MURMANSK, Russia — As the train rumbled north the corpulent Russian sergeant and I drank another toast of cheap cognac. His wife, lying prone next to him, mumbled something in protest as our drinking session progressed to my bottle of vodka.
“Of c’mon, honey — it’s Women’s Day,” he pleaded. For March 8 is International Women’s Day, a socialist tradition still alive and well in the former Eastern Bloc as well as leftist circles in the United States.
This apparently mollified the stout young woman; she rolled over to sleep.
My destination was Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. With 300,000 souls at 68°57’N it’s a significant northern settlement, coming into its own during the Second World War as the destination for the transatlantic convoys during Lend-Lease. Today it’s a hulking, if not completely unattractive, port city that bustles from trade in ore, coal and other heavy industries. It’s the lifeline for many northern Eurasian settlements along the polar coast and – some project – a future major port connecting Europe with Asia via the Arctic Ocean as polar ice recedes.
It was this phenomenon that I was interested in. I’d met the usual friendly NGOs but had been stonewalled by the state agency that operated the venerable fleet of atomic-powered ice breakers that were the pride of the Soviet Union and are being bolstered by President-for-Life Vladimir Putin.
I’d had the pleasure of witnessing first-hand just how much reverence the good Russian people have for their strongman-in-chief. On the eve of the election I arrived in St. Petersburg (née Leningrad) to cover the elections for some obscure European news outlet.
The campaign fever had broken – largely because of a law that forbids electioneering in the day leading up to polling. Everyone knew Putin would win, largely due to the government machinery behind him, but mostly because the opposition were from central casting as others who may have been real contenders had been barred from the contest.
So everyone knew the winner but no one was quite sure how people would react.
St. Petersburg is Putin’s hometown but it’s also a relatively affluent city that prides itself on its connections to western Europe and struggles to shrug off the shackles of powercentric Moscow. Its citizens are blessed in that they are easily granted European travel visas from the Finnish consulate and so those who can afford to are able to travel abroad.
So even though this is Vlad’s hometown, the hometown hero he’s not.
The day after the election people poured into the streets to shout down the Central Election Commission. Russian police SWAT units — OMON — were out in force to disperse what, under Russian law, was an unauthorized rally.
They didn’t wait long to strike the pissed off — but largely peaceful crowd — and I saw as people were run down by riot gear-clad cops who came out swinging. Shouts and jeers of “Pozor!” (shame) and “Putin’s a thief!” rang out. I hastily intervewed a few people who said they felt they had to turn out even if they knew it wouldn’t matter on iota in the grand scheme of things.
Suddenly a cheer went up in the crowd. Riot police in buses were leaving the square. But I knew the crowd’s elation was misplaced. More likely they were repositioning to attack from the rear and I wasn’t about to get caught up in the melee.
We ran down a sidestreet. Less than three minutes later a thousand or so people were at our heels for the cops had indeed launched their attack. We ducked into a side alley as the crowd passed us with armored riot police hot on their heels.
Screw this; let’s get out of there, I said. We ducked into a metro. The wire agencies were reporting between 800 and 1,500 people with scores of arrests. The next morning it was about 300 people knicked. The police must’ve spent the evening trawling the center and picking up whoever they could from the demonstration.
With Putin’s re-election in the bag, I felt my work was done in Russia’s second city so I headed up north. That’s where I’d met our aforementioned sergeant as we drank into oblivion — after all it was Women’s Day! — as the 27-hour train thundered forward. One of our drinking companions was a very fat Ukrainian who said he was a helicopter pilot and a veteran of the wars in the North Caucasus. He seemed a bit disturbed about it all although he offered to show pictures of his family he kept on his phone. He flicked through daughter, niece, nephew, woman-likely-a-prostitute-with-big-fake-tits-taking-her-top-off, cousin. He blushed a deep scarlet at the penultimate image and put the phone away.
Making the rounds in Murmansk, I was researching the ice breaker fleet. Local NGOs were more than happy to be interviewed and share what information they had. But when I approached the state-owned company that manages the fleet I was told I’d need to undergo a thorough background check from “our security services” (read: FSB, née KGB).
Now this is Russia and I am used to everyone assuming I am a spy. The friendly train attendant had told people I was a spy, I learned secondhand. I mean, what else would a Californian be doing in Russia during the winter months? But as I say: wouldn’t the U.S. at least send someone who speaks passable Russian? I speak Russian like a four-year-old with a head injury.
But I digress.
This logic I couldn’t understand. Journalists by their nature don’t keep secrets. I don’t, I can’t. Which is why I became a journalist. So what would it matter if one was a journalist or a foreign agent? What would you tell a journalist that you wouldn’t want a foreign agent to know? There is no logic. But still, despite traveling to the Arctic I was told that it would take 7-10 days for processing before interviews could be granted.
I was deeply disappointed, though, to their credit, they offered to answer questions by email. So all may not be lost.
Now it’s off southward toward Russia’s city-of-power. There’s a stopover in between to break up the 37-hour rail journey. But I approach Moscow with trepidation. Everything people said about New York City in the 1980s they say about Moscow today.
It should be fun. We shall see.