Murmansk – Brrrr!
You better bring a fur coat, and not to be stylish!
The Independent (UK) 10 October 1998
Heroes Take Their Leave of the Arctic
By Rupert Cornwell in Murmansk
“Murmansk – Hero City” proclaims the faded concrete hoarding, fully six feet
square, as you enter Russia’s great northern port. Like many mementoes from
Soviet times, it is a mixture of the absurd and the oddly stirring. Times
were truly hard, Hitler was at the gate and ice-free Murmansk was Russia’s
lifeline. Now times are truly bad again. Only there are no heroes; only
incompetents and villains, the omnipresent crisis – and icebreakers that
break no ice.
Outwardly, life in Murmansk belies the economic debacle that has overtaken
the country. Built in bleak Soviet style along a rocky fjord 200 miles inside
the Arctic Circle, this city never yields an easy living. But, at a price,
goods of all kinds are available. Panic and queues are not in evidence.
You are tempted to conform to conventional wisdom: Russia once more will
sacrifice and suffer, but, you predict, will somehow muddle through, as always.
Maybe so. But out in the villages, in the orphanages and the hospitals, among
the sick and the old and the disadvantaged, the foreboding is as palpable
as the first wet snow of late September. And desperate times beget desperate
No help is to be expected from the country’s capital in name, Moscow. Like
everywhere else in Russia, Murmansk must sidestep the centre and barter to
secure what it needs – in its own case swapping fish and minerals for fruit,
vegetables and consumer goods from other regions.
But Murmansk has gone a historic step further. For the first time a Russian
regional leader, in the person of its governor, Yuri Yevdokimov, has appealed
not to his own federal government, but to Norway and Finland for help. The
step is unarguably wise and, from one perspective, merely another step towards
a more open and “normal” Russia.
Nevertheless, for a region at the very heart of the strategic defence of
a proud, secretive and autarchic country, it signifies surrender. Faced with
economic collapse, the eternal ties that bind Russia are starting to come
For proof, consider the icebreakers. If nuclear-missile submarines are the
emblem of Severomorsk, the closed city 10 miles up the fjord that is home
to the Northern Fleet, Murmansk’s pride is its giant nuclear and diesel
icebreakers. There is nothing like them anywhere – monstrous machines of
up to 75,000 horsepower, which can carve a 30-yard-wide channel through 10ft-deep
pack ice. As tall as good-sized office blocks, equipped with saunas and swimming
pools, they can stay at sea for five months at a time.
With them Russia can allow itself to dream of turning the 3,500 miles of
the “Northern Eastern passage” linking Western Europe and Asia across the
top of the world into a new artery of global commerce.
Without them, the communities strung out along Siberia’s bleak northern shores
– settlements as remote as any on earth, with strange, un-Russian names such
as Dikson, Buolkalach and Ur’ung Chaya – would perish. Without them the estuaries
of Siberia’s great rivers, the Ob, the Yenisei and the Lena, would be permanently
frozen. The vital mining city of Norilsk, 200 miles inside the Circle and
producer of 15 per cent of the world’s nickel, would be cut off, and Russian
research and defence stations on the islands of the polar ocean would have
to close down.
Early autumn should see the icebreakers at their busiest, escorting cargo
ships before the ice becomes too thick. But now there is no money, and precious
little trade, just the crisis.
Business on the northern route is down 80 per cent, and half the ships in
the icebreaker fleet lie idle. The Murmansk Shipping Company has received
from Moscow less than a third of the funds it needs to maintain them.
Some of the difference is recouped with three-week cruises to the North Pole
for foreigners prepared to pay $18,000 to $30,000 a head for the ultimate
chic in summer holidays. Even so, crew salaries have gone unpaid for two
months. The settlements risk going without fuel and other essential supplies
during the bitter cold and darkness of the Arctic winter. Some may have to
be evacuated, perhaps for ever. The “crisis” has succeeded where even Hitler
failed, destroying even hope.
My last appointment was with Father Nikodim, assistant to the Bishop Simon
of Murmansk, as he was about to celebrate a marriage – if celebrate is the
correct word for a ceremony with virtually no guests, in a church swathed
in scaffolding, where fresco painters go uncaring about their business.
Never, he says, have prospects been as miserable: the winter of 1991 after
Communism collapsed was as bad in logistical terms, but at least there was
the promise of better things. “This is a catastrophe. For the church, suicide
is the greatest sin, but people are just killing themselves in despair.”
Within half an hour the union is blessed and the couple leave – stepping
off into a future as dark as the lowering sky, carrying the first squally
snow showers of a winter which for the far Russian north could be the hardest
in half a century.
March 31 1999, from Reuters, via Johnson’s Russia List
Siberia’s beauty dazzles even in winter
By Sebastian Alison
NIZHNEVARTOVSK, Siberia, So you like brilliant sunshine, spectacular blue
skies, breathtaking scenery, a hotel that rivals the best anywhere, and top
quality cuisine? Perhaps you should consider a trip to Siberia.
Siberia. The very name smacks of misery, punishment, hardship, and despair.
But its vast landscapes are also a wilderness of astonishing natural beauty,
and a place apart. Siberia is different.
The city of Nizhnevartovsk, four hours flying time and two time zones east
of Moscow is typical of many Siberian cities. Founded in 1972, it exists
to exploit a single natural resource — oil. With a population of some 150,000,
it is a one-industry town, like many in the vast Siberian taiga stretching
from the Urals mountains to the Sea of Japan. The city itself is hardly an
inspiring place. Like many built in Soviet times, it consists of a series
of large, featureless apartment blocks built with utility, not beauty, in
mind, and has little to distinguish it from a thousand others in Russia.
Indeed, so alike are many of these cities that their monotony is behind the
plot of a famous Soviet film, ‘An irony of fate,’ based on the adventures
of a man who is put on a plane by his friends when drunk, and wakes up far
from home. He takes a taxi to his address, which of course exists in the
‘wrong’ city, travels through districts identical to those in his hometown,
arrives at a block just like the one he lives in, and does not realise he
is in the wrong place. Russian cities are like that.
NATURE MAKES UP FOR DISMAL CITY
But Nizhnevartovsk is easy to escape. Wilderness starts on the doorstep in
Siberia. Flying by helicopter at 300 feet (90 metres) above the taiga, the
untouched tundra spreads for ever. Sparse, sturdy pine trees stand out against
the snow. Lakes abound, and are identifiable in winter only by an absence
of trees on the snow.
Late March is still very much winter in Siberia — it often snows as late
as June — and the temperature is an invigorating minus 25 degrees Celsius
(-13 Fahrenheit). Not that that is considered cold. Oilmen from the Tyumen
Oil Company, the region’s biggest, working at a field an hour’s flight from
Nizhnevartovsk said the temperature had plunged below -50 Celsius (-58 F)
earlier this winter. Down to -43 Celsius (-45.40F), work carries on as normal.
Below that operations switch to standby mode, with only limited maintenance
By contrast in the brief Siberian summer, the temperature soars to 40 Celsius
(104F), the ground becomes a boggy, swampy hell, humidity is such that even
breathing the damp air is an effort, and mosquitoes unseen outside horror
films abound. Oilmen prefer winter.
Even in the Siberian winter, glorious days are known. Bright winter sun shining
through a clear blue sky at well below -20 Celsius (-4F) creates a light
of unearthly beauty special to the north (Nizhnevartovsk is north of Helsinki),
and shows Siberia at its best.
Nizhnevartovsk stands on the river Ob, one of the great rivers of Siberia
which rises in the Altai mountains near the border with China and flows north
across Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. The vast river is frozen to a depth of
several feet in March, and covered with a thick layer of snow. Loose powder
snow billowing across its surface in a strong, freezing wind creates a vivid
impression of movement, so the Ob appears to be flowing even as one walks
across it. The river is home to the muksun, a fish greatly prized as a smoked
ANCIENT PEOPLES STILL LIVE NOMADIC LIVES
But Siberia is not just full of natural marvels. It is also the home of myriad
ancient peoples, some of whose cultures have survived, against the odds,
through the Soviet era and still exist today.
On a flight last year from another nearby oil town, Surgut, the helicopter
passed over a ‘village’ — no more than three or four tents — of the local
Khanty people, one of the ethnic groups still living in the Khanty-Mansiisk
autonomous region. A few thousand of these people still live as they always
have, as nomadic tent-dwellers all year despite the astonishing cold, surviving
by hunting reindeer with dogs, and fishing. An impressive sight on the cusp
of the new millennium.
One of the region’s oil companies, Surgutneftegaz, has opened a museum of
the Khanty people at its office in the town of Lyantor. The display shows
the Khanty have a rich tradition of carving in bone and wood, and in working
leather. But time is catching up with them. In an age of snowmobiles and
apartment blocks, the harsh life is less and less attractive and many Khanty
are giving up and moving to cities.
Nizhnevartovsk, amazingly enough, is endowed with a hotel, the Samotlor,
run by the Tyumen Oil Company, which serves magnificent food and would be
considered excellent in Western Europe or the United States.
In a small town in Siberia its presence is difficult to believe. Travellers
around Russia can always find many things to admire, but hotels in provincial
towns are rarely among them. But in Nizhnevartovsk the comfort of the hotel,
the majesty of the landscape, and the fortuitous mix of harsh winter cold
and brilliant sun can combine to create a far kinder impression of Siberia
than the misery of popular imagination.
Monday, 12 October, Johnson’s Russia List
The Hope of the Artic
By Fred Weir in Moscow
MOSCOW (HT) — Millions of people in dying Soviet-era Arctic communities
face a grim winter of hunger and power blackouts because underfunded supply
networks have broken down, a Russian parliamentary commission says. ‘We
are banging our heads trying to make people realize that the situation is
extremely dangerous. Many cities with big populations are on the brink of
mass tragedy,’ says Vladimir Budkayev, a parliamentary deputy from the Arctic
region of Magadan and a member of the Russian Duma’s northern affairs commission.
12-million people live in Russia’s far north, a legacy of Soviet economic
planners’ dream of developing the vast Arctic spaces. Unlike other northern
countries like Canada, where workers are usually flown in from southern cities
to operate remote mines and oil wells in shifts, the USSR built large population
centres on the tundra and permafrost near sources of raw materials.
Russia has almost a dozen Arctic cities of over 100,000 people, and scores
of smaller industrial towns. Many can only be supplied by ship or river barge
during the short summer season, or by tractor train along frozen waterways
in winter. ‘It was a huge mistake to concentrate all those people in big
apartment blocks, exposed to the Arctic climate,’ says Mr. Budkayev. ‘The
Soviet system provided for them, but it’s gone now.’ Many Soviet-era Arctic
industries are not viable in a market economy, and even those that are cannot
support large local populations.
`What can we do with all the pensioners, families, unskilled workers who
live there?’ says Mr. Budkayev. ‘Everyone must be kept warm and fed, but
there are no means anymore to do that.’
The state subsidies that used to ensure adequate supplies of food and fuel
to northern communities have been dwindling since the demise of the USSR.
But with this year’s financial crash a near bankrupt Russian government has
paid out barely half the amount budgeted for northern relief. Meanwhile,
prices for many basic goods have doubled or tripled in the past few months.
The Red Cross has launched an emergency $15-million appeal this winter to
help vulnerable groups of Russians — including poor, elderly, disabled people
and refugees — whom it warns are facing an ‘urban disaster’ brought on
by the economic crisis.
‘We can’t exclude the possibility of mass starvation if the situation continues
to deteriorate,’ says Borje Sjokvist, head of the Moscow delegation of the
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Mr. Sjokvist says Russia’s financial woes have caused a drastic fall in food
imports which, combined with the country’s worst grain harvest in 40 years,
points to widespread shortages of basic products in coming months. ‘We fear
it may be the hardest winter in a generation,’ he says. ‘Old people are
making comparisons to the tough winters of the 1940’s, during the Second
Some Russian analysts dispute the threat of general hunger in Russia’s main
population zones this winter, but agree that the situation in the north is
dire. ‘Foreigners sometimes exaggerate our troubles, because they don’t
understand how things work in Russia,’ says Vladimir Petukhov, an expert
with the Institute of Social and National Problems in Moscow. ‘Food will
be very expensive, but there will be enough for most of the country. But
in the north it’s already too late in the season to conduct a full supply
effort. Nothing has been done this year, and we have the makings of a human
catastrophe in some places.’
