The 50 Years of Victory breaking ice

In the second of our series of blogs from glacioligist Colin Souness, Colin reaches Murmansk and boards his ship ready to head north. 

Well, here is where it all begins for the season!

Yesterday afternoon our group arrived in Murmansk in the Russian Federation and boarded the atomic icebreaker, the 50 Years of Victory, en masse; twelve staff and one hundred and twenty passengers. We’d mustered in Helsinki, Finland before travelling together on a charter flight to Murmansk Airport, which lies perched up in the hills above the city, high in the rolling taiga forests of Russia’s northern Kola Peninsula.

And now… Here we are, cruising northwards through the Barents Sea at a speed of eighteen knots in sunshine and spray, powered forwards by three massive screws driven by the gradual decay of radioactive uranium fuel locked away deep inside the ship. It’s a cool feeling. But, we haven’t reached the ice yet. That should come tomorrow, for this is a heavy ice year, according to the satellite charts, and we’re starting off earlier in the summer than is usual. So, things should get interesting very soon! For now though, the freshest memories of the season thus far are still of the ‘adventure’ of arrival, customs and our eventual departure late yesterday night (actually, very early this morning). So, I’d like to start my diaries from the ship by talking a little about our port of departure, the city where we’ll be having all of our pitstops over the next five weeks or so:

Murmansk.

Murmansk is actually a very young conurbation, founded in 1916 and only really developing to city-like proportions in the last eighty years with the development of Russia’s northern fishing industry and the rapid expansion of the former Soviet Navy during the twentieth century. Today her population tallies in at just a little over 300,000 but is gradually falling. In the late 1980s nigh-on 500,000 people lived and worked in Murmansk, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s and the subsequent reduction of the military presence up here people gradually began to leave, and it shows. But still, Murmansk is still very much a major city. In fact, from a global perspective, it is the largest populated settlement north of the Arctic Circle! She may be a little lacking in ‘classical’ architecture but Murmansk is still soaked in history and culture, albeit perhaps in the form of overwhelming post-soviet ‘Russianness’, which I love. Even within Russia, there’s nowhere quite like Murmansk. Throughout the city whole tenement facades of ten stories or more are bedecked with communist era murals depicting one national achievement or another, or simply honouring the city and her working people. It’s beautiful, and pays tribute to an outpost with a heritage quite unlike almost anywhere else. The people here are tough.

They’ve had to be. Murmansk was a fighting city; in fact it is one of the former Soviet Union’s twelve honoured ‘hero cities’, all of which achieved this title as a reward for outstanding heroism during World War 2, or The Great Patriotic War as it’s called in Russia. Generally, ‘outstanding heroism’ in Russia, especially during that period, is a metaphor for extreme suffering and incalculable loss. To be fair, it’s hardly surprising that Murmansk looks the way it does given that almost the entire city was levelled during the Second World War, requiring it to be re-built almost from scratch after the end of hostilities. Of all the Soviet cities of the time, it’s said that only Stalingrad was subjected to heavier bombardment than Murmansk. Up here at the northern edge of Russia’s Arctic lands things have always been tough, especially in times of war.

Anyway, I first came to Murmansk, as a tourist, in 2008. On that visit I spent four days in the city enjoying the midnight sun, smoked fish, Russian beer and mosquitoes. Or was it perhaps the mosquitoes that enjoyed me?

Hmmmm… These days I don’t get the chance to stop unfortunately, for when we arrive with our international group our feet barely touch the ground between first having our passports stamped in the airport and later having them taken off us aboard the ship. It’s a strange experience really, arriving in Murmansk with an agenda like ours, for we move straight from customs onto the waiting coaches and are then driven almost directly to the vessel. And as for the customs procedures themselves; every year these become slightly more problematic which, I suppose, is hardly surprising given what seems to be a steady ‘complexification’ in relations between the Russian Federation and the west. And so, the cubic, concrete, Khrushchev era tenements of the city whip past us as we’re speedily ushered to the port (this year via Murmansk’s new city bypass!) and within perhaps only about forty five minutes we found ourselves rounding a low, sparsely vegetated hill to see the black and orange bulk of ‘the 50 Years of Victory’ sitting alongside the quay, waiting, like some kind of sleeping dragon. Somehow, knowing that in her heart a nuclear reactor is fizzing away, this ship seems somehow more ‘alive’ than others, just as a nuclear power station seems somehow more immediate or sinister a presence when you pass it than any other kind of power plant might. I suppose it’s like the difference between a sleeping tabby cat and a sleeping tiger; you’d likely barely see the former, but you’d sure as hell notice the latter!

