Murmansk is a port town in the northwestern corner of todays Russian Federation. It bolsters the biggest population among the centers north of the Arctic Circle in the world. It was founded in 1916, just months before the Revolution, and developed rapidly thanks to its strategic position for the needs both of the Navy and of maritime commerce. Actually this is the only Russian port on the Barents Sea which is not blocked by ice in winter, and it is in a region rich of substantial natural deposits, including nickel and coal. Furthermore, the coast in the vicinity of this town and along the Kola peninsula features countless coves and bays, providing an ideal setting for stationing a military fleet.
Probably the highest point in the history of Murmansk, which also contributed greatly in forming its current shape, was in the Great Patriotic War, i.e. WWII as they call it in Russia and the USSR until the Nineties. Murmansk was a key port on the supply line between the Western Allies and the USSR. A railroad linking Murmansk and St. Petersburg – some 900 miles south – existed since before its foundation. For this reason, and for the abundant raw materials in the region, the area was a dramatic theater of war, the German Wehrmacht relentlessly hitting there from both Norway and Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland. As a matter of fact, the resistance of the Soviets around Murmansk meant that the town was never conquered by Hitler’s forces, which where stopped just some tens of miles away to the west.
The damage and destruction brought by the war, acknowledged by the Soviet government with medals and the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union” awarded to Murmansk, meant that today the city has a mostly ‘modern’ appearance – in the Soviet sense. From the viewpoint of architecture, Murmansk has been rebuilt with industrial and military activities in mind, as most cities all around the USSR and differently from the most famous Moscow and Leningrad (today St. Petersburg). During the Cold War Murmansk developed into a huge port town and industrial center, with a population reaching almost half a million at some point. At the same time, military ports and shipyards multiplied in the region. The Soviet Northern Fleet has been stationed there since its foundation in the Thirties, and during the Cold War it was tasked with patrolling the Atlantic up to the northern coast of the USSR. The Northern Fleet was supplied with many iconic firsts for the USSR, including nuclear submarines and strategic nuclear missiles.
A trip to this industrial city is probably not in the list of many tourists, and even less from abroad. But for those looking for a full immersion in the atmosphere of an authentic Soviet town of the Cold War days, conveniently located not far from the Russian western border and still populated and very active, Murmansk has really much in store. Furthermore, if you care about the history of WWII and the Cold War, then this is definitely a place to go. The closed town of Polyarny, from where Marko Ramius sets off in Tom Clancy’s memorable fiction ‘The Hunt for Red October’, is just miles away from Murmansk. If you would like to see something in this region which still retains much of its ‘CCCP aura’, unless you are from Russia Murmansk is one of the few towns in an extensive region which has been opened to foreign visitors – Polyarny, as well as Severomorsk, where the headquarters of the Northern Fleet are, and other military centers nearby unfortunately are not accessible to foreigners even today.
This post shows a possible itinerary touching some Soviet- or war-themed highlights in town. At the end of the chapter you can find information about reaching Murmansk, which itself may turn an interesting part of the trip. Photographs were taken in August 2017.
The Google map below shows the itinerary I followed during my visit. All sights pinpointed on the map are mentioned or portrayed in the post. I covered the whole itinerary with a long walk, resulting in a very requiring 24 miles which I walked in one day. Despite the great photo opportunities you can get walking around alone, this distance can be definitely too much for the majority of visitors, so you may choose to hire a taxi or move with public transport for at least a part of the itinerary. Or you may decide to explore the town in one and a half or two days instead of just one.
The central square of Murmansk – ‘Five Corners Square’ in English – is where the two oldest hotels are, the ‘Azimuth’ and the ‘Meridian’. If you are staying at the Meridian – a good level executive hotel – you can enjoy a good view of the Azimuth, a typical modern Soviet building, a section of the port and the northern districts of Murmansk. Your view will reach to one of the most famous Soviet monuments in Russia – Alyosha, the gigantic statue of a Soviet soldier.
On the façade of the building to the left of the Meridian you can see a sculpture of some Soviet decorations attributed to Murmansk. Not far cross the road is a similarly themed obelisk.
To the southeast of the square, Tsentralnyy Park is a nice park frequented by Russian families with children. On the southeastern side of the park are a statue of Kirov – a friend of Stalin, who killed him at some point, as he often used to do with friends – and a couple of neoclassic Soviet public palaces with Soviet-themed decoration.
To the northwest of the Ploschad there is another smaller park with monuments and fountains, and the Regional Art Museum of Murmansk in one of the corners (website here). The latter is a nice little art museum, where works of many regional artists from the 19th century and well into the Soviet era can be found.
