Long nights and northern lights: a journey to Arctic Russia
The polar cities of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk somehow attract a hardcore of visitors for whom winter isn’t a dirty word
In Robert Harris’s 1999 novel Archangel, his thriller set in a punch-drunk post-Soviet netherworld full of political double-crossings and dark historical secrets, one character describes Arkhangelsk, the city of the title, as “a dump… a hole… the worst goddamn place he’d ever seen.” The novel depicts the endless forests of the region, the nuclear testing, the shady submarine facilities just down the road. Most of all, though, it speaks about the cold and darkness: the long winters that last from late October to early April, the Arctic temperatures and frozen ports. This city, closed to visitors in Soviet time, was cut off anyway by the elements for long periods of the year.
If all this grim detail makes Arkhangelsk sound like your thing, you’ll understand my excitement at making the trip there this January. Arkhangelsk is a 23-hour train-ride from Moscow – a mere nip down the road, by Russian standards – and the journey, cheered up by fellow passengers and cups of black tea from the carriage samovar, is picturesque. Trees are weighed down with snow, woodsmoke drifts from the chimneys of tiny wooden houses, and by 2pm the daylight’s failing and the lights in those houses are beginning to go on.
Most people will know the names Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, if at all, from history lessons at school. It was to these two port cities, both perched at the top of Arctic Russia, that in the darkest days of World War 2 British convoys broke through ice and enemy fire to deliver goods and weapons to Stalin. Both Arkhangelsk and Murmansk suffer from polar day and polar night – where the sun barely rises in winter, and, in summer, disturbs your sleep by never setting. Both cities too are often sunk under snow from late October to early April, with temperatures falling below minus 20. Hardly conventional holiday destinations, and yet the cities attract a hardcore of visitors for whom winter isn’t a dirty word. In recent years winters have been patchy both in Moscow and St. Petersburg, denying the residents the snows which they feel – as Russians – are their birth right. In Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, they can be pretty sure of getting them.
People move across the frozen river like dots on an empty sheet of A4
Northern Russia has its strong appeal: ancient declining cultures, huskies, reindeer-herders, the Aurora Borealis, and snowmobiles as routine as motor-scooters. The cities have interesting histories as well. Murmansk, merely a century old, was created as a supply-port during World War I, and almost flattened by Nazi bombs in the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941-1945. Arkhangelsk, the older of the two, was once Russia’s main trading port before Peter the Great became jealous for his St. Petersburg and moved the business there. In the 1930s the region itself was a dumping ground for Ukrainian farmers, exiled by Stalin from their homelands and virtually left to die in the Northern Forests, tormented by mosquitoes in summer and cold in winter.
You wouldn’t know it now. Visitors to Arkhangelsk now will find an attractive place full of long avenues, bars and restaurants and old wooden houses painted in pastel colours. If this suggests undiluted hygge tweeness, this isn’t quite the case. The paint on those houses is frequently faded and flaking and, as Robert Harris points out, they only really look picturesque if you “close your eyes to the concrete apartment blocks towering in the background.” Most visitors don’t, but find that juxtapositions like this are part of Arkhangelsk’s charm. In the city’s central square, there are ice-sculptures, abundant Christmas lights and horse-drawn carriage-rides, but over them blinks a Brezhnev-era tower like something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four and there’s a vast, grumpy statue of Lenin in his pomp.
Naturally in a place like Arkhangelsk it’s the river, the port and all things maritime that you seek out. The area was once occupied by a people called the Pomors who had their own dialect and lived by fishing and hunting. On the seafront accordingly there’s a monument to the seal, thanking it for keeping them warm and fed (Murmansk, following the tradition, has a similar dedication to the codfish). Arkhangelsk and its many islands lie on the Dvina at the exact point where it starts to broaden into the White Sea, bending up towards the North Pole. One explanation for the White Sea’s name is that in the polar days of summer its surface reflects a translucent northern sky. The other, more convincing, is that it freezes solid in winter, and is sunk under snow and ice.