The Duma commission estimates that over a million people must be evacuated
immediately from remote communities that are in imminent danger of social
breakdown. ‘The whole system of northern habitation is collapsing,’ says
Mr. Budkayev. ‘The majority of areas are just not ready for winter, and
few places have more than two months supply of food and fuel. Some are beyond
‘But there are no plans to withdraw people, no means to do it, and no places
to take them. We are in real trouble.’
Johnson’s Russia List, October 16, 1998
Russia Arctic City Offers Hard Life
By Sarah Mae Brown
NORILSK, Russia (AP) — Freezing winds send snow squalls and factory smoke
drifting across the endless tundra of this bleak mining outpost. But the
largest nickel mine in the world does offer something rare in Russia these
days: a reliable paycheck.
Norilsk Nickel, a sprawling collection of nickel mines and hulking smelters,
is the sole reason 230,000 Russians have come here, making the city the world’s
largest north of the Arctic Circle. It is also why they are willing to put
up with endless winters, limited contact with the outside world and the absence
of many human comforts.
‘Just look around you. All of Russian industry has ground to a halt and
we are still here, and we are paying our wages on time,’ boasted Alexander
Bururhin, head engineer at Norilsk Nickel. ‘As difficult as life is here,
our workers know that they have it much better than their relatives on the
In geographical terms, Norilsk is actually part of the Russian land mass.
But in psychological terms it’s as isolated as any island. The city,
established in 1933 by dictator Josef Stalin as a prison camp, is more than
120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. A plane flight from Moscow is a five-hour
journey to the northeast, and there are no roads to or from Norilsk.
‘My children have never seen a live cow or a field of potatoes,’ said factory
worker Sasha Bodanin, a 20-year veteran of Norilsk. ‘They have no idea what
it feels like to strip off your clothes and go for a swim on a summer day,
to feel the hot sun on your back.’ The ground is covered with snow
for all but the brief summer months. Even then, there is no farming because
the soil is packed with nickel and other heavy metals. The mines and
smelters, which operate 24 hours a day, ring the high-rise apartments that
form the center of the city. There are food and clothing stores, a few
restaurants and bars, and a movie theater, but the diversions are few.
The Norilsk operation has 86,000 workers. When the workday finishes, miners
are covered in grime, their throats and eyes often burning. They board rickety
buses in the freezing darkness and head home to run-down Soviet-era apartments,
only to rise in the morning darkness the next day to do it all over again.
‘I understand now that I will never leave here, although I dream of
it,’ Galina Yeremeeva, 25, said as she prepared to board an elevator that
would take her down nearly a mile into a mine.
by the high wages, Yeremeeva’s parents came here in 1980, when she was just
7 years old. Like most, they hoped to make good money, save some of it and
eventually leave. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing
economic turmoil meant that they haven’t been saving anything. In fact, they’re
just barely getting by. ‘Prices are so high here. Everything must
be shipped in from the mainland,’ said Yeremeeva, wearing her miner’s helmet.
‘I spend most of my earnings just feeding my family.’
Health problems are rampant. The environmental group Greenpeace says toxic
smoke from the factor’s furnaces and acid rain, have effectively killed the
forest for up to 60 miles to the southeast of town. Yet the plant continues
to churn out about 200,000 tons of nickel a year, roughly 20 percent of the
world supply. The company, controlled by business tycoon Vladimir Potanin,
reported losses of $257 million in the first half of this year and has been
hard hit by falling nickel prices, which recently fell to an 11-year low.
The operation is also burdened by the huge cost of supporting the town —
about $200 million a year for the schools, hospitals and housing. ‘This
is the Soviet legacy we inherited. It is not profitable for us, but it’s
clear that if we didn’t support the town, then Norilsk would cease to exist,’
said Bururhin, the head engineer.
For the workers, moving to a new city, finding another job and a place to
live seem like monumental obstacles. It’s a daunting prospect to venture
elsewhere in Russia, where millions of workers get paid months late, if at
all. ‘We are caught in a cycle of subsistence,’ said miner Irina Baldovsko.
‘We would all leave if we had any other options, but we are trapped by