[Above: Fishing boats in the remote Arctic village of Teriberka, outside Murmansk, December 2014]
Imagine all the sunless skies in all the post-apocalyptic films you’ve ever seen. Then add a layer of thick, icy snow. This is the desolate scene that greets me as I emerge from a small wooden hut into the chill of a winter afternoon in Murmansk, the world’s largest city beyond the Arctic Circle. It is –15°C and I am wearing shorts and black plastic flip-flops. I stumble over to a rectangular-shaped hole cut into a frozen lake and peer down at the water. Things are about to get an awful lot colder.
“How long do you usually swim for?” I ask Alexander Rozhkov, a twentysomething “walrus” (the Russian nickname for ice-bathing enthusiasts). “That depends,” he replies. “But stay in for as long as you can. It’s quite warm today.” He doesn’t appear to be joking.
Ice-bathing was first popularised in Russia by an impressively white-bearded, Soviet-era mystic called Porfiry Ivanov, who believed that swimming in near-freezing water — as well as prolonged fasting and wearing nothing but shorts — was beneficial for both body and spirit.
Despite persecution by the atheist Soviet authorities, who locked him up in psychiatric hospitals and prisons for a total of 12 years, Ivanov gained tens of thousands of followers before his death in 1983 at the age of 85. He also earned the memorable nickname Tsar of the Walruses.
I’m not sure where I stand on Ivanov’s unorthodox teachings, but I’ve heard that ice-bathing is the ideal antidote to the polar night blues I’ve been suffering from ever since I arrived in this snowy Russian port city. I’ve only been in town for around a week, but my sleep cycle is already hopelessly out-of-joint, a victim of the near round-the-clock gloom. On top of that, the feeling of sunlight on my skin is now just a fading memory.
“Ice-bathing boosts your immune system, and gives you a lift for the rest of the day,” Alexander says, by way of encouragement, as I whirl my arms around to get the blood in my body circulating. Then I take the plunge.
The sudden cold is oddly refreshing, and a sense of euphoria washes over me. I could get used to this, I think. Then my body revolts, my brain giving the signal for a hasty departure. I tread water, delaying my exit for a few moments more before swimming towards the frost-caked ladder that takes me all the way up to dry land.
[Above: An apartment block on the outskirts of Murmansk, as seen through the frosted window of a minibus.]
As I clamber — shivering, teeth chattering — out of the lake, Alexander gives me the thumbs-up. I hurry inside to dry myself off. My chest hair, I note with alarm, is already starting to ice over. Behind me, the locals are queuing up to take a dip, steam trailing from their mouths as their breath hits the ice-cold air. As I get dressed, I examine the fading black and white photographs of jolly Soviet ice-bathers pinned to the walls of the hut. This place has history.
“Ice-bathing is great for your health, especially if you do it often enough,” says Nailya Ibragimova, another “walrus” I speak to after my swim. She frowns. “But I wouldn’t believe what people say about it helping with the polar night. Nothing can help with the polar night. You just have to get through it the best you can. Failing that, move south for the winter. Or for good.”
The long Russian winter may be harsh, but bright, glorious sunshine on the coldest of days is one of the things that makes it bearable. Even, at times, enjoyable. As the country’s 19th-century national poet Alexander Pushkin wrote in the first line of a couplet that every Russian schoolchild knows by heart: “Frost and sunshine: a day of wonder.”
There are few such days of wonder in Murmansk. Its extreme northerly location means it experiences an annual 40-day long polar night from 3 December to 11 January. During this period, when the sun remains constantly below the horizon, an unsettling semi-twilight occurs each day for a few hours around noon. For the rest of the time, the city is besieged by darkness. The expression “nightlife” takes on an entirely different meaning here.
The polar night is the reason I’ve made the 36-hour train journey from Moscow, my home for the past decade-and-a-half. I’ve read much about the phenomenon, and watched more online clips of murky polar afternoons than I’d ever imagined existed, but I’m not satisfied.
I want to experience it for myself. I want to know what it’s like to live without the sun as the fiery fulcrum around which the day revolves. I’m also eager to find out how the locals get through the long Arctic winter. Russia is unconducive to a life of comfort at the best of times: what happens when you take away the sun?
“It’s not like this in England, right?” asks Pavel, an ex-Red Army soldier turned taxi driver, as we ride through the dusky streets of Murmansk. “I mean, days are light and nights are dark there, yeah?” I assure Pavel, a heavy-set man in his early sixties, that this is indeed the case. He shakes his head at the sheer novelty of the notion.
I spent much of the lengthy train ride here in a somnolent haze, lazy beats on my headphones as snow-capped forests glided past my cabin window.
[Above: Fisherman Viktor on the "streets" of Teriberka.]