This is certainly the case with the Dvina in January, where you can’t make out where the land stops and the river begins. Some of the River Dvina is just what you expect: fog, night, white expanse, polar moon and snow-caked old motorboats packed in solid ice. In winter the river is a vast white field, so firm underfoot you can ski, drive a snowmobile or walk home on it, and is fiercely atmospheric. People move across it like dots on an empty sheet of A4 and its opposite bank disappears into white mist. It was every Arctic landscape I had imagined: you felt you could simply cross it and, like Captain Oates, vanish for good.
Unlike Arkhangelsk, Murmansk is austere, martial, and faintly unsettling
But on a January Sunday morning, it was a happy place too. At 11am – about the brightness of a late December afternoon – the cold was crisp and enervating, and the world seemed to have come out to play. As the bells rang in the Uspensky Church of the Blessed Virgin – a double-domed Orthodox church on the riverbank – people took their dogs out for a Sunday walk on the rock-solid Dvina as though cantering about on a beach. Children sledged on blown-up rubber rings, while snow mobiles dragged dinghies of passengers behind them. Cross country skiers sliced along the promenade and across the river, one pulled along by a parachute floating above. A huge slide had been laid on by the local authorities, crafted entirely out of blocks of ice. No one seemed ground down by the cold. People looked, in fact, much as Londoners do when the sun comes out. “We have to enjoy the winter here,” one man said to me. “We have at least six months of it.”
I could understand their good humour, but then anyone who chooses to visit Arkhangelsk in winter is already probably biased in favour of the season. There’s something intoxicating about the city’s dry chilliness, as well as its cold colours. Arkhangelsk isn’t the black of its long night or the white of its sea but, with its perpetual twilight, a refrigerated feast of different blues – the bluest place, in fact, that I’d ever visited. Even the more brutal elements of the city – Khrushchev-era blocks of flats, or those dogged-looking ice-breakers – look attractive in this light. I could understand why so many hotels kept afloat in Arkhangelsk. It was the perfect place for a city trip.
The same can’t quite be said for Murmansk, its Northern counterpart, just an hour from the very top of Finland. Most people who go there are passing through, using the city as a base for visiting Teriberka (a dramatically craggy piece of coastline used in the 2014 film Leviathan) or for chasing – and maybe catching – the northern lights. There are also “Sami villages” to visit; the Samis being the Finno-Ugric reindeer-herders spread out over the Nordic countries, animistic, worshipping at least 19 different deities and with shamans to connect them to the world beyond. A mere 2,000 or so of them still live in Northern Russia, but they’re concentrated in the village of Lovozero some 170km away. Here they’re taught the Sami language in the local school but can rarely use it anywhere, even at home.
In Murmansk itself conventional tourist spots are few. “Doing” Murmansk means visiting Alyosha, the 35-metre-high statue of a Soviet soldier staring out over the bay (the second highest statue in Russia, after Mother Russia in Volgograd). It also means visiting the Lenin icebreaker, the first nuclear-powered surface ship in the world, these days out of service and turned into a museum (now closed: Covid). Both attractions, like Murmansk itself, are austere, martial, and faintly unsettling.
Murmansk, unlike Russia’s inner cities, feels like the end of line: it could be the Russian Aberdeen
Murmansk – noticeably damper and colder than Arkhangelsk to the south-east of it – is a heavily industrial city, ringed by sparsely wooded hills and full of mechanical cranes. Apart from a nautical motif – boats and fishes on shop-signs and Christmas lights – the centre could be in almost any slightly down-at-heel Russian city. There are the same concrete horrors, the same pastel-coloured post-war housing blocks, and some weighty neo-classical Stalinist buildings with names like the “Children’s Palace of Creativity” or “House of Railway Men’s Culture”. Karl Marx and Lenin Streets run through the city and the districts still have Soviet names: “October”, “First of May” and “Leninsky”. What’s different is the sense of isolation. Murmansk, unlike Russia’s inner cities, feels like the end of line: it could be the Russian Aberdeen.
In almost any comparison of the two Arctic convoy cities, Murmansk comes off worst. Not only was it flattened by German air-raids during the war, but the Kola Bay, its black-water river that never freezes, is far bleaker and less enticing than Arkhangelsk’s icefields. Here, further north, there are darker days too, at best brightening to a muddy twilight in which cars keep their headlights on and you automatically assume it’s much later than it is.
