it, stand too close and your eyebrows would singe, but I felt protected. I was close to a fire, a source of heat and life in the viciousness of ceaseless tundra where everything can kill you slowly, unceremoniously, so that you collapse and expire with no first or second thought from nature and its apathetic ways.
We went to Alyosha for the same reason we ventured into the Arctic: to see what was up there. Never have my motivations been so innocent and pure. Never has my reasoning been so compelling. It infers an infectious swell of curiosity missing an agenda, of gripping adventure for its own sake. If everything has a purpose, then mine was to stand next to Alyosha and see what his eyes owned.
And so I stood overlooking the still Bay of Kola with Alyosha and his gun and devotion over my shoulder. The winds were strong but they were silent as if aggressive ghosts were pushing and pulling me in any direction they felt would harass me most. The only impetus that allowed me to stand in place was my complete frozenness in both body and mind as I couldn’t feel anything anymore and for one instant I, me as I know it, was no more than a string of thoughts that was being whipped around in the numbing polar air like a long ribbon attached to an icy immovable anchor. I was in the Arctic. I smiled at this realization. I scanned the faint outline of Murmansk’s endless machinery, eager to please, waiting in steely gray water for its long-gone masters to come back, the Valley of Glory across the bay that was once crimson red but now devoid of color, capturing Alyosha’s gaze even though it vanished into the clouds and snow. You just knew it went on forever – the winter, the darkness, the ice, the threat – otherwise Alyoshka the defender’s purpose would be lost. And so I stood there as a statue with no body and only the solipsistic mind of fleeting thoughts with no source or terminus; the wind pulled tears out of my eyes and then promptly froze them, and one of those ribbon-thoughts became still in my head, the ribbon froze with a greeting card from the edge of the earth, and it said: “Welcome to the Arctic. You’ll leave here eventually, like everyone else.”