By rights, I should be well-rested, but despite the hazardous driving conditions, exasperated by a heavy snowstorm, I have to fight to stay awake. As we make our way through the afternoon traffic, I stare at the illuminated yolka — a festive-season fir tree — in the city’s central square. A pleasant sight when I first arrived, its constantly glowing pine cones have by now taken on a sinister element, at least to my sleep-deprived mind.
“It’s the same for everyone,” sympathises Pavel. “The constant darkness makes you feel drowsy all day, but then at night you can’t fall asleep. And when you finally do, you wake up a few hours later and are tormented by insomnia until morning. Then it starts all over again.” As if on cue, he yawns. Perhaps sensing that either of us could doze off at any moment, Pavel fiddles with the radio, and exuberant Russian pop blasts out, jolting me wide awake.
In a bid to economise on daunting energy costs, the Murmansk city authorities switch off streetlights from 11am to 2pm, for the “brightest” period of what can only loosely be termed “day”. Traffic accidents, it goes without saying, are frequent. I quickly grow used to the sight of mangled roadside vehicles during my stay in the region. “Fuck, it’s like driving on a knife-edge,” mutters Pavel, as he swerves to avoid a fur-clad, elderly woman on an unlit zebra crossing.
We slow down as we pass a crash — a Toyota crushed by a chunky snow plough — before speeding off into the thickening shadows.
Founded in 1916, Murmansk was the last city to be established by the Russian Empire before Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks seized power. But while Russia’s doomed tsar, Nicholas II, may have put the city on the map, its subsequent rapid growth was a legacy of the stubborn — some would say insane — Soviet policy of carving out well-populated settlements across some of the country’s most inhospitable regions, from the cities-on-stilts that were erected amid the permafrost of deepest Siberia to the sunlight-starved towns of the Arctic.
There’s nothing to stop people living in these remote regions — after all, humans can get used to almost any extremes — but they’d almost certainly be better off elsewhere.
The world’s media descended briefly on Murmansk in the autumn of 2013, when Greenpeace activists detained by Russian security forces as they protested oil drilling in the Arctic were held in one of the city’s grimy pre-trial detention facilities.
Although the Arctic 30, as they became known, were transferred to St Petersburg before the onset of the polar nights, prison guards appear to have taken a perverse pleasure in scaring the activists with horror stories about the approaching winter. “I asked the guard how cold it got in December and he said –30°C,” wrote Alexandra Harris, a British Greenpeace activist, in a letter home. “I’m very nervous about that.” Harris also wrote that she had “no desire to see a polar night”.
Despite the formidable sub-zero temperatures, and snow for up to eight months of the year, the city’s port is ice-free, its waters warmed by the North Atlantic Current. Although not the only city or town above the Arctic Circle, Murmansk is far and away the largest, with some 300,000 residents. In comparison, Norway’s Tromsø, the largest Western European town in the Arctic region, has a population of just 70,000.
[Above] Alexander Rozhkov (left) and "walrus" friends enjoy a dip in Murmansk's icy freshwater Lake Semyonovskoye.]
It may be a giant by Arctic standards, but Murmansk’s population is shrinking. Before the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, almost half-a-million people resided here, many of them attracted by the high wages on offer in the shipping and fishing industries, part of the Kremlin’s bid to compensate workers for the hardships of life this (very) far up north.
But once these Soviet pay bonuses vanished in the newly independent Russia, a mass exodus occurred as people abandoned Murmansk in search of more hospitable climes. It is a trend that has been encouraged in recent years by a Russian government scheme to relocate elderly people who wish to move further south.
Reports suggest, however, that after a lifetime of long, dark winters, and relatively mild summers, many of these Murmansk pensioners find it tough to adapt to life in the sun.
But who can blame them for trying? Murmansk may be a pleasant enough city, especially by the standards of the Russian provinces, but disrupted sleep patterns are not the only consequence of the region’s cruel winters. A bleak 2013 study published by the Russian Academy of Sciences listed the catastrophic effects of “polar health disorder syndrome”.
Among the grim litany of woes caused by the prolonged night and “high levels of dampness” the report described a range of heart and lung problems, as well as widespread mental and emotional disorders. Indeed, both alcoholism and suicide rates are far higher for this Arctic region than Russia’s already grim national average.
The connection between the dark and depression has long been known. “A grosse, darke, gloomish, stinking ayre, is very contrarie,” noted the 16th-century French physician André du Laurens. Much more recently, scientists have determined that a lack of daylight causes the body to overproduce melatonin, a brain hormone that when present in abnormally high levels is believed to cause Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
“If a person is already feeling down, the beginning of the polar night can be the last straw,” says Yulia Babich, a Murmansk-based psychologist who specialises in treating depression. “But even those people who do not usually suffer from depression often experience mood swings at this time.”