As we approach the harbour we’re told that all cameras are to be kept in their bags, for the ship is housed at Murmansk’s ‘Atomflot’ atomic shipyards. It’s a somewhat dilapidated looking, but nonetheless very high security, facility. And so, everything and everyone is conducted with due severity. No-one is allowed off the busses until we’ve passed through the perimeter protocols (i.e. checking our passports and simply making sure that everyone’s on the list), and upon leaving the busses everybody, both passengers and staff, are ushered straight onto the waiting ship. And that’s it. No-one will leave the vessel now for eleven days, after which almost the exact reverse will happen as most pax leave Russia immediately and in exactly the way they came in. Well, all the passengers will anyway. I’m here for three voyages, over a month in total.

After something in the region of only thirty minutes the ship started to make preparations to sail, for every minute counts when your aim is to make it through hundreds of miles of thick sea ice and reach the North Pole on a timetable! Even leaving the harbourside is a bit of an undertaking for a vessel our size though, and requires the efforts of several much smaller but impressively endowed tug boats. These tugs literally pull us off the dock and out into the dirty looking waters of the Kola Inlet. Then, with one tug to the port side of our bow and the other to the starboard side of our stern, they shunt into us with their tyre clad snouts and spin us around to face north. Only then do we engage our own engines, churning the waters aft-ward as three colossal screws (each more than twelve feet in diameter) twist the water away to our stern. It all feels very ‘salty’, especially as the whole process is conducted to the sounds of the Russian National Anthem which is blared over loudspeakers from somewhere amongst the buildings of the Atomflot facility. This is traditional for all naval or state-run ships leaving harbour here and the music, despite poor amplification, adds a very strong flavour of the surreal to the experience of departing. I always feel like perhaps I’m getting a whiff of what it must have been like to sail from Murmansk as a Russian sailor during less peaceable times. Unfortunately though, this was all a little anti-climactic yesterday, for immediately after being so ceremoniously dragged from our moorings the ship dropped her anchor. Customs had decided that they would board us and conduct another thorough face check of everyone aboard. And so, for the next few hours we sat, peacefully tethered to the seabed of the Kola inlet, enjoying the view as the midnight sun crept from behind the low clouds and painted the industrial cityscape of Murmansk in the most spectacular shades of orange. I’ve genuinely never seen the place looking so beautiful. Even the rusted hulks of the surrounding ships became beautiful as every colour came alive under the tenuous glow of the northern sun. It was beautiful, and in all honesty, after seeing that I didn’t mind another uniformed interview in broken Russian.

Being rushed through Murmansk always feels a bit surreal. It’s a strange way to pass through a unique city; one which I like to remind passengers that they’re actually quite lucky to see, especially in the way in which we do, en route to a nuclear vessel! Not so long ago Murmansk was the primary harbour for the former Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet, and the staging ground for all naval operations into the Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean. Anyone who’s seen the film ‘The Hunt for Red October’ (a cracking Sean Connery number!) will know what I mean. In many ways Murmansk was, from a western (Atlantic) perspective, the military hub of the Cold War, for it would be from here that those silent and sinister missile submarines would have sailed, carrying their payloads west. Murmansk is somewhere that non-Russians simply never went before the Soviet Union collapsed. Even today, just six miles up the road from Murmansk lies the ‘closed city’ of Severomorsk where the now reduced Northern Fleet still operates from. This is a city that you need special permission to visit, for alongside the general utility vessels you might expect to see tied up anywhere with a harbour lie nuclear submarines, frigates and battleships. Last year in fact, we cruised straight past the Russian Navy’s flagship, the nuclear aircraft carrier ‘Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznitsov’, as well as an Alpha class submarine lifted out in its drydock and looking for all the world like a sperm whale on the ‘plan’ of a blubber works. I almost feel like some kind of Cold War spy just telling you about it! Very cool. This is a part of the world still soaked in mystery and I feel all of us aboard should feel lucky, regardless of politics or nationality, to see it. It fires my imagination anyway.