Among the elements helping to remember you are in the 21st century and not any more in the Soviet Union, there is a McDonald’s – possibly the northernmost in the world – and some banks around the square.
One of the two traffic arteries in Murmansk, describing a large arch crossing the central district. Moving south from Ploschad Pyat’uglov, you can walk down the full length of this boulevard. In the most central district, closer to the square, you will find many buildings with typical Soviet facades. Soon after leaving the square, on the eastern side there is a statue of Lenin, creating a nice scenery with the wings of the stately building behind it.
One of the most notable buildings along the boulevard apparently belongs to the heir of the KGB, and still retains a monument with the sword and shield close to the entrance. The façade is adorned with prominent hammer and sickle symbols.
On the eastern side of the boulevard another interesting sight is the Monument to the Border Guards of the Arctic. This is placed in a small, well-kept and quiet park. Close by, a theater can be recognized by the frieze on the front – this was undergoing renovation at the time of my visit, and nothing more could be seen.
Moving further south, the road turns markedly to the southeast, and correspondingly the quality of the buildings starts to decrease sharply, with some exceptions, including some bulky modern buildings. One of them is really imposing, fenced and guarded. It may be a tribunal or a military command of some sort, given the level of security. As the road starts to climb uphill, a monument connected to WWII is clearly noticeable, with and anti-tank cannon prominently standing on a pillar. From that place, it is possible to spot some Soviet decoration on lower profile residential buildings.
In this part the panorama changes rapidly, with wild vegetation and poor housing coexisting side by side. Some buildings look as they are just waiting to collapse, and you think they are abandoned until you see two well dressed clerks coming out of a decrepit door. Hammer and sickles can be found on the façade or to the side of every other building.
Somewhat unceremoniously, Prospekt Lenina comes to an end forming a sharp angle with Prospekt Kirova.
Prospekt Kirova and Ulitsa Shmidta
Turning northwest on Prospekt Kirova the road starts to descend. Here you can find a significant number of Soviet style apartment buildings. Looking carefully, you can see that the construction of the buildings is modular and the style is very repetitive – there are only about five or six variations in the basic module.
As the street turns north changing name into Ulitsa Shmidta you have on the southern corner a building connected with the Navy, possibly an academy, with some strange instrumentation on the roof. Cross the street there is a small park, with a modern church, clearly built after the end of the Soviet period.
From around this point it is possible to get some good pictures of a still working power plant, which is located basically in a block of this district, not far from the city center and surrounded by apartments. The proximity of the chimneys to the apartment buildings is typical to Soviet towns, much harder to find in the west, unless you’re running out of money building your town when playing SimCity. Furthermore, the power plant in Murmansk is really huge and the funnels really monstrous!
Proceeding north on Ulitsa Shmidta, on the eastern side it is possible to spot many Soviet facades, where on the western side you may have problems getting a view of the railway and the port down below, due to the vegetation strip obstructing the view. At some point on the eastern side you will find a military building, recognizable by the red stars on the gates – the same model of gates and stars you can find in many abandoned military sites all over the former Eastern Bloc.
A block south of the last bend to the northeast where Ulitsa Shmidta changes its name into Ulitsa Kominterna, it is possible to find a small nice park with a monument to the Soviet Navy, just ahead of a stately building which may have been a former military headquarter.
The monument is modern in design, and perhaps made after the end of the Soviet Union, yet looking very exotic if you are from the western side of the Iron Curtain.
Possibly one of the oldest buildings in Murmansk, and surely one of the most iconic thanks to the pinnacle with the red star on top, is the railway station. The façade and entrance are on Ulitsa Kominterna, but the building is built on multiple levels, for it is on the rim of a small coast. The passenger railway is at the bottom of the coast, and very close to the building. An old steam locomotive with a big red star is placed on one of the passenger platforms.
On the northern side of the station building it is possible to get access to a footbridge, passing over the passenger terminal and the huge cargo terminal. The latter offers a really impressive show, with countless coal trucks unwinding along endless railways. The railway basically ends in Murmansk, and the port is specialized with taking coal from the trains and putting it on the ships – plenty of dedicated cranes are always active in this transfer work. The railway yard is always very busy.
In the evening you can watch the assembly of the empty convoys, being set up for their travel back to inland Russia. This is a pretty violent and noisy show, as they usually form a train by kicking a car on a railway track against the rest of the convoy waiting at the other end. When the car hits the convoy a very loud bang is produced, which can be heard from a great distance everywhere in town.
Given the number of convoys and cars, this unusual concert goes on for quite a while every evening.
