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Worlds apart in Northwest Russia

Murmansk: A grey, concrete, working class, mining city and Russia’s most important port.It’s a rough city, with a rough population. Free time from the mining and port work are spent equally between vodka sipping and outdoor recreation.

It didn’t matter much whether it was the three star naval general who emptying a bottle of vodka with two comrades over a lunch or the three teenagers who heavily intoxicated had driven their car up on a hill top overlooking the city while blasting Russian techno. Murmansk likes vodka. While the naval officers greeted me with a polite knot, one of the teenage boys insisted that we should have a little fun wrestling match – until he figured I was foreign, gave me a big hug and send me on my way.

The sober people of Murmansk use their free weekends on cross country skiing on a frozen lake. Apparently are a few laps around the 5.5 km lake pretty normal before lunch. That is if you’re not part of the Murmansk Walruses – Murmansk’s local ice swimming club. They confessed that they’d stay in if the temperature was below -20 Celsius, but otherwise did they jump in for a swim at least a few times a week. They did offer me a chance to prove myself, but the minus 12 on that Sunday was a little more that I was looking for. Something I bitterly regret not doing after leaving the city.

Not only are the people of Murmansk a tough bunch. I was actually – several times –forced to go long detour because of stray dogs blocked my way. Once one actually fallowed me for a few hundred meters while barking and snarling. Not that I’m usually nervous around dogs, but these ones were big, aggressive and very determined to stand their ground.

Even the industry in Murmansk is bad ass! Murmansk is home to the world’s only fleet of nuclear (!) powered ships. Since 1959 have a fleet of nuclear icebreakers have made sure that the shipping routes to the northern parts of Siberia have been kept open year round. Each of these monster ships has two or three rectors aboard giving them about 55,000 horse powers (c. 500 cars). That makes them so powerful that they can penetrate any ice on Earth. One of the retired icebreakers is now used as a cruise ship. So if you fancy a Christmas cruise to the North Pole (and can pay the price tag at 22.000$), come to Murmansk.


Opposite this leviathan of a city, 1.400 km (spitting distance in Russia) to the south lays a peaceful, sophisticated, cultural gem. The most European of Russia’s cities and by far the most beautiful, Sankt Petersburg. I’ve rarely been so impressed by arriving at city center before. The entire historic hearth of Piter (as it’s known to locals) is a UNESCO heritage site – but walking around a corner to gaze up upon the Winter Palace covered in sunlight is up there with the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China in my book.

The Winter Palace itself is home to the Hermitage Museum – more than 350 rooms of splendid wonder. Most impressive were the restored rooms of the tsars,thereafter the collection on medieval armor and jewelry. Art lovers might instead be amazed over the two rooms full of Picasso’s, the two rooms of Van Gogh’s and one of Rembrandt’s and Da Vinci’s. Now, I don’t really care for art,and there were many more rooms with pictures from artist which names I don’t know. But you don’t need to be an art expert to know this place is impressive!

Sankt Petersburg tops itself off by having numerous of channels running through the city. As well as the Neva River were old three masts lying at jetty and the city’s original fort stand still intact. In an attempt to rival Murmansk in bad ass attitude doesn’t Piter mark noon with the normal bell strokes – it fires a cannon! Just to mark that Sankt Petersburg have been founded on conquered land (from the Swedes – which is always a bonus).

But it doesn’t change attention away from a city full of beautiful landmarks,countless theaters and museums, it’s highly educated population (and that the city in general prefers beer over vodka).

I don’t know which of the two I prefer. I’m definitely more fascinated with Murmansk and more impressed with its people. I’d rather live in Piter, but that doesn’t say much, because of the resemblance to European cities. Both a definitely worth a visit, and this has been a great introduction to Russia before I’m leaving to go visit the Baltic states, butI’m not at all sure this was an introduction to the real Russia, the part east of the Urals or the rural towns. I’ll have to wait with that part of the adventure till later on.

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Photos

  • Murmansk Ploshchad (central square)

  • Ice swimmers making ready

  • Murmansk city/harbor from above

  • Nuclear(!) icebreaker Lenin - used from 1962 till 1989 - now a museum ship

  • Plotting for the Pole

  • The Winter Palace

  • Palace Square seen from the palace

  • I would study more if I had a library like this

  • Upper part of the stairs

  • Staircase ceiling

  • Tenors demonstration the hall's arcustics

  • The Golden Peacock Clockwork

  • One of two Da Vinci's

  • Evening Winter Palace in snowy weather

  • The Church on Spilled Blood - build on the spot where tsar Alexander II got assassinated in the 19th century

  • Just a shopping center, but all the buildings in central Saint Petersburg looks like palaces

  • Disfigured infants, with a few hundred more in tubes at Kunstkamera

  • Small taxidermic mammoth, found frozen in ice and hence the only one in the world with its skin preserved

  • Old three masts lying around in the river