Our Trip to the Soviet Arctic
I had wanted to go to Murmansk since I was a 14-year old, working on my Aunt’s Mink Ranch in Virginia. Her son-in-law, Francis Grigsby ”Gig” Farinholt, had been a sailor aboard the cargo ships making the run past German U-Boats up to the North Sea and around into the Arctic to Murmansk during World War II. The United States shipped the Soviets many millions of dollars worth of military equipment, as well as food and supplies for their very survival, and this is where it landed.
At the start of World War II the Germans, allied with the Finns, had used Finnish bases to bomb Murmansk.
Gig told me about the warm welcome the Soviets gave the convoy crews each time they landed in Murmansk. They held big dinners, with plenty of black bread and sausage and, of course, gallons of vodka.
Marty and I flew up there in June, 1982, midway through our two years in the Soviet Union. We went on the longest day of the year, which, in the Arctic, is pretty long. There was no night time.
Murmansk Harbor, a vital ice-free port for Russia
We flew from Moscow to Murmansk on an Aeroflot Tu-154. As usual, the air was very close on the Soviet airliner, with the oppressive aroma of bad breath and body odor from the passengers. A little before we were to land the clouds cleared and we could see the Kola Inlet on the Barents Sea. The Tuloma River flows north past Murmansk on its way to the sea. Even though this is well inside the Arctic Circle, the Soviets are usually able to keep it open to navigation during the winter.
Near Murmansk we could see snow-covered mountains and a few bergy bits (small icebergs) floating in the water.
Murmansk: “Alyosha” Memorial to Soviet Soldiers in Arctic War 1941
Natasha, an Intourist guide, came on board our plane just after we had landed in Murmansk on a flight from Moscow. Then a member of the air crew led us from the plane like VIPs. Both Natasha and the air crewman noted that this bright and sunny day was unusual for Murmansk.
Natasha rode in a cab with us, showing us the sights as we headed toward the city of Murmansk. We passed the ancient site of Kola, mentioned in chronicles in 1264 A.D. but was the site of a fort built in 1565. The Swedes failed to capture the fort in the Russo-Swedish War of 1590-95, but the British attacked the fort during the Crimean War in 1854 and reduced it to ashes.
It’s very hard to build here, Natasha said, because of the permafrost. The buildings we saw as we entered the city were typical low-quality Soviet construction, but here, apparently to boost morale during the long, dark days, walls of buildings were covered with large, bright murals.
Shortly after we had checked in to our hotel, Natasha took us on a tour of the city. Murmansk was a city built right about the time of the October Revolution, so it has none of the beautiful buildings and churches the Czars built across Russia. With a population of about 300,000, it is the largest city above the Arctic Circle. We had often seen that in northern latitudes there was often a severe alcoholism problem. Not just in the USSR, but in Scandinavian countries. Marty asked Natasha about this. This young lady, whose father happened to be the mayor, told us that, no, they had no such problem in Murmansk. As she was saying this, we happened to be stopped at a traffic light, and next to the car was a lamppost, with a really drunk Russian hanging on to it. As if on cue, the poor guy then lost his grip and collapsed on the pavement, just as our guide was declaring no problem with alcohol.
A little while later, we encountered a whole busload of Finns. They had flown from Helsinki to Murmansk, to see the sights, and had just come from visiting the fishing fleet. We met them at a “Beryozka” which was one of thousands of such state stores across the USSR that sold goods for foreign currency only. Here the specialty was little birch bark canoes and other craft items, and of course vodka. That was what the Finns were looking for. From the looks of them, they had found vodka before, because they were already pretty drunk, but this gave them a chance to stock up on some more.
Shopping at the market
We had lived in the USSR nearly two years, and had never had a nice meal of fresh fish. Fish you could buy in the Moscow Rynok (Market) was always frozen, usually in large chunks of ice and fish together, so the fishmongers just hacked off a couple of kilos of salty ice and fish and sold you that. Customer service was not a big thing in the USSR.
At any rate, Marty suggested that, since we were here in the largest fishing port in the whole USSR, we ought to be able to find a nice fresh fish, so we went looking for a restaurant that would serve fresh fish.
We didn’t find such a restaurant, so we entered a nice-looking establishment that our Intourist guide had recommended, and were shown to our table and given large, heavy menus. Many Soviet restaurants used these large menus with many pages, and then it became a ritual for the customer and the waitress to find out what, in all those pages, was actually available. As you ordered a dish, the waitress would solemnly answer “Nyetu”, which means “that’s not available!”
We started with a little plate of caviar, with toast points, chopped onions, and glasses of vodka. This is a popular, and delicious appetizer in Russia. After that, we had Kotlyeti, or cutlets of veal.
The people at the table next to us sent over a bottle of Soviet Shampanskaya (Champagne) and we exchanged toasts. They were all sailors aboard Soviet fishing boats, and their wives. They said they go out for six months and come in for one month. One said he lives in Moscow with his family. They get good pay, which was obvious from the clothes and jewelry on the women. The sailors took turn dancing with Marty, but I, always attached to my attaché bag, could not get up and dance.
Across the dance floor in this restaurant was a wedding party. A long table of very plain, solid-looking Russians was celebrating a wedding. We went over and congratulated the bride and groom, and told them that where we came from, it was good luck for the bride to put a penny in her shoe. I didn’t have a penny, so I gave her a U.S. dime, and the whole party was delighted, because Russians really turn on for anything which might give them “good luck”.
We chatted briefly with some of the older members of the party, who recalled the days when the Americans brought all those shiploads of cargo to help the Russians survive the terrible war with Hitler’s Germany. Soviet propaganda was quick to dismiss the American Lend-lease contribution of World War II, but every Russian who lived through those days remembers and always expressed gratitude to us for all Americans.
It was nearly midnight, and we had had a big day, so we went to catch a bus back to our hotel. It was still bright daylight—it never gets dark on the longest day of the year up here.
[Note: This has been revised since it first appeared Oct. 23, 2011.]
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