Russia (Part 5)

From Russia With Love

The rest of the story…

First, a part about St. Pete’s I forgot. We toured the Aurora, the boat which punctuated the October Revolution with its famous blank cannon shot that let the big shots know it was over, and the Bolsheviks were taking over. We saw the cannon that fired the shot, also. Our tour guide asked us what was the most destructive and powerful cannon in the world. We said we didn’t know. She pointed to the Aurora’s cannon and said, “That one. One shot, 70 years of devastation for a whole country.” You can sense the love for the Soviets.

OK, back to Apatity. We actually spent the nights at the nearby town of Kirovsk, where our gulag was, and the next day
we had time to tour around the little city (around 30,000 people I think), and see the museum and go the the npogykmbl (almost exactly the cyrillic for produkti, or little grocery store) which had basically a big long room, one end of which had a bread and fruit counter, one a juice and candy counter, and the whole center section was just a wall of alcohol, including big green jugs of tequila, and vodka from Crystall to Polarshky Grubny, aka turpentine. Once when we were all walking through a park on the way to town, I saw a group of ten-year-old boys, one of which was in one of the berry trees that are all around town, and I took a picture of the group. Later I looked back to see a bunch of our big 20-year-old frat guys snowball-fighting with the 10-year-olds. I don’t know who started it, but the ten-year-olds were decidedly winning.

The next morning we got up reeeealy early to take a lumpy, leaky bus to Murmansk, and it was dark most of the time, but was brightening by the time we reached a devastated area surrounding the town of Monchegorsk. Monchegorsk, along with the town of Nikel near Sweden, were founded around nickel and copper processing plants which spew sulphur dioxide into the surrounding area and kill all plants within 10 kilometers, and severely maim the whole of nature for a 50 km radius. It was a depressing, hellish place, and would have been much more so if not for the concealing blanket of snow.

Its lake was also an unnatural color, and the whole place made my heart feel very heavy.

We finally got to Murmansk, and it was around 1:00, with the bizarre noonday sun brightly hugging the horizon. For the first part of the time we were there, some clouds overhead spit out a hard, stinging snow at us even as the sun shone in our eyes from just over the hills, it was so weird. But the snow soon stopped, and we talked to this guy who was an ex-marine in the Russian navy, and now had about three jobs and a nice newish ford car. (No one in Russia has only one job, nothing pays well enough, not to mention some government workers sometimes just flat don’t get their paychecks when the govt runs out of money, and there’s hardly any security in anything.) He gave us a little history of the place, how it was founded because Murmansk was located in a port that was ice-free all year round because of the gulf stream, how 400,000 people live there, it’s the biggest city north of the arctic circle, it has a two-month polar night during December and January where the sun never rises, and two corollary sunny months in the summer when the sun just whirls around overhead and never sets. It was all so foreign to me, and to think I was standing there, on top of the world basically, I felt dizzy.

Afterwards we were set free for a couple of hours to explore the city, but we had no idea how to do it productively, so I went up to the navy guy and asked him about seeing the inlet, the art museum, what else there was to do, what he did, etc., and a couple of other people were listening to us, and he offered to take us on a little tour of the city in his car, and we four people piled in and he took us around the main streets and told little stories and details, then he took us up to the tallest point around and showed us the giant WWII statue monument there, and best of all we could see the inlet snaking its way through the green hills (thank god for the gulf stream!) and the giant ships and ice breakers sitting on the blue waters.
And I kept looking at the sun, thinking, as far as it is from the horizon, it is going to have to set in about 30 minutes, but it just kept on sitting there on the horizon the whole time we were there, it was so strange. The navy guy, a guy whose only wrinkles just let you know how much he smiled, told energetic stories about exploring on the North Pole with the Navy, and other really interesting things. He even said he liked living in Murmansk, and there was decent skiing in Kirovsk and beautiful pristine wilderness close at hand and who needs a McDonalds or a Benetton anyway (although I actually do think they have a Benetton, unfortunately)? Well, OK, so I do need sunshine. I imagine the rickets get pretty bad around January.

At 3:30 or so, we caught the 37-hour train back to Moscow, which would go all that night, all Saturday, and get to Moscow Sunday morning at 5:30 a.m.
We were far too exhausted to party, and it wasn’t much of an issue anyway since before too long a couple of people got sick, then a couple more, and by the next day, about 22 out of 30 Stanfordskom cheloveks had lost everything in their stomachs and were feeling pretty rotten. I was spared for some reason, so I just read about the economic history of Russia under the Soviets all day, which was approximately as pleasant. It was a pretty gruesome sight in our train car. It was also Rob’s 21st birthday that day, and two people had made him one cake, and six other people had bought him two other cakes, so that was pretty fun. Although the only good cake was the one people had made, because for some reason, Russian cakes are pretty but absolutely inedible.

I have several theories for this rash of mass sickening. One is that the infamous St. Petersburg swamp water tap water somehow accidentally made it into some of our juice or tea.
Another is any one of the several industrial cafes we went to at one of the factories.
These cafes are absolutely all over Russia, there’s even one here at the academy, and they’re all the same.
Stainless steel shelves full of a variety of old, warm potato and cabbage and beet and pickle and mayonnaise salads, plus rice, mashed potatoes, and a whole array of tough, grey, unidentifiable boiled meats in oily sauces, and you can get all that and oily soup and a pretty (but nasty) pastry for about 20 rubles (75 cents). It’s a cheap, hearty, indigestible, ubiquitous, and highly suspicious meal. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s as bad as Stern Dining, but pretty morbid. Another is the tailing soup that came out of the taps at Kirovsk. Or the eggs could have been bad that we made several omelet’s out of. In any case, I felt fine until the next day, when I for some reason broke down and had a cheeseburger at McDonalds near my apartment, and it made me ill for three days. Well, I don’t know that for a fact, especially since I didn’t throw up, and I think I had strep throat, but Americans tend to get ill if they eat there. Which is weird, because McDonalds here is a super classy affair, they always have two stories of marble and columns and brass fixtures and potted plants and nicely-dressed couples and families sitting around big tables. But the same Big Macs as the U.S. Argh, why am I talking about McDonalds when I wish it wasn’t even in Russia?

OK, that’s all I have for now, thanks for listening, and I’ll be back in a place that has grass in no time. It’s really nice weather here now, I’m fine in my leather jacket and a scarf, I wish it would snow or something, but I’m enjoying it. And no, I didn’t see the Aurora Borealis, even though it was my fondest hope, but maybe someday.

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