Friday, August 11, 2017


It was our fourth time in Russia.  We've visited the Atlantic Coast, the Pacific Coast and now the Arctic Coast of Russia.  Before the trip, I told some Russian friends that we were going to Murmansk.  They said, "Why would you want to go there?"  Precisely!

Murmansk is the largest city in the world north of the Arctic Circle. It is located on the Kola Peninsula, not far from Norway.  It is closer to the North Pole than it is to Moscow.  Murmansk is a city of 300,000.  The population used to be 500,000.  When people were no longer forced to live there, they voted with their feet.   The sun does not come up for 2 months in the Winter and it gets bitterly cold up here--the January average temperature is 5F (-15C).  In January, the mercury can dip close to -40F (-40C).  Despite that, the port remains relatively ice free, even in Winter because of the Gulf Stream.

Murmansk is a relatively new city.  It was founded in 1916.  Czarist Russia needed a seaport beyond the reach of the German Navy during World War I.  The city was called Romanov-on-Murman.  "Murman" or "Nurmann" was the Russian word for "Norman" or "Viking".  The Vikings had sailed to this area 1000 years ago.  When the Red Army took over, a couple of years later, they changed the name to Murmansk. 

Our ship docked opposite the huge Soviet era nuclear icebreaker, the Lenin, written in Cyrillic letters.  Not John Lennon, but Vladimir Lenin.  The Lenin can cut through 10 feet of ice.  It sails to the North Pole and takes tourists there.  A friend we met on the cruise, Doug from British Columbia actually did take that cruise.  He told me that several times, the ship got stuck in the ice, so it backed up and rammed through it.  He even took a dip in the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole.

Murmansk serves as the headquarters of the Russian Northern Fleet and is a major nuclear submarine base.  To keep the sea lanes open in Winter, the Russians keep 4 nuclear powered icebreakers in the Murmansk harbor.  This is an extremely busy commercial and industrial port, but not known for its scenery.  It is the end of the line on the Kirov Railway from Moscow and St. Petersburg.  We saw many long fully loaded freight trains from the South.

The most iconic sight in Murmansk is the enormous Alyosha Monument honoring the Soviet soldiers of the great Patriotic War, which we call World War II.  This monument is on a hill with a panoramic view of the city.  It is a 116 foot tall sculpture of a brooding soldier dressed in Winter gear with a rifle slung over his shoulder.  It is the second tallest statue in Russia.  It was built in 1974 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the defeat of the German forces in the Arctic.  It contains the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  On the 60th anniversary, in 2004, they added the Wall of the Hero Cities, memorial plaques and capsules containing dirt from the various "hero" cities on the plaques--Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad and others.  Although the names are written in Cyrillic letters, I could generally decipher them because they have some similarity to Greek letters.   Many Russians celebrate their weddings at the Monument despite the usually bad weather.

There are many languages spoken in Murmansk. We're talking Russian, Ukrainian, Azerbaijani, Byelorussian, and Georgian. but not English.    Dianne is from Georgia, but the Georgian they speak is not the Georgian they speak near Atlanta although Southern Russians do speak with a drawl.

The Murmansk landscape is dotted with dozens of huge Soviet era apartment complexes as far as the eye can see.  In the U.S., these would be called "the projects".  They are drab, gray stone buildings, many with peeling paint.  In Russia, they call them Khrushchevs, after the 1950's and '60's Communist Party leader who ordered the construction.  They are obviously not luxury living, but the Russians don't expect much. 

Before they were built, many Russians lived 3 families in one apartment.  Apartments were scarce because the city had suffered extensive destruction from the German bombardment in World War II. Khrushchev kept the people happy by giving them their own apartments.  Some of these buildings are now being replaced by modern apartments.  I didn't see any single family homes, and I asked our guide about that.    She told me that many Russians do live in single family homes, presumably in the suburbs.

Murmansk does have many of the amenities of Western cities.  We drove past the huge indoor Volna Shopping Mall which has the only McDonald's I saw, the Northernmost McDonald's in the world.  '  A Big Mac in Murmansk costs only about $1.53, less than a third of what it would cost in Norway.

Murmansk has a sister city, Jacksonville, Florida.  That one floored me.    During World War II, much of the allied aid to Russia came by way of Jacksonville.  After the War, Jacksonville sent medical equipment and trained Russian doctors.

