The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

False Dawn in Murmansk

Murmansk false dawn, in early afternoon.

Murmansk false dawn.

I was in Murmansk for the Winter Solstice.

The city is North of the Arctic Circle, so the sun never actually rises in mid-winter. I had been vaguely expecting that I would be encountering a 24 hour night, but no, the sky was actually a bright twilight from about noon to about 4:00pm, as the sun lurked just over the horizon. In mid afternoon, the rosy fingers of a false dawn even made an appearance to the South, before gently fading out again.

"Alyosha". Still guarding Murmansk.

“Alyosha”. Still guarding Murmansk.

Murmank hosts a fine resolute Lenin, the charming Museum of the Northern Fleet, and a strangely poignant 30 meter high concrete statue of a Soviet WWII soldier, nicknamed “Alyosha”, still resolutely watching the skies for German bombers.

I had arrived by train from St Petersburg and I took a local minibus over the border to Kirkenes in Norway. The Norwegian border officials asked various slightly strange questions (“Where is your Norwegian exit stamp!?”) and did a particularly thorough search of my pack. I only realized later that they had assumed I must be returning from a short trip from Norway into Murmansk and so they became very suspicious when I denied having any Norwegian exit stamp. Sigh. Normally entries to Western Europe on a UK passport are easy, so this caught me by surprise.

Grozny

On my way from Vladikavkaz to Astrakhan, I stopped off in Grozny. I’m not sure what I expected from Chechnya, but it wasn’t this.

Almost all the buildings in central Grozny are new, built after the devastation of the second Chechen War.  But there is now another enormous new wave of construction under way, with several multi-storey towers and many, many blocks of new low rise buildings.  I wandered through what felt like an endless construction zone.  It isn’t all prestige fluff either – there seem to be many well constructed new apartment blocks too.

People in Grozny seemed slightly surprised to see a tourist, let alone a foreigner from exotic “Shotlandiya”, but they also seemed pleased and welcoming.

The city has a very different feel from most of European Russia.  This is definitely an Islamic city, with most women wearing headscarves and many men wearing muslim caps.  And on Friday afternoon there was a large crowd coming out of the grand new mosque.

Chechnya, and Grozny in particular, seems to be going through a relatively stable period at the moment.  (The key word being “relatively”, there are still periodic incidents.)  There is a lot of armed security sprinkled around the city, but it is generally low key.  The city feels bustling and prosperous.

It’s worth a visit.  More Grozny photos.

Practicalities: I came in by marshrutka from Vladikavkaz via Nazran and took the very slow 602C train out to Astrakhan.  (Note that at Nazran the Grozny marshrutkas arrive/leave at a separate bus stand about 1 km South of the main bus station.) I stayed at the pleasant and friendly Hotel Arena City.

Hotel Arena City Security Guards

Hotel Arena City – Night Watchmen

 

I checked out of the Arena City before dawn, so I got to meet two of the night-time security team.  They had stopped in for a quick tea break while two more armed guards patrolled outside.  While Grozny is mostly stable these days, this is still the North Caucasus, so I guess a little extra security isn’t too surprising.

 

Stalin in Vladikavkaz

I’m in Vladikavkaz (“Lord of the Caucasus”), North Ossetia, Russian Federation, where Stalin lurks.

I was visiting the fine WWII memorial park “Monument to Glory”.  And there he was, posed casually in front of a giant historical mosaic.

The most surprising part is that the bust is new, added in 2009 by the local Communist Party.  Presumably with the assent of the city government.

According to the Lonely Planet Russian guide, there are at least a couple of other Stalin busts lurking around North Ossetia.  Lonely Planet asserts that there is a local fondness for Stalin due to ethnic politics: in the 1940s, Stalin left the Ossetians in place but deported their hated ethnic enemies, the Ingush, en masse.  Hmm.  It’s possible, but it seems a stretch.

As it happens, the memorial park also has a small, touching memorial to the 2004 Beslan tragedy, when Ingush and Chechen terrorists attacked a North Ossetian school.

Also in Vladikavkaz I spotted an unexpected billboard.  At first I thought it must be an advert for the Russian equivalent of the History Channel, or suchlike.  But no, it’s quite serious.  It’s from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the message is “He was a communist!  Come join us!”  Interesting!  No hint of ambiguity or historical reticence there.

Tskhinval, South Ossetia

Tskhinvali Cathedral

The breakaway “Republic of South Ossetia” was a major focus of the 2008 Georgian-Russian war.  The border with the rest of Georgia is closed to foreigners, but it’s possible to visit from Russia. You need advance permission from the South Ossetian authorities. They don’t issue a visa or even provide an authorization letter, but instead they add your name to an authorized list at the border checkpoint.

I applied for permission from the South Ossetia Foreign Ministry about four weeks before my trip.  They didn’t actually give me permission until about 5 days ahead of my visit.  I had a similar experience with Abkhazia, I suspect they simply don’t like to issue permission more than a few days ahead.  They don’t have an application form, instead they requested me to email them a scanned image of a formal signed letter requesting permission to visit and giving the dates and my identification information.

