It’s early afternoon, but the grey sky is already fading to black in this capital of the Arctic as Valentin Davydyants welcomes a rare foreign visitor aboard his pride and joy: a hulking 25,000-tonne nuclear icebreaker painted in the white, blue and red of the Russian flag.
“No one,” Captain Davydyants declares after a crushing handshake, “can do what we are doing in the Arctic.”
What he says is true. While all eight countries that border the Arctic, including Canada, are making claims – and countries as far away as China are expressing an interest – Russia is the technological and military superpower of the far north. And after two decades of post-Soviet neglect, the region is once again a Kremlin priority.
In October, Capt. Davydyants’s ship – the Fifty Years of Victory – set a speed record carrying the flame for the Sochi Olympics to the North Pole.
Although the ship diplomatically carried the flags of all eight Arctic countries, it was an undisguised statement of intent: The torch was lit there by Artur Chilingarov, the explorer who seven years ago provocatively used a submersible vehicle to plant a titanium Russian flag underneath the same ice.
The ceremony “was about the prestige of our country,” Capt. Davydyants tells me as we sit in his wood-paneled shipboard office, as the 4 p.m. night lights of Murmansk blink to life through twin portholes over his desk. “All the countries are competing over the North Pole.”
A burly man nearly as imposing as the ship he commands, Capt. Davydyants is a fan of Vladimir Putin. They met twice during the president’s visits to Russia’s unique nuclear icebreaker fleet – both the symbol and the tool of Mr. Putin’s dream of Arctic predominance. This goal puts Russia at direct odds with the Canadian government’s own plans to claim the seabed beneath the North Pole. Denmark, which holds sovereignty over Greenland, also asserts the North Pole belongs to it.
Mr. Putin’s Arctic ambitions are an element of his drive to restore some of the territory and influence lost when the Soviet Union crumbled 22 years ago.
“We see it as crucial to the social and economic development of the whole of Russia,” Anton Vasilyev, Russia’s envoy to the eight-nation Arctic Council, says in an interview.
Others view it less benignly. “It’s imperialism,” says Sergei Medvedev, a Moscow-based political scientist. “Putin sees his ultimate mission as [re]assembling the former Soviet Union.”
Haunted by ghosts of the gulag
It was Peter the Great in the 18th century who first sent an expedition to map his Russian empire’s northern fringes, then populated by a sprinkling of indigenous groups. Murmansk – a uniquely ice-free deep-water Arctic port – was built in 1915 as a conduit for supplies sent by allies to aid the failing Tsar Nicholas II.
But it was Joseph Stalin – having been subject to repeated northern exiles to Siberia in his own youth – who seized the commercial potential of Russia’s Arctic. He sent hundreds of thousands of political prisoners north to work in mining camps that grew into today’s cities.
The ghosts of the gulag linger over them. The Russian north doesn’t inspire the imagination the way Canada’s Arctic does for many. It is simply a place of suffering and punishment.
Murmansk, a gritty port on the Barents Sea that is by far the world’s largest Arctic city, will be the nexus of Mr. Putin’s plan. During Soviet times, it was the subsidized home to more than 500,000 people, who made the Kola Peninsula a hub of mining, military and scientific activity.
But when the economic incentives disappeared after the fall of the USSR, the population began to shrink with an exodus south. The city numbers barely 300,000 today.
“Anyone who can is trying to leave,” says Alexander Serebryanikov, a 27-year-old who thought he had a job for life when he was hired out of university by one of the big mining companies that dominate the region.
That future evaporated when he was laid off during the 2008 financial crisis. Mr. Serebryanikov now makes a risky living blogging about corruption in local government. Most of his friends have long since headed south to warmer climes and better economic prospects, Mr. Serebryanikov sighs over dinner at a pizza restaurant.
It will be tough to reverse the decline. Murmansk is an inhospitable place that lives in complete darkness from late November until mid-January and in insomniac brightness in midsummer.
While employment levels are high, salaries are low and life is hard. Alcoholism is startlingly prevalent. The cab driver who meets me at my hotel the next morning keeps a half-finished bottle of whisky beside him as he drives, and gives only a nonchalant shrug when I ask him about it.