A thousand miles from Moscow, a thousand kilometres from St. Petersburg, the Arctic town of Kandalaksha, on the frozen shores of the White Sea in Murmansk oblast’, is one of Russia’s most northerly communities. Founded 500 years ago as a fishing village, its aluminium smelter and locomotive depot gave the area an industrial purpose under the Soviet Union. But Kandalaksha has been forgotten for the last twenty years. It is now only a dot on the vast Kola Peninsula – a 100,000 square kilometre expanse of pine forest between the White and Barents Seas.
Which isn’t to say that Kandalaksha is decaying. A few Russian store chains – Sem’Ya supermarket; Svyaznoy mobile phones – have braved it this far north. There is an inconspicuous shopping mall, an indoor market, street-side kiosks selling hot pirozhki and instant coffee. There is even a sushi bar. All are close to the eerie Hotel Belomorye, the town’s only landmark. The place is pretty: a couple of orange and blue housing blocks liven up the central street, ulitsa Pervomaiskaya, while a wooden church and old wooden cottages rest by the shores of the White Sea.
The people of the Kola Peninsula are typical provincial Russians: superficially harsh with strangers, startlingly warm to friends. Kandalaksha feels safe, but foreign visitors get a paranoid greeting, arrested on the train station platform by groups of militsiya, and only let go once they have given up their passports to be scanned, then written the address of every place they have ever worked, studied and lived on a piece of paper.
A few steps from the eerie Belomorye, a wooden bridge over the River Niva leads straight into the pine forest. Red squirrels scamper up the trees. People come to the forest in winter to make the most of the four hours of daylight, and fill their lungs with the taiga’s perfect air. Children turn slopes into toboggan runs; adults explore the forest paths on cross-country skis.
It’s two sleeps back to Moscow. After a weekend in Kandalaksha, they are two deep ones.