We had a nice lunch at the modern and upscale Park Inn by Radisson Hotel in Murmansk.   We ate blinis which are pancakes with fruit and brown sugar.  They also make blinis filled with caviar, fish, melted butter or sour cream.  Russians eat a lot of caviar because they get it locally.  I stayed away from the borscht. 


We visited the statue of the local hero, Sergei Kirov.  It stands in front of the Palace of Culture, also called the Kirov Palace.  Kirov was Stalin's right hand man, a loyal Communist.  He was appointed the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).  Kirov was a party guy as well as a Party guy.  He was a hard drinker who lived the good life and perks of his office.  He was popular with the Party cadre, even more popular than the austere Stalin.   Not good.

The Party faithful considered him a reformer, and his influence continued to grow.  Indeed, Kirov gave a speech at the 1934 Party Congress advocating a more relaxed approach in the future.  Apparently he forgot to clear that with Stalin.  The Central Committee elected Kirov with just 3 negative votes.  Stalin received far more negative votes, and those who cast them were probably never heard from again.  Working for Stalin, if you're not totally in agreement with him, that's not good for one's career.  Kirov may have had some indication when he was starting to not get invited to certain Politburo meetings.

Kirov was assassinated in December, 1934 at his office under suspicious circumstances.  All indications were that the assassin, who was later executed, was hired by the NKVD (secret police) on Stalin's orders. Kirov normally had a 4 to 8 guard security detail, NKVD people.   For some reason, on the day Kirov was killed, the bodyguards were all out to lunch or nowhere to be found.  Indeed, after the assassination, Stalin personally interviewed the killer, an unprecedented event.  Then Stalin had the guy's whole family executed. 

This event touched off the Great Purge of the 1930's in which many of the Old Bolsheviks were arrested and executed.  The first thing Stalin did to usher in the Great Purge was to disarm everyone--all Party officials carried weapons, distributed by the Party.  No longer.  There was no Second Amendment in Russia.   After the arrests, the prosecution in the show trials charged these people with "complicity" in Kirov's murder.  They were all forced to confess.  Several years later, all the NKVD agents on Kirov's security detail were also executed because they knew too much. 

After the assassination, the Stalin regime portrayed Kirov as a hero.  Many places were named after Kirov.  There were the cities of Kirov, Kirovohrad, Kriovakan, Kirova and several Kirovsks.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kirovakan, in Armenia reverted to its original name, Vanadzor.  Kirovabad, in Azerbaijan similarly reverted to Ganja.    Azerbaijan also removed the massive Kirov statue in Baku in 1992.  In the Ukraine, it took a little longer, until after the Crimean crisis.  Then the Parliament following its de-communization laws changed Kirovohrad to Kropyvnytskyi in 2016.  The Ukrainians didn't much like the guy.  He was in charge when more than a million Ukrainian farmers, the Kulaks, died of forced starvation or were executed in the 1920's. 

The Murmansk statue was built in 1960 when Khrushchev rehabilitated Kirov.  Today, many things, at least in Russia, are named after Kirov--streets, railways, factories.


The other thing worth noting about this God forsaken area is the nearby relic of the Cold War, the Kola Superdeep Borehole.    During the Space Race, the U.S. and the Russians were also competing to see who could drill the deepest hole into the Earth's crust.  Ultimately, the Russians prevailed on this dubious distinction, and science did learn many new things about the world under our feet.

The hole is located a few miles outside Murmansk, and you'd need an all wheel drive vehicle to get there.   This 9 inch diameter hole goes down 7.5 miles (40,230') into the Earth.  It took 24 years to drill it--longer than it took to travel to Pluto.  At that depth, the rock had been thoroughly fractured and saturated with water, a totally unexpected finding.  The temperature of this superheated liquid water was 180C (356F), far above the boiling point.  The scientists finally had to stop drilling because the high temperatures at the bottom caused the rock to behave like plastic, and the drill could not proceed any farther.  The plan had been to drill down to 15,000 meters (49,000'), but the intense heat destroyed the drill.

To me, the most interesting discovery coming out of this project was the microfossils--the preserved remains of 24 species of single cell marine plants--plankton.  The rocks in which they were found are 2 billion years old.         


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