Both the Soviet and Russian authorities have attempted to tackle the problems faced by Arctic dwellers. In the Soviet era, in a bid to compensate for Vitamin D deficiencies caused by the lack of sunlight, the region’s children were dosed with high-intensity, ultra-violet rays. “We used to strip down to our underwear, put on goggles to protect our eyes, and stand in a circle around the UV lamp,” laughs Svetlana, a Moscow-based lawyer who grew up in Murmansk.
“Anyone who didn’t know what was going on would have been very surprised. It was like some weird mix of scientific experiment and religious ritual.” The practice was discontinued after concerns that regular exposure to ultra-violet rays might create more health problems than it solved.
Modern Russia’s efforts have been far more ambitious. In 1999, cosmonauts on board the now defunct Mir space station attempted to launch a giant mirror into orbit. The mirror was to act as a prototype for much larger solar reflectors that would have beamed the sun’s rays down to cities across the Arctic during the winter months.
But as the mirror began to unfold, it malfunctioned. The experiment was abandoned, and the solar reflector later burnt up in the atmosphere. With its destruction, the brief dream of lighting up the polar night was snuffed out.
The flipside to the polar night is, of course, the polar day. From early May to mid-July, the sun is a permanent fixture in the Murmansk sky, beginning its lazy descent towards the horizon around midnight, before shuffling sideways and up again just a few hours later.
“Obviously, we miss the sun during the polar night,” says Anna Kireeva, who works for an environmental watchdog. “But when you come out of a club at 3am and the sun is still shining brightly, you also think, ‘Damn, I really miss the dark.’”
It’s not hard, however, to detect a somewhat blasé attitude to the sun’s comings and goings among the locals. I’d hoped to uncover urban legends and superstitions connected with the polar night during my stay in Murmansk, but the reality is a blunt pragmatism.
[Above: Apartment blocks on the outskirts of Murmansk]
Even “Enigma”, a local, jet-black-haired sorceress-for-hire (the “occult business” is booming in Russia), whose website is full of evocative nocturnal imagery, has very little to say on the subject. “I’ve never really thought about it,” she tells me, apologetically, when I contact her, hoping to discover all sorts of stories. “I guess that’s because I grew up here and am used to it.”
I’m disappointed by this widespread reluctance to wax lyrical about the dark, but perhaps it is understandable. After all, Russians haven’t been here for even a century: hardly enough time to build up a rich canon of myths. And the Soviet Union wasn’t exactly the kind of place that encouraged fancifulness.
Besides, there are plenty of distractions in modern-day Murmansk, which can boast, alongside dozens of bars, clubs and restaurants, an aquarium, McDonald’s and — bizarrely — an ostrich-petting farm. There was even a professional football team here until last year, when the appropriately-named Sever FC (North FC) folded due to financial difficulties. (The team’s floodlight bill alone must have been massive.)
I decide I need to head deeper into the polar darkness, away from the lights of the big city. And so, the next morning, after another near sleepless night, I take the dirt road to Teriberka, a tiny fishing village on the coast of the Barents Sea.
The setting for Leviathan, Russia’s (2015) Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated film, Teriberka was until very recently closed to foreigners — and indeed Russians without the correct documents — due to its proximity to military bases. When the snow is particularly heavy, the road to the village can be closed for days, cutting the locals off from the outside world.
As I leave Murmansk behind, the spectacular desolation of the snowy Arctic wilderness accentuated by the ever-present gloom, I recall some of the more terrifying scenes from another film: the cult US horror movie, 30 Days of Night, about a gang of opportunistic vampires who terrorise an Alaskan town during the cover of polar night.
Indistinct shapes in the distance, including one that turns out to be an improvised, ironic “monument” to bribe-hungry polar traffic cops, take on ominous forms as my imagination runs wild. Further down the road, Russian Sukhoi fighter jets twist and turn in the polar night as they train for the nightmarish possibility of conflict with Nato forces stationed in nearby Norway.
It’s not all bleakness, however. Away from the city’s fumes, I get a lungful of the pristine Arctic air, reportedly the inspiration for the distinctive scent of Chanel N°5, the perfume created by Russian émigré Ernest Beaux, who saw military action in the region from 1917–19. I wind down the window and take a deep breath. You could bottle this and sell it, I think, before it hits me this is essentially what Beaux did.
By the time we get to Teriberka, the brief twilight hours are long behind us, and the poorly-lit fishing village is shrouded in darkness so heavy it feels like fog. In Murmansk, the polar night can be chased away with street lamps and indoor strip-lighting: in Teriberka, it is impossible to ignore.
Our headlights pick out footprints in the thick snow; a faint trail leading towards the chilly waters of the Barents Sea. Somewhere out there, beyond the village’s inexact boundaries, is where Russia’s Kursk nuclear submarine sank in still-mysterious circumstances in 2000, with the death of all 118 sailors on board.
Like Murmansk, Teriberka’s heyday was in the Soviet era, when up to 10,000 people lived here, the majority employed in the fishing industry.
Today, after years of neglect and chronic under-investment, this remote village is home to around 1,500 people. What little infrastructure that remains is crumbling fast: abandoned buildings, some boarded-up, some open to the elements (and the many wild dogs) jut out of the night like gravestones. A sign advertising “women’s shoes” hangs over the door of a derelict hut. Decrepit fishing boats, their hulls rotting, litter the shoreline.
Teriberka feels exactly like what it appears to be on a map: the end of the Earth.
Unsurprisingly, alcoholism — judging by the wasted, ravaged faces of many of the locals — is widespread. Do people drink more in the polar night? I ask the mysterious Viktor, a middle-aged fisherman with a weary humour who won’t reveal his surname but who’s agreed to show me around. He laughs bitterly. “You think alkies need an excuse to drink?”
But there is a primeval beauty to Teriberka’s icy landscapes that neither the dark, nor the ramshackle buildings can mask. Gigantic smooth stones, almost boulders, dot the nearby windswept beach, like the unhatched eggs of some mysterious sea beast.
“We say God has just finished his work here,” says Viktor, as we pick our way across this strange terrain. For some reason, he whispers it. Above us, stars stud the frigid Arctic sky.
It was the cold and the dark that drew Viktor to Teriberka. A native of Voronezh, a central Russian city where summer temperatures average 21°C, he fell in love with the village after a visit over two decades ago.
“I never really felt comfortable in the heat,” he tells me, as we sit drinking strong black tea in the small, one-room house he shares with his wife on the edge of the village. “My soul feels at ease here,” he adds. He looks away for a second, embarrassed by the sentiment.
His wife, who openly admits to “hating” the polar night, snorts with derision at her husband’s words. But Viktor is adamant. “Most people want to live in the big cities, among what they call civilization. But why would I want to live in a concrete anthill, where I can hear my neighbours coughing all day long?”
Viktor drives me to the village’s only hostel, located in the incongruous territory of a fish-canning factory. As I go inside, I pass two middle-aged men smoking near the entrance. Both are wearing tracksuit tops and shorts, and seem oblivious to the vicious Arctic wind whipping in off the sea.
I go to the canteen to eat a late dinner. “Have you had enough to eat?” the cook asks a group of young men and women sitting around a table. “Yeah,” slurs one, in response. “But not enough to drink.”
Drunken shouting from the canteen wakes me up a few hours later, at around 2am. Unable to get back to sleep, I decide to wander the village. The combination of the polar night and Teriberka’s isolation makes this an almost ideal place to witness the aurora borealis, better known as the Northern Lights.
That is, when they decide to put in an appearance. The chances of seeing the world-famous phenomenon are slim, but I decide to search the skies on the off-chance. Who knows? I might get lucky.
I leave the fish-canning factory, and walk for hours, until my feet are numb with cold. I meet around half-a-dozen other apparently aimless wanderers, as I slip and slide along Teriberka’s treacherous paths. Eventually, I face the fact that the Northern Lights are not going to oblige me with their presence.
When I get back to the hostel, a man is smoking outside. He gazes at me with pale, vacant eyes. Once I am in my room, I fall into a deep sleep, and my dreams are filled with images of swirling black suns and empty northern skies. The polar night, I realise as I wake with a start, fucks royally with your head.
The next afternoon, as soon as the dark has made its daily semi-retreat, I leave Teriberka for the airport.
“I’ll see you again then,” says Viktor, as I prepare to hit the Arctic road. “You’ll be back, I’m sure.”
I shrug, noncommittally. It is only when we are far away from Teriberka, with the lights of Murmansk already in view, that I begin to suspect he may well be right.
“It gets to you,” says Sergei, the middle-aged taxi driver who is taking me back to the city, as if reading my thoughts. “The north, I mean.” We drive faster through the fading twilight, racing the darkness down these snow-crusted roads.
A few hours later, I am flying above the clouds on my way back to Moscow, when I discover I am grinning like an idiot. I’m confused. What is the source of this sudden joy? And then I spy the sun through the plane window. Its rays penetrate the aircraft, bathing us in its energy.
I look around: my fellow sun-deprived passengers are also smiling. We are all off our faces on a solar high. As the old Roy Ayers funk classic has it: “Everybody loves the sunshine.” I can almost hear the track’s mellow keyboard riff floating through the aircraft.
Then, as suddenly as it began, the show is over. The sun slides behind a cloud. The woman next to me sighs, and reaches up to turn on the reading lamp. But I’m not worried. I know I’ll be seeing the sun again, very soon. My life depends on it, after all.