Wonder and reflection in the Russian Arctic

Kandalaksha Russia Arctic

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JC: This story ‘Wonder and reflection in the Russian Arctic’ was published in the December 2020 issue of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s magazine, The Geographer. The Royal Scottish Geographical Society is a fantastic organisation; learn more about the RSGS on its website, and read previous editions of The Geographer online here

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I arrived in the Arctic in the middle of winter on an impulse. My only question was, ‘If I leave Moscow after work on Thursday, what is the most distant place in Russia I can wake up in on Saturday?’ The answer, the train timetables decided, was Kandalaksha, on the Kola Peninsula in the country’s far north-west.

The 40-hour, 1,600-kilometre journey north was a tasting menu for Russia’s many landscapes. After crawling through Moscow’s sinister outer edges, the train passed dacha villages, then rattled across the plains south of St. Petersburg. By the second evening we were up in the lakes of Karelia. That night I was jarred awake in the pitch black by the sound of heavy pine branches scratching the carriage; we had reached the Arctic taiga.

It was still dark when I clambered onto the icy platform at Kandalaksha. In a room at the empty Hotel Belomorye, watching the dark purple sky lighten over the town and forest beyond, I realised: I didn’t have a plan. Getting here was the plan.

Kandalaksha’s only landmark is an abandoned Soviet-era aluminium smelter. In January the Kola Peninsula, part of Murmansk region, is close to the polar nights: at 67°09′N there are only four hours of daylight each day. It was 20 degrees below freezing. I trudged around the town aimlessly until the sun set again.

That night I felt the pine forest calling. In the morning I found a path that led to a bridge over a snowed-over river. There I stepped into the taiga that stretches unbroken for 6,000 kilometres across the whole of northern Russia.

The air in the forest was exquisitely pure; it made me feel strong and euphoric. The deep white snow crunched beautifully under my boots. I wasn’t alone: after a while I came across a tree stump that had been dressed, totem-like, in an old lady’s shawl and spectacles. Later a man in Russian military uniform ran out of a watchtower with a rifle trained at my chest, until I called out an apology and turned back. Every so often I caught sight of a person weaving through the trees on cross-country skis.

One careless turn and I was completely lost. Somehow I didn’t panic; my brain was running on taiga air. I found my way out of the forest and back to the town before dark, orienting myself by the position of the low sun.

The next day I found a community of wooden huts on the shores of the White Sea. In summer ships sail from here higher into the Arctic Circle – into the Barents and Kara Seas. I pictured myself on a map of the world, and my heart raced…

And yet. Four years on, how much of Kandalaksha was in front of my eyes, and how much of it was in my head? Looking back, I had fixated on Kandalaksha’s location – ‘the Arctic Circle’; ‘Russia’s Far North’; ‘a thousand miles from Moscow…’ – as the reason for my journey. But did these labels make the experience more extreme?

The place is extremely remote, for sure; but this was no Arctic expedition. As bitterly cold as it was, it felt a little warmer than it had been in Moscow. When my navigational skills helped me escape from the depths of the taiga, I came out at the top of a children’s toboggan slope. In the evenings I ordered sushi from a bar near my hotel.

Nor can I pretend to have discovered an unknown part of Russia. Two years before I turned up on the Kola Peninsula – I know now – the Andrey Zvyagintsev film Leviathan won awards for its portrayal of life in Teriberka, a town closer to Murmansk. I also didn’t know, when I took my self-indulgent long weekend, that the year before I came to Kandalaksha the Hotel Belomorye had housed hundreds of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, trying to cross Russia’s border into Finland. The man in the forest with a rifle makes sense now.

What has stayed with me – what matters – is not where Kandalaksha is, but how it felt: my boots on the deep snow and the taiga in my lungs. I would go anywhere to experience that again.

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