In the middle of a work trip to Russia in January, Jonathan Campion took a long weekend above the Arctic Circle.
A thousand miles from Moscow, a thousand kilometres from St. Petersburg, the Arctic town of Kandalaksha, on the frozen shores of the White Sea in Murmansk oblast’, is one of Russia’s most northerly communities. Founded 500 years ago as a fishing village, but with an aluminium smelter and locomotive depot giving the area an industrial purpose under the Soviet Union, Kandalaksha has been forgotten for the last twenty years. It is now only a dot on the vast Kola Peninsula - a 100,000 square kilometre expanse of pine forest between the White and Barents Seas.
Which isn’t to say that Kandalaksha is decaying. A couple of Russian store chains - Sem’Ya supermarket; Svyaznoy mobile phones - have braved it this far north. There is an inconspicuous shopping mall, an indoor market, street-side kiosks selling hot pirozhki and instant coffee. There is even a sushi bar. All are a short walk from the eerie Hotel Belomorye, the town’s only landmark. The place is pretty: a couple of orange and blue housing blocks liven up the central street, ulitsa Pervomaiskaya, while a wooden church and old wooden cottages rest by the shores of the White Sea.
The people of the Kola Peninsula are typical provincial Russians: superficially harsh with strangers, startlingly warm to friends. Kandalaksha feels safe, but foreign visitors get a paranoid greeting, met outside their train carriages by groups of militsiya, and only let go once they have given up their passports to be scanned, then written the address of every place they have ever worked, studied and lived on a piece of paper.
A few steps from the eerie Belomorye, a wooden bridge over the River Niva leads straight into the pine forest. Red squirrels scamper up the trees. People come to the forest in winter to make the most of the four hours of daylight, and fill their lungs with the taiga’s perfect air. Children turn slopes into toboggan runs; adults explore the forest paths on cross-country skis.
It’s two sleeps back to Moscow. After a weekend in Kandalaksha, they are two deep ones.
Jonathan Campion studied in Yaroslavl and Tver in 2005/06. After working as a translator in Kyiv and London, he now travels to Russia and five other CIS republics as part of his work as a wine & spirits industry analyst. He is a published travel writer and photographer. His website is www.jonathancampion.com, and he tweets @jonathancampion.