Glimpses of the Greater Caucasus

I took the bus in from Vladikavkaz’s Avtovokzal #1 to Tskhinvali. There are five or so buses a day (from 9am to 4pm) and there are also occasional marshrutkas. The bus took three and a half hours.  The road runs through narrow passes through the Greater Caucasus range, so it’s often quite scenic.  There are several tunnels, including the 4km Roki Tunnel, which crosses the border between Russia and the RSO.

Exiting Russia I got questioned for several minutes by the Russian frontier officers. But it was all fairly friendly and they seemed mostly concerned to make sure that I knew what I was doing and had somewhere to stay. An English speaking officer translated.  The Russian authorities tactfully avoided stamping my passport when I crossed into RSO and also when I returned.  There were no issues or questions on my return.

The rather battered Hotel Alan

I didn’t actually go through any entry or exit checks for South Ossetia itself. The bus drivers indicated I should just stay quietly on the bus when they stopped at the checkpoints. (I suspect they didn’t want to be delayed.)  So I never had my entry permission checked.  But obviously you should not rely on that!

At Tskhinvali I stayed at the Hotel Alan, which is on the South side of the bus station square. It looks dilapidated and abandoned, but if you go up to the second floor, that is operational. It is a little basic, but fine for a few nights.

War damaged buildings

There isn’t that much to see in Tskhinvali itself. The town is still recovering from the 2008 war, with only a limited amount of reconstruction going on. The highlights are probably the cathedral and the parliament building.  The central area is mostly in reasonable shape, but the Northern sections contain many derelict buildings.  More Tskhinval photos.

Other travel practicalities:  Although the Russian border post doesn’t stamp passports, it does count as a Russian exit and re-entry, so you’ll need a double or multi-entry Russia visa to enter RSO and return.  You don’t need a visa for RSO but you do need advance permission from the RSO Foreign Ministry.  (Google Translate will help you there.) The RSO Tourism department (yes, it exists) has a Russian language website giving various pieces of travel information at minmol.org/ru.

Novorossiysk: Brezhnev

I’ve bagged Lenins by the dozen.  And even a couple of Stalins.

But a Brezhnev?  In the wild?  Now there’s a real rarity.  But there he was, striding casually down the street in downtown Novorossiysk.  So I nabbed him.

This isn’t the doddering, geriatric Brezhnev of the 1980s.  This is the rising apparatchik, posed with a hint of rebellious informality, a loosened tie and a jacket casually slung over one shoulder.  Not the wooden politburo veteran, but the younger man-of-the-people getting ready to grab power.  The Brezhnev who recklessly sped in (and sometimes crashed in) high-end foreign cars.

The most amazing thing about the statue is that it was erected in 2004, long after the fall of the USSR, paid for by local public contributions.

Why does Novorossiysk love Leonid Brezhnev so?  Well, Brezhnev liked to emphasize his heroic war record, centered on the Northern Caucasus, including Novorossiysk.  As Brezhnev rose in power, so did his remembered heroism and so did the remembered importance of (among others) the heroic battle of Novorossiysk.  And so in 1973 Novorossiysk was awarded the prestigious Soviet title of “Hero City”, one of only a dozen such.  And the citizens are no doubt grateful for this favor.

Balaklava: Giant Secret Lair

In Balaklava, Ukraine, I visited one of the USSR’s super-secret  bases, “Facility 825”.  This is a giant semi-submerged underground lair, where submarines could enter, be refueled or repaired, and be entirely invisible from the air.

Oh yes, and it was designed to survive a 100 kiloton direct hit.

The base seems to have been conceived in the early 1950s. It was constructed by the teams who had built the Moscow and Kharkiv metro systems, so it isn’t too surprising it takes the form of a giant tunnel, with a concealed entrance in the Balaklava harbor and an exit into the Black sea.  The tunnel is wide enough to allow subs to be docked at one side for maintenance, while others slid past in the main channel.

The base is also chock-full other tunnels, for the supporting humans and for the various arsenals.

Facility 825 was super-secret in its day. The entrance is designed to be invisible from the air.  They were initially worried about spy planes, but of course this also worked well against satellites.  The Soviets apparently hoped to keep even the existence of the base entirely secret, using various ploys to conceal the construction work.

But where are the nuclear wessels?

It was decommissioned in the early 1990s, but even today it’s hard to find reliable data on what was actually based there.  It is generally cited as a “nuclear base”.  But as far as I can figure, it was only used for Whiskey and Romeo diesel powered subs (the tunnel was probably too narrow for the later nuclear subs).  There were probably nuclear warheads, but even that is a little unclear.

It’s all a wonderful relic from the Cold War.  It’s rather sad to see it turned into a rather desultory museum.  Where are the international super-villains when you need them?  Why aren’t aspiring megalomaniacs bidding frantically to “borrow” it for “historic renovation”?  Alas, we live in banal times.

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