A Warm Welcome In The Russian Far North

Though it’s been open to foreigners for a while, getting travel information on Russia’s Arctic Kola Peninsula remains a little tricky.

Bureaucrats walk an unfamiliar line. Trained by Soviets, they’re unwilling to divulge information, but a desperation for foreign visitors and their cash requires openness. The results are often amusing.

“Camping,” booms Vladimir Loginov, chairman of the Murmansk Regional Sports Committee, “is legal anywhere on the Kola Peninsula. Except in the places in which it is not.”

The Kola Peninsula is an enormous knob of tundra, forest and low mountains between the White and Barents seas. It is one of the most ruggedly beautiful, unspoiled and desolate areas on the planet – an adventurer’s destination that’s accessible to everyone.

Travel to St. Petersburg and Moscow has become commonplace, but the Russian wilderness, the stuff out of Dr. Zhivago, remains mysterious and alluring. Such is the attraction of the Kola Peninsula with its herds of wild reindeer, dramatic mountain formations and fishing villages.

Its first tourists were Lapp herders, but the discovery of a northern sea route in the 16th century turned the tiny settlement of Kola into an arctic trading post.

Thanks to an eddy from the Gulf Stream, the Kola Inlet from the Barents is ice-free year-round, making it the ideal site for the port of Murmansk, and now, at nearby Severomorsk, for the Russian Northern Fleet’s home base.

I arrived in Murmansk with feelings of both elation and dread: elation that I would be among the first post-Soviet Western travel writers to explore the peninsula and some of its tiny towns, and dread because, though the temperature had dipped below freezing (this was in August), the famous arctic mosquitoes were huge and dive-bombing.

Location, Location
Perhaps the most novel thing about Murmansk is its location – halfway between Moscow and the North Pole, and 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Because of the Gulf Stream, temperatures are more moderate than you’d think, ranging from 8 to 17 degrees in January; 46 to 57 degrees in July.

Despite the isolation, Murmansk and many other cities in the region are remarkably bustling and modern. Because of its military importance, Murmansk was always a privileged city in terms of supplies and consumer goods. But today the entire area is swimming in Western-made foods and goods.

Murmansk’s suburbs tower above the city. No suburban sprawl here. Instead, large, colorful and clean apartment buildings are built on the mountainsides. The city center, where Prospekt (Avenue) Lenina meets with Five Corners (Pyat Ugla), teems with bundled shoppers. Stores have names like Northern Lights, 69th Parallel, Penguin and Polar Star.

The winter cold isn’t as bad as the darkness – “polar night” means non-stop dusk through December and most of January, though locals say they feel the impending gloom by the end of October. Outside the city there is just tundra; little wonder that the population turnover is 20 percent a year. People leave because of the darkness and cold, and new ones arrive seeking the higher wages that those conditions bring.

What’s a tourist to do in Murmansk” See the harbor, St. Nicholas Church (Svyato-Nikolskaya Tserkov, named for the patron saint of sailors) and the new Fine Arts Museum and go for a swim in the municipal pool.

The best harbor tour, weather and sea permitting, is on the Kola Inlet. You’ll go south toward Kola (you won’t see the Northern Fleet but you will see the city). Mostly you see shipyards and tundra. Go to the Passenger Ferry Terminal and hop a ferry to Mishukovo. Ferries leave six times daily, and the 30-minute journey is about 75 cents each way.

St. Nicholas Church would be impressive enough, even if it didn’t have such a colorful history. In 1984, the congregation from the little wooden church that was on the site decided to build a cathedral, and began doing so in secret. It’s hard to hide a cathedral, and when the government found out about it in 1985, miners were sent in with orders to blow it up. This raised a holy stink, and demonstrators sat around the site, blocking the miners; simultaneous protests were held in front of the Moscow city executive committee.

The government capitulated to some extent, letting the part of the church that had been built stand but forbidding any further work on it. After perestroika greased the country’s religious wheels, construction resumed in 1987 and continued over the next five summers.

Today St. Nicholas Church is the Kola Peninsula’s religious administrative center. To get there from the railway station, take trolleybus No. 4 for four stops, walk past the pond and up the stairs, then along a dirt trail to the main road. The cathedral is on the right. Services are held Monday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The new Fine Arts Museum at ulitsa Kominterna 13 finally got a permanent collection two years ago. The small but interesting collection includes graphic arts, paintings, decorative applied arts and bone carvings, all on an “image-of-the-north” theme. Admission is about 50 cents for foreigners, 25 cents for Russians and students. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday.

