Russian 'hero city' reduced to begging

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The Independent Online
"MURMANSK - Hero City" proclaims the faded concrete hoarding, fully six feet square, as you enter Russia's great northern port. Like many mementoes from Soviet times, it is a mixture of the absurd and the oddly stirring. Times were truly hard, Hitler was at the gate and ice- free Murmansk was Russia's lifeline. Now times are truly bad again. Only there are no heroes; only incompetents and villains, the omnipresent crisis - and icebreakers that break no ice.

Outwardly, life in Mur- mansk belies the economic debacle that has overtaken the country. Built in bleak Soviet style along a rocky fjord 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle, this city never yields an easy living. But, at a price, goods of all kinds are available. Panic and queues are not in evidence.

You are tempted to conform to conventional wisdom: Russia once more will sacrifice and suffer, but, you predict, will somehow muddle through, as always. Maybe so. But out in the villages, in the orphanages and the hospitals, among the sick and the old and the disadvantaged, the foreboding is as palpable as the first wet snow of late September. And desperate times beget desperate measures.

No help is to be expected from the country's capital in name, Moscow. Like everywhere else in Russia, Murmansk must sidestep the centre and barter to secure what it needs - in its own case swapping fish and minerals for fruit, vegetables and consumer goods from other regions.

But Murmansk has gone a historic step further. For the first time a Russian regional leader, in the person of its governor, Yuri Yevdokimov, has appealed not to his own federal government, but to Norway and Finland for help. The step is unarguably wise and, from one perspective, merely another step towards a more open and "normal" Russia.

Nevertheless, for a region at the very heart of the strategic defence of a proud, secretive and autarchic country, it signifies surrender. Faced with economic collapse, the eternal ties that bind Russia are starting to come asunder.

For proof, consider the icebreakers. If nuclear-missile submarines are the emblem of Severomorsk, the closed city 10 miles up the fjord that is home to the Northern Fleet, Murmansk's pride is its giant nuclear and diesel icebreakers. There is nothing like them anywhere - monstrous machines of up to 75,000 horsepower, which can carve a 30-yard-wide channel through 10ft-deep pack ice. As tall as good-sized office blocks, equipped with saunas and swimming pools, they can stay at sea for five months at a time.

With them, Russia can allow itself to dream of turning the 3,500 miles of the "Northern Eastern passage" linking Western Europe and Asia across the top of the world into a new artery of global commerce.

Without them, the communities strung out along Siberia's bleak northern shores - settlements as remote as any on earth, with strange, un-Russian names such as Dikson, Buolkalach and Ur'ung Chaya - would perish. Without them the estuaries of Siberia's great rivers, the Ob, the Yenisei and the Lena, would be permanently frozen. The vital mining city of Norilsk, 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle and producer of 15 per cent of the world's nickel, would be cut off, and Russian research and defence stations on the islands of the polar ocean would have to close down.

Early autumn should see the icebreakers at their busiest, escorting cargo ships before the ice becomes too thick. But now there is no money, and precious little trade, just the crisis.

Business on the northern route is down 80 per cent, and half the ships in the icebreaker fleet lie idle. The Murmansk Shipping Company has received from Moscow less than one-third of the funds it needs to maintain them.

Some of the difference is recouped with three-week cruises to the North Pole for foreigners prepared to pay $18,000 (pounds 11,000) to $30,000 a head for the ultimate chic in summer holidays. Even so, crew salaries have gone unpaid for two months. The settlements risk going without fuel and other essential supplies during the bitter cold and darkness of the Arctic winter. Some may have to be evacuated, perhaps for ever. The "crisis" has succeeded where Hitler failed, destroying even hope.

My last appointment was with Father Nikodim, assistant to the Bishop Simon of Murmansk, as he was about to celebrate a marriage - if celebrate is the correct word for a ceremony with virtually no guests, in a church swathed in scaffolding, where fresco painters go uncaring about their business.

Never, he says, have prospects been as miserable: the winter of 1991 after Communism collapsed was as bad in logistical terms, but at least there was the promise of better things. "This is a catastrophe. For the church, suicide is the greatest sin, but people are just killing themselves in despair."

Within half an hour, the union is blessed and the couple leave - stepping off into a future as dark as the lowering sky, carrying the first squally snow showers of a winter which for the far Russian north could be the hardest in half a century.