“Meh”mansk: A depressing ex-socialist paradise, A ginormous soldier statue, A busy Orthodox Church, Russian pancakes with Lipton Tea

This morning we docked in Murmansk, Russia. We booked a ship tour, “Murmansk Highlights and Russian Pancakes”, a 3-hour overview of the city with a short stop at the end for blini or thin Russian pancakes and tea. Our ship is docked in an industrial and fishing boat area, overrun with wild dogs, fireweed and rusting and abandoned buildings.

We turned in our passports at the beginning of the cruise so they could handle this day (we didn’t need them in Norway) and the Russian authorities first required us to fill out a paper form to take with us, with our stamped passports, then decided they would control the situation with colored tags inserted into the passports, so we didn’t use the paper forms. Nothing like changing the rules 50 times. I guess the Russians want to ensure that we don’t have an overwhelming desire to jump ship and move into this blighted place. It was a general scrum getting the passports and then getting the bus tickets (from our tour tickets), then allowing the Russian officials to inspect the passports to ensure they were stamped, before we could leave the ship. This was a classic example of what happens when bureaucracies take over a government and don’t relax the rules when the politics change. I accidentally bumped (hard) into a couple of people working my way into the line and later profusely apologized (so I wouldn’t get the “glare” for the rest of the trip).

We finally disembarked and boarded our bus (there were three full buses for this tour). Irina, our young guide, did an adequate job talking about the city (she did confuse left and right), but had a horrible tendency to walk off very fast with her sign as soon as the bus stopped. A few folks had no idea where she went on our first stop, which was next to an untended garden in the city center with the statue of Semyon Kirov, a pal of Lenin who helped develop the city during the Revolution. The weather today was in the mid-fifties, with a chilly breeze and occasional rain showers. Not that nice, but still better than the howling tempests at the North Cape. Murmansk is just below the Arctic tree line, so there are short trees on the green hillsides and many trees and plants in town.

Next, we drove through the suburbs, littered with the ugly, gray and truly depressing concrete apartment buildings built after WWII. Apparently, the Germans destroyed large parts of the city in Operation Silver Fox in 1941, but Murmansk remained in Allied hands and received the bulk of the lend-lease materials in the Arctic convoys. Murmansk has an open-water harbor year-round, so defending the city was critical to the Allied war effort. The post-war apartments were constructed during the height of the communist era under Stalin and Khrushchev, when a tiny square footage apartment (often without bathroom facilities and other utilities) was considered “fair and just”. Larger, newer apartments are being built across Murmansk, but still without any real design elements or style. At least there are some new choices in restaurants, businesses, banks, etc.

Our next destination was Alyosha, or as it is properly called: “Monument of the Defenders of the Soviet Arctic during the Great Patriotic War”. This huge concrete statue of a Russian soldier (116 feet tall) is on a hill north of town that has a panoramic view of the city. There is an eternal flame at the base of the statue, which was erected in 1974, and also a tomb of an unknown soldier. Plaques around the base of the monument pay tribute to many of the devastating Eastern Front battles. The city of Murmansk is actually littered with memorials and statues, which probably got the best building materials ahead of the crappy concrete monstrosities that pass for “home” for many people in this city.

Our next stop was a new Russian Orthodox Church, the Church of our Savior on the Waters. It was built with private funds in 2002 and was packed with penitents for a feast day. Apparently, I was supposed to have a scarf (guess I didn’t read the fine print in the tour description), but several of us compensated by using winter hats and hoods. A sweet little old Russian lady gestured at my unorthodox head covering, but then smiled and patted my arm. The interior of the church reminded me of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sitka, Alaska, with beautiful icons, incense, and areas for prayer and candles.

Just down the hill from the church, there is a lighthouse monument and also a monument to the Kursk, the submarine that sank in 2000, with a loss of all crew members on board (Russia refused help from other countries that would have saved the crew). Like I said, more monuments than you can shake a stick at…

Our final stop was at the Park Inn (a Radisson hotel) for Russian pancakes and tea. After our guide yammered on for twenty minutes about the extra special Russian black tea with lemon (no herb, berry or green teas), we all ended up with cups of genuine Lipton berry-flavored or green teas; it tasted good anyway, after the chilly walks outside. The pancakes, or buckwheat blini, were quite yummy, with sour cream and jam. Of course, they gave people time to cram into a tiny crapola emporium and our bus departure was delayed by a couple that had to buy some dust collector. So far, our souvenirs consist of two refrigerator magnets, a winter cap for me from Iceland, and two shirts from Nautica. I like our pictures much more these days, although I will look for a tiny memento for my desk in Longyearbyen, if we have time.

We made our way back to the dock area, turned in our passports (after the unsmiling Russian agents ensured the red part of the tag was still there) and are now sitting at Waves after a light lunch. It’s a bit chilly out here, but tolerable in layers. We are getting a kick out of the wild dogs, who are scoping out the situation near the gangplank, which is right below us. We expect to see three or four of them at any time here in Waves, grabbing a table, a burger and a beer (and playing poker). As I finish this, a huge downpour started, as one of the last buses sits on the dock waiting to unload. The rain is mixed with snow. Life (and the weather) is not easy or predictable in this part of the world, that’s for sure.

Murmansk is losing population at a dramatic rate, although it is still the largest city above the Arctic Circle. The current government is incentivizing Russian citizens all over the country to have more children and they hope to continue development of the tourism facilities here. They also hope to tear down the Stalinist apartment eyesores and replace them with something more amenable. I wish I had lit a candle for them at the church, but they should be in our prayers (or thoughts, if you don’t pray).

An update may come soon as we sail out past Severomorsk, the closed city near here that is the home of the Russian Northern Fleet. Submarines, baby!!

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