It’s hit or miss, but in the summer there’s a chance to see one of the Murmansk Shipping Co.’s four atomic-powered ice-breakers at the dock (they’re enormous and very orange).

Photography, except in the port itself, is legal now, and you can photograph anything you see from the railway and passenger sea terminals or on board the ferries.

Murmansk’s municipal swimming pool, at Ulitsa Chelyuskintsev behind the central stadium, is just amazing: 50 meters (55 yards) long, with three-, five-, seven- and 10-meter diving boards. There are two kiddie pools downstairs plus a banya or two (steam baths, see accompanying story). It’s open June to October from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is about $1.

Lappland Nature Preserve
Buses and trains from Murmansk to towns along the peninsula’s western corridor are cheap and frequent. Heading south, our first stop was the Lapland Nature Preserve near the ecologically devastated city of Monchegorsk.

This UNESCO-protected preserve consists of 1,860 square miles of almost pristine wilderness. About half of it is virgin tundra; the rest, alpine grasslands, marshes, rivers and lakes. It was founded in 1932 to protect the area’s reindeer herds, still among Europe’s largest.

The park can be visited by individuals or small groups (fewer than 12 people) under limited conditions by advance arrangement. You can trek through the wilderness or traverse it on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Costs vary but are generally very low. The preserve is run by a non-profit organization.

We continued south to Apatity because some Swedes living there had offered to show us the area. When we arrived, we found them running the godsend-to-tourism Scandinavian Study Center, which acts as liaison to Western groups and individuals who want to explore the area.

“This is one of the most beautiful areas in the north,” says Peder Axenstein, who has lived in the area on and off for four years. “We just hope that people will come and see what’s here, and not be afraid to explore the wilderness outside the cities.”

Indeed, Apatity, the Kola Peninsula’s second-largest city, founded as a geological studies center in 1966 on the site of a former gulag, isn’t very attractive to those outside scientific circles.

But it’s an excellent jump-off point for hiking, climbing and skiing expeditions in the nearby Khibiny mountains, and for hunting trips. Who knows, you may even get a chance to see Yeti, the Bigfoot-like creature who locals say pops into the region now and again (16 1/2-inch footprints have been found).

Apatity is also a cultural center for arts and crafts. The wonderful Salma Art Salon, at Ulitsa Dzerzhinskogo 1, is a true cooperative venture: It’s privately owned by, and shows and sells the work of, more than 200 Kola Peninsula artists. Prices are low, and the management can arrange for customs papers to get the merchandise out. And musicians and music lovers from all over the region gather for the free bi-weekly concerts and recitals held here.

There’s not much to do in Kirovsk, 17 miles east, except ski, but the skiing is the finest in northwest Russia. The city hosts the annual All-Europe Downhill Freestyle Competition.

Kirovsk and its suburb, known not by its Russian name but simply by the moniker “Kirovsk-25” (signifying its distance in kilometers from Apatity) are nestled in the Khibiny mountains, separated by a winding mountain road. The center is tiny and easy to navigate, and all the skiing takes place near Kirovsk-25.

The slopes may look easy but those mountains sure are steep. The 17 lifts are mainly tow ropes, and lift tickets are 50 cents per ride, or $4.50 for a day pass. There are eight trails, as well as a children’s trail and lift.

The Kazanskaya Church, just outside Kirovsk-25, was built on the site of another church that had been moved from Kirovsk. The inside is lovely, with an impressive iconostasis and the reputedly miraculous Icon of St. Nicholas. On the night of May 21, 1994, the icon incredibly restored itself, and now works its miracles Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a break between 2 and 3 p.m.

Take bus No. 1, 12 or 105 from Kirovsk center toward Kirovsk-25, and ask for the church. From the bus stop, walk west (back toward Kirovsk), turn south (left), then turn east (left again) and the church is 600 feet on the right side of the road.

The best sight here, at the northern end of Kirovsk-25, is the surrounding mountains, or rather the lack of half of them. (They look like those models you used to see in school of a cutaway section of a volcano).

Local scientists insist this was accomplished by the use of earth movers and heavy equipment (though some say it would have taken a nuclear blast).

Portions of this piece were extracted from Lonely Planet’s Russia, Belarus & Ukraine guide, with permission from the publisher.