Port of Murmansk and Icebreaker Lenin
Descending from the far end of the footbridge towards the sea you reach the platform of the port of Murmansk with a short walk. You can walk only a small part of the port area, including two piers. The famous icebreaker Lenin (website here), the first nuclear-propelled non-military vessel in the world, is permanently moored here and can be visited as a tourist attraction – in theory.
[NOTE: Obviously the dates of my trip had been chosen accounting for the opening times of this museum ship, one of the most relevant sites in town. I was very unlucky, experiencing the harsh treatment Russia still reserves to tourists this day – in spite of a published timetable of the tours available online, even though in Russian only, I found a printed paper in Russian on the entrance to the pier, basically telling ‘no tours for today and tomorrow’, full stop. Unfortunately, you can experience similar issues even in cities with a touristic vocation like St. Petersburg, so this happening in the remote Murmansk was not unbelievable. Yet considering I visited from quite afar, tuned my trip specifically for this attraction standing to the available information and came during the peak season, this shows a very low-level preparedness for tourism and especially a generally bad attitude towards foreign visitors, both parts of an unwanted heritage of the Soviet times. You’d better go ready to similar problems when traveling to Russia.]
Anyway the icebreaker can be admired also from the pier. The size is really stunning, especially if compared to the older and glorious Krassin, which can be found in St. Petersburg (see this post). Along the Lenin, on another pier a modern icebreaker can be seen. Murmansk is also a well-known starting point for arctic cruises.
A monument remembering the Great Patriotic War closes the square ahead of the piers on one side. Cross the bay from this point it is possible to spot another war monument, including a jet aircraft and a cannon.
Kursk Monument and Church of the Savior on Waters
Going back to Ploschad Pyat’uglov and restarting northeast along Prospekt Lenina after some walk and more interesting buildings, including the local government of Murmansk adorned with all the decorations earned by this town for the effort during WWII and the Regional Museum (website here) – which unfortunately was closed on the day of my visit -, you reach Ulitsa Papanina. Taking it to the northwest you soon cross Ulitsa Chelyuskintsev.
Again, here the quality of the housing and parks decreases sharply. Ulitsa Chelyuskintsev climbs aggressively uphill. After a distance the main road takes slightly to the left, and a building resembling a beacon can be seen further uphill, reachable with a flight of stairs. This beacon is a monument to the seamen lost at sea, and it includes a chapel which is closed most of the time irrespective of the published opening times.
Just behind the beacon there is a monument to the ill-fated nuclear submarine K-141 Kursk, a new strategic ship of the Northern Fleet launched in post-Soviet times, which in the year 2000 sank following two accidental explosions, killing all on board. Thanks to the shallow waters where this accident happened, it was later possible to recover the wreck. Part of the turret was taken away and transformed into the monument you see, which is actually a piece of the original vessel.
Proceeding further uphill, it is possible to reach the small nice Orthodox church of the Savior on Waters, which is operated regularly and is probably the most central temple in Murmansk.
Leninskiy Okrug and Museum of the Northern Fleet
To the back of the temple it is possible to reach again Ulitsa Chelyuskintsev. Keeping the Museum of the Northern Fleet as a destination, located close to the northern border of Murmansk, you can walk some miles crossing the district called Leninskiy Okrug, which is a very populated residential area of the ‘working class’. Here you can see by yourself the very low-level of the housing, roads, walkways and services of this industrial town, where most of the population is living today. This standard of living appears to be in striking contrast with what you see in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and you can imagine how the neighborhood must have looked like when all cars around where Soviet made and there were no services like banks and cell phones retailers giving a modern touch to the scene.
The building hosting the Museum of the Northern Fleet is no exception – it looks like an abandoned building from the outside. The entrance hall is purely Soviet style, too large and very grim. An old lady stands knitting in one corner, watching a TV show. She will instruct you about the ticket price – very low, only cash accepted – and the way to go. The building must have been a former clubhouse for officers or retired staff.
The museum (information here) covers the history of the Navy at least until the creation of the Northern Fleet. There are about ten small rooms, packed with tons of memorabilia items, documents, flags, parts of ships, photographs, paintings, portraits, uniforms, medals, models, maps, weapons and so on. Notwithstanding the old-style exhibition and the plenty of information mainly on the facts of WWII and the Cold War period, the museum is fairly up to date, mentioning also post-Soviet history and the current status of the fleet. It is noteworthy that most of the descriptions are in Russian only, so you should go with some knowledge of the topic if you don’t know the language.
Some Soviet memorials and the portraits of all commanders of the fleet from its foundation to the present day can be found on the stairs.
Monument to the Waiting Woman
Setting the course back to downtown Murmansk, it is possible to reach the monument to the Waiting Woman, dedicated to the women of the seamen, with a multi-miles walk from the Museum of the Northern Fleet, again crossing Leninskiy Okrug.