It also feels relatively empty. Murmansk’s population has fallen by over a third since the end of the Cold War, with 10 per cent leaving in the last decade, and many more planning to. Moscow and St. Petersburg exert a pull on the city’s young, offering them jobs and the bright lights. The elderly dream of retiring to the South – almost anywhere south – where they can see out their final years in relative daylight. Most locals, questioned about the Polar Night, will shrug and say “Mi privikl” (we’re accustomed to it), but others told a different story. One woman said how “heavy” she found the winter darkness; how impossible it was to get up in the morning. She’d had eye-problems since moving to Murmansk due to such a protracted lack of light, and now wore glasses.
Another, a young boy in his twenties, compared the Murmansk winter to a “hibernation” – you simply drew into yourself, stayed at home as much as possible, and shelved your plans. Had I not seen how empty the roads were? he asked me. I should come back in spring or summer, when people were actually going somewhere. I asked if Murmanskers were happier then, but the young man wasn’t so sure. “In spring your needs become more complicated, harder to satisfy. That can create a kind of crisis. Winter is so much simpler: your only real objective is to get into the warm.”
And you do need to get into the warm in Murmansk. A wind rips off that black river, damp with moisture, and the cold is of a totally different sort from Arkhangelsk. Murmansk tries gamely – there are endless Christmas illuminations, a funfair and even a stab at a ski-resort on the edge of town. Yet while Arkhangelsk seemed like a holiday destination, Murmansk appeared always to be trying to make the best of what it had been given. A neon thermometer, showing the right temperature, cheers up the city skyline in the dark. But daylight reveals it to be attached to one of the city’s red and white chimneys, perpetually spewing out grey clouds of smoke. At least, you reflect, the citizens of Murmansk – until they migrate – have each other. In 20 years of travelling in Russia I haven’t met friendlier or more helpful people. That perhaps is the pay-off of living in such extreme conditions. People offer support and need it back.
I didn’t make it to Teriberka or catch the northern lights, having time for neither, but I did go to a Sami Village, albeit one mocked up within the confines of the town. Here, in a touristy patch of land standing high above the harbour, the museum guide got out the huskies for us and we played with them a little in the snow. Huskies are always good value – notably peaceful (they make lousy guard dogs), friendly and vocal with it. A touch of their thick fur and a look at those translucent blue eyes are enough to thaw most hearts a bit. We followed our huskie-session with a guided tour of the museum, as the guide pointed out the wishing wheels which had existed in Sami culture – one for each season of the year, with long ropes hanging from them. You spun the wheel, made a wish, and tied a knot to represent it, which we all solemnly did.
Then, when the cold began to kick in, our guide took us off to a tent with a fire glowing inside, and in another ceremony we each added our chip of wood to the flames and “left our bad thoughts behind” before drinking tea. All tourist tat, of course, yet not unaffecting, and there was something about the glorious heat of that fire – how instinctively you moved towards it and how little you wanted to leave it for the next part of the excursion – that spoke volumes about the demands of northern life.
Our tour continued and back in the cold there were some statues of the Sami gods, all with the heads of different animals. The dog represented loyalty, the guide said, the deer to represent grace. The bear was master over all animals of prey and was treated with great reverence. The wolf…
But it was the background all the statues stood against – Murmansk’s docks and railway lines – that captured the imagination more. The horizon in Murmansk is more forested with industrial cranes than any I had ever seen. Here in the distance – to a sound of foundry clunks and clatters seeming to come up from the centre of the earth – the cranes rotated, dipped and tilted, shaking their heads, nodding to each other, clustered together like a load of giant praying mantises. It was a scene out of H. G. Wells, some nightmare vision of the future, when humans and animals have retired to their holes and only giant machines rule the land. This being Murmansk, of course, there was some attempt to prettify them: each crane had its line of pink and green neon lights, yet this only added to the sense you were seeing some strange new being – a kind of mechanical dinosaur – that summoned up animist feelings of your own.
Then our guide called us into the main museum – where there was a collection of Sami pots and carvings, and a few animals to pet, and a free amulet-making workshop taking place in a few minutes. We made our way gratefully in behind him. It was 2.30 in the afternoon – nearly the blackest night – and we all, like so many thousands in Murmansk before us, wanted nothing more than to get in from the cold.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe