Vodka in Murmansk
Welcome to Murmansk, Russia, the northeast terminus of the Russian railway. From here, well above the Arctic Circle, the train from Moscow stops, with nowhere further to go but the ocean.
Up here on the Kola Peninsula, a few hundred miles from the Norwegian and Finnish borders, the scenery is magnificent, when you can see it. It’s night for 20 hours a day, and the remaining four hours can’t reasonably be called daylight: it’s more like a line of light on the horizon that turns everything an aquamarine blue.
They’ve built themselves a town up here, a functioning city the size of Pittsburgh, the largest human habitation north of the Arctic Circle. It’s exactly 100 years old—a port purpose-built by the Imperial Russian administration for use in World War I—but it looks brand new, with a mega-mall, a modern train station and airport, and new yuppie restaurants where the more fashionably dressed will push in front of you at the coat check because they’re melting under their furs in the indoor heat. (Another feature that makes it bearable: in the grand Russian tradition, they heat the shit out of everything, so you can hang around all day inside in a T-shirt and bare feet.)
But our faith that Murmansk was something other than a mini, northern Moscow was kindled by a roadside tavern. Propped in the snow by the railway station, it had no name that I could pronounce. Outside, it looked like a small log cabin, and inside it was a tribute to northern Russia’s favorite sport: the killing of animals. The bar was decorated throughout with dead bears, moose, reindeer, squirrels, grouse, crows, and other furry and feathered friends, stuffed and mounted. In a closed room to the side, a group of Russian men were gathered around a table, up to something I can only assume was illegal, or at least very private. Plotting the overthrow of the government, or another government, or gambling on this winter’s hunt.
The person in charge of the bar, a blonde woman in her 30s, left you with only one clear impression: that she was in charge of the bar. She brought us vodka and beer with a smile and a look that said in any language, “Don’t fuck with me.” We didn’t. We admired the checked tablecloths and told her so, though she didn’t understand.
After warming ourselves with vodka and beer, we decided to walk the mile back to our hotel. As a young Canadian, I was warned you shouldn’t drink when it’s freezing cold out, because that warm feeling you get with a drink is your mind playing tricks on you. Booze actually strips your body of warmth.
I’ll remember that next time I’m doing reconnaissance in the North Pole. But in this Paris of the Arctic, a few vodkas makes everything a lot warmer, and we got home plenty safe.