The monument is an example of Russian ingenuity, yet somehow evocative. The place where the small sculpture is located is a vantage point from where it is possible to have a look to the northernmost part of the port of Murmansk, invisible from the town center. Much precise information about the home port of the vessels of the current Northern Fleet is not easy to get, anyway in the pictures you can see the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the only Russian aircraft carrier, recently deployed to the Black Sea and now returned to the bay of Murmansk – somewhat mimetic, carefully look at the pictures below.
The most famous monument in Murmansk and in the region surrounding it, the monument to the Defenders of the Soviet Arctic during the Great Patriotic War, informally known as Alyosha – ‘little Alexander’ in English -, is a gigantic statue to the Soviet Soldier, commemorating the battles fought by the Soviet Army against the Third Reich during WWII. Not only is this monument placed on top of a hill, but it is some 115 feet tall, making it the third tallest monument in the former USSR, after Stalingrad, now Volgograd, and Kiev, today in Ukraine. It is visible from many places in town and from the area around Murmansk.
It can be reached easily from downtown with a taxi, or if you are coming following the itinerary, climbing uphill at a short distance from the Monument of the Waiting Woman (see the map for a detailed trail to follow).
The monument is surely worth a visit. The size is impressive, and the eternal flame still burning ahead of the statue adds to the authenticity of the ensemble as a place of remembrance.
There are also two anti-aircraft guns and some ancillary parts to the back of the monument. The square ahead of it, possibly made for ceremonies, is not very well-kept and infested by mosquitoes in the warm season.
Leaving from the monument towards the city center can be done cutting through a wild green area along a well-marked trail. A mystery communication central can be found at some point. I met people grilling meat on a barbecue in this partially wild park.
From here you have a good view of the industrial port and of the central districts of Murmansk. Upon reaching Ulitsa Chelyuskintsev there is a small modern memorial showing some pictures of Murmansk soon after the devastation caused by WWII.
From here it is possible to go back to the city center where your hotel will probably be and where you can find some very good local restaurants.
Getting to Murmansk
Notwithstanding the interesting ensemble and some noteworthy monuments, this city alone can hardly motivate a trip from abroad even for dedicated enthusiasts. On the other hand, it makes for a quick and easy detour from a travel to scenic Lapland (Finland) or northern Norway. After some investigation about going there with a car I abandoned the idea – too complicated in terms of papers and risky – and elected to go there starting from Kirkenes, a small town in northern Norway just a few miles from the only border crossing point between Norway and Russia. There is a local Norwegian travel agency called Pasvikturist selling on the Internet the tickets of a bus service operating between Kirkenes and Murmansk with no stops. The service is operated once per day in both directions. They also sell travel packages of one or two days to Murmansk including a part-time guide and accomodation.
The bus is actually a comfortable Russian registered minibus. The pick-up point in Kirkenes is by the Scandic Hotel, where there are some possible pick-up points in Murmansk, which is much larger, typically by all the biggest hotels.
You must have the visa for entering Russia, and you can get the necessary invitation from both the Azimuth and Meridian hotel. I noticed not all hotels in Murmansk offer this service, so be careful if you want to opt for a smaller hotel. Getting the invitation involves an easy electronic procedure worth a few dollars. Passport control – both Norway and Russia – takes a while, about 45 minutes in total for all on the minibus. Restrictions on the goods you can transport apply, but are by far less stringent than when traveling by air. You are not required to pass a metal detector, and bags are inspected only sporadically. My small army knife and all photographic gears passed without trouble.
The trip from Kirkenes to Murmansk can be very interesting. The region you cross is full of military installations. Extensive areas along the road are fenced and under surveillance. Going to Murmansk we had to stop to let a number of tanks cross the road. There is at least one military checkpoint where all passports are quickly inspected again by military staff!
Among the unusual sights along the road are the huge nickel mines between Nickel and Zapolyarny, the countless memorials of WWII along the valley of the Pechenga river, the military town of Sputnik, and a ropeway built by the German Army to carry supplies to the front. The background scenery is that of an endless sequence of hills with arctic vegetation.
Getting closer to Murmansk you will see directions to many ‘closed towns’ – connected with military activities, and where foreign visitors cannot enter – including Polyarny, cited in ‘The Hunt for Red October’. This surely adds to the atmosphere and prepares you to the visit of the town.
Entering the town you will pass over the bay on a bridge and you will get a view of the southern part of the port and of the city, otherwise difficult to reach by foot.
Murmansk is clearly served also by an airport, so if you want or need you can surely reach the city by air – and also by train – from within Russia, but you will not get a view of the region, which may be very interesting if you are traveling as a tourist.