Murmansk oblast (Russia), part II
The road from Zapolyarny to Murmansk runs through 160 km of arctic nothingness only interrupted by few, mostly military settlements: Korzunovo, Sputnik, Pechenga, Titovka, 19 Km (yes, this is a place name too). Am I the only one, by the way, to find these names themselves extremely fascinating? My driver is proud to explain that Jurij Gagarin, the first cosmonaut ever, served for two years at the military base in Korzunovo. At Titovka there is the only public cafe and toilet on the 250 km road from the Norwegian border to Murmansk, so we can’t miss this and I take a few photos here too. Other curiosities on the road are an old tank used as a road sign (where the cannon shows you the way) and a car wrack placed on a pole to provide you with updated accident statistics for the road you’re driving.
To make the most out the time with my driver, I ask him what he thinks about the latest developments in Russian politics (just two weeks before my trip Vladimir Putin was re-elected president and the former president Medvedev became the new prime minister). The answer I get is in Russian but crystal clear: “Putin-Medvedev, Medvedev-Putin, nyet demokrati”. I’ll hear the same words a few more times the next days.
The first thing that strikes me entering Murmansk is the shear size of this city and its suburbs, stretched out along about 15 km of the fjord. This can be appreciated particularly well visiting Alyosha, the gigantic statue that stands proud on top of the hill north of the city center.
Now, contrasts can be found just about anywhere, but this city seems to be particularly rich of them. It’s almost as if there wasn’t just one but two, or many, deeply intertwined Murmansk, and I would be surprised if I had got a complete or faithful picture of this city and its people in just a few days. The risk is therefore very high to emphasize the exotic (read ugly) sides of the place, like the poorly maintained, the stinky and the noisy Murmansk. But there is also a young, a lively, a trendy Murmansk.
So where to start from? Whenever you ask a local what to see or do, they’ll point you to the city’s indeed very fine landmarks: Alyosha, the many beautiful churches, the lighthouse, the atomic icebreaker Lenin. Famous landmarks have never been my thing, but I do want to understand what the locals are proud of, so I’ll start from there.
The city’s landmarks don’t disappoint me at all but it’s a shame that some of these architectural pearls are drowning in a rather ugly and gray urban context. I choose not to hide this fact by composing my photos in a more flattering way. What is also a bit sad, at least for spoiled Europeans grown up in cozy family homes, is that basically all of Murmansk inhabitants actually live in those huge, gray and anonymous soviet blocks and even have to pay a fortune for a flat there.
After the end of soviet period, the extra pay that most workers received for living under Arctic conditions was abolished, which made the city’s population decrease by almost a hundred thousand in the last few decades. For reasons to me obscure, that didn’t make it cheaper to buy flats.
The general look of the city is somehow shabby and decadent, but far better than what I saw in Nikel and Zapolyarnyj. Sidewalks are often deformed by frost, which in the spring often results in large slush and melt water ponds. A positive surprise is that the city is just as clean (or as dirty) as most west European cities. The many stray dogs around in town don’t seem to bother people.
Another positive surprise is public transport. Buses, minibuses and cabs in Murmansk are indeed old and ugly, but they seem efficient and affordable for most people, which is probably why they are always packed with passengers. Interestingly, many buses have a woman behind the steering wheel and surprise surprise, there is also a babushka selling tickets on board each and every one of them! I also can’t help admiring how disciplined pedestrians are when crossing busy streets and how observant drivers are when approaching pedestrian crossings. We Italians should definitely come here and learn.
Talking about transport, Murmansk is both a strategic commercial harbor (where you by the way can admire some the world’s largest nuclear ice breakers) and an important nodal point for railway transport. I have the feeling that this, especially the harbor, sustains much of the city’s economy. Unfortunately harbor and railway close to the the center also generate a constant background noise and frequent loud bangs which I never really understood the source of.
But now it’s time for the really bright side of Murmansk: its people. Indeed as friendly, hospitable and willing to help you as travel stories depict them. Several times I was approached by strangers who just wondered what I was photographing or who I was. The fact that they always addressed me or answered me in Russian didn’t prevent us from having some kind of conversation, so there you go: an Azerbaijani jacket seller at the local market, who monthly commutes between Murmansk and his family in the remote Batu, via Moscow. Another Azerbaijani who sells caps and just wants me to take photos of him. A retired seaman who’s eager to tell me about his life spent sailing around the world: his eyes brighten up as he lists the countries he traveled to and as he shows me his hardened hands with a partly missing finger. The two Kazakhstani busy grilling the world’s best meat skewers. A great deal of apparently poor people, some begging for money, some feeding pigeons on a bench. And then the new generation Russians, who crowd the shopping street, wear European fashion products and save money for the latest electronic gadget. Anna, design student and my friendly guide on a Sunday afternoon. The ultra friendly wedding group who se me walking alone with my cameras along the harbor and decide that I’m going to be part of the traditional toast they are there to celebrate, sharing with me, a perfect stranger, their food and drinks.
It would have been easy to present a collection of candid babushka portraits and sell it as a portrait of the Murmansk people. But Murmansk doesn’t only have its share of elderly and poverty. It also features plenty of trendy shops, restaurants and sushi bars and a large university with several thousand students, and this is an even greater resource for this region than oil, gas and fishery are. And it’s exactly this that makes believe that the future of this city and its region is far brighter than the gray soviet blocks that strike first time visitors.
As for me, I’ll keep traveling to Russia as long as there are fascinating names on the map.