It's a 1,200-mile drive from Moscow to Murmansk – in winter, the ultimate Russian road trip. The reward is a city steeped in tradition, World War II history and haunting memories of the Cold War
Nudging a latitude of 69°N and with a population of just over 300,000, Murmansk is the largest city within the Arctic Circle. For the most part, the road from Moscow is an endless video loop of snow and trees. But finally, a thousand or so miles up the road, the tree line is left behind and you emerge into arctic tundra. In mid-February, Murmansk is a cold, colourless place. Icicles fringe crumpled, concrete apartment blocks and everywhere is covered in snow.
By early afternoon, a dim arctic twilight settles across the city. The view from my top-floor hotel room was grey and dreary. Smoke billowed from two red and white-banded chimneys set on slightly higher ground near the port. It swirled in the breeze, pushing against the spindrift and flecks of snow that constantly scudded past my window.
On the far horizon, “Alyosha” – a massive granite, greatcoated figure representing a Russian soldier – kept a stern vigil over a monochrome landscape. Below, the noise of the city was muted. At -20 degrees Centigrade, people went about their business with a quiet sense of purpose. Cars trundled cautiously along dirty, icy streets and feral dogs – a feature of most Russian cities – roamed silently through the car parks and open areas.
For most of World War II, Murmansk was the main destination port for the Arctic convoys. Sailing first from Iceland, then later from Scotland, the Allied vessels suffered heavy losses, shipping military and humanitarian supplies to the besieged Russians. In 1941, Germany launched a sustained offensive against the city but Soviet resistance was fierce and eventually commemorated in 1985, when Murmansk was formally recognised as a Hero City.
During the Cold War, the Kola Peninsula served as the main centre for Soviet submarine activity. In the opening scenes of the classic 1990 movie The Hunt for Red October, this is where Sean Connery slipped silently beneath the Barents Sea, on his way to defect.
Despite the cold winters, the Gulf Stream allows the port to operate all year round. It is the headquarters of Russia’s Northern Fleet and there are many military installations in the surrounding area. Photography can be a tricky business, particularly near the harbour. While the repressive security of the old Soviet regime is less overt, I never felt totally at ease throughout my stay. In all honesty, I was probably regarded more with curiosity than hostility – but as few people spoke English, there was always the potential for misunderstanding.
Getting around the city was not easy. When you don’t understand the alphabet, let alone the language, all signs are useless. Murmansk has a system of ageing trams but the timetables seem to be handed down from generation to generation, known only to those who need to know and not to be shared with those who don’t.
If you want a taxi, you simply stand with your arm outstretched until someone stops. It may be a marked cab, but more often than not it’s a private car. You just tell the driver where you want to go and agree a price. For foreigners, there are obvious risks attached but sometimes there are no easy alternatives. In theory, these cars should be licensed – but in true Russian tradition, no one bothers and no one asks. It’s just private business.
I was staying at the Meridian Hotel – described as "centrally located", yet the city has no real focal point, only a nondescript junction of roads enclosing an open area used for car parking. The hotel was comfortable and well-appointed. If it hadn’t been for the security guard by the lifts and the lack of any facility to charge purchases to your room, it could almost have been European. The Meridian did not accept credit cards, but the cash point next door coughed up 9,000 roubles (£180) without a murmur.
Murmansk women have a well-deserved reputation for being stunningly beautiful. The waitresses in the hotel bar were no exception, but their demeanour was about as warm and welcoming as the icy streets outside. Ruthlessly efficient and totally detached, they went about their work in a robotic trance, like cloned extras from some futuristic B movie.
One evening, apart from a drunken Norwegian fish merchant, I appeared to be the only Westerner in the hotel. A strange old man in a large fur hat tried hard to engage me in conversation. Our exchange was always doomed to failure, but I appreciated his friendliness and the warmth of his smile.
Despite only having been founded in 1916, when the railroad line to Kola was built, Murmansk has an undeniable sense of history. Go there in winter and the ghosts of the convoys and suspicions of the Cold War still linger in the shadows. There is little of interest in a conventional tourist sense, but the place has a powerful presence.
Somehow, I had a disconcerting feeling that Alyosha is more than just a memorial to the past. I couldn’t quite dismiss the thought that he is also a sentinel for the future. What kind of a future, and how soon we will get there, are questions perhaps only he can answer.