To be honest it still sometimes surprises me that we’re even permitted to use this ship for tourism purposes. The 50 Years of Victory is an Arktika class nuclear ice breaker, the first of which class (The ‘Arktika’) came into service with the Soviet fleet in 1977. These vessels were, and remain, the largest and most powerful icebreakers in the world, and the 50 Years of Victory is the most modern of the line. In fact, just before coming here from Helsinki only a few days ago I wandered into town and spotted four of Finland’s icebreakers alongside their dedicated harbour facilities just outside the city centre. Amongst them were the Voima, the Urho, the Sisu and the Kontio. They’re impressive looking ships, and none of them small. But, compared the Arkitka class Russian breakers… Well, they look almost cute.

The largest of Finland’s breakers, the Nordica, measures 116m in length.

That’s a big ship! But, the 50 years of Victory crashes in at a muscular 160m, displacing 25,840 metric tons. And she’s only one amongst several!

Also alongside at Atomflot were the Yamal and the Sovietsky Soyuz. These are both also Arktika class ships. And there were a few other breakers of different designs as well, all of them nuclear. No other country operates nuclear ice breakers. In this, Russia is alone, meaning that she is the only country capable of operating ships in the Arctic almost continuously, regardless of season and without need to refuel. The 50 Years of Victory only needs a fresh dose of uranium every twelve years. That’s some pretty good mileage!

So, although we may be using it for tourism, the Victory is NOT a tourist ship. She spends nine or ten months of the year operating in the capacity for which she was designed: breaking ice commercially and keeping shipping and supply lanes open around the northern coast of Russia and further afield into the high Arctic Ocean. She is one of only a handful of ships on the planet (including the other Arktika class breakers) that can reliably reach the geographic North Pole on a schedule, even in winter! Only a few years ago she did this in the middle of the winter season, with Russian president Vladimir Putin aboard, on a ceremonial mission to mark the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics. For this isn’t just a commercial breaker for hire, In modern Russia she is a political flagship as well. And that, I think, is probably one of the main reasons why we are allowed the privilege (especially as non-Russians) to work aboard her in the way we do.

Who owns the Arctic? Who owns the North Pole? And, perhaps more importantly, who owns the resources buried beneath the seabed of the Arctic Ocean, sitting down there beneath around 4000m of frigid sea water. They say possession makes up nine tenths of the law. But, unless you have the means to get somewhere, and get back again, it’s hard to take possession. Russia posess the most capable ice breakers of any Arctic nation. They also have a lot of them, and have plans to build more. By ferrying more than 500 tourists from Murmansk to the North Pole every year (using only one ship) they demonstrate this to the world. Even in times of tension between Russia and the west these voyages continue to take place and citizens of any country are conducted through the security of Russia’s northern atomic shipyards, past the naval base at Severomorsk and straight into the Arctic sea ice. It seems in many ways an odd thing to do, especially given Russia’s reputation for secrecy. But, these voyages make a very audible statemement.

Every passenger is shown just how at home Russia’s technology makes them in the high Arctic. Access to the North Pole? No problem. Any time! Every passenger sees this for themselves, and then every one of their friends whom they return home to and share their story with will hear that if you want to get up there into the pack ice, speak to the Russians. A swift Google search for ‘North Pole ship’ will immediately show pictures of Russian ice breakers, including the 50 Years of Victory. So, it seems likely to me that these voyages to 90 degrees north are more than just a money spinner. It’s doubtless a profitable venture with ticket prices in the tens of thousands of dollars, but the political value could prove to be of even more worth in the long-run.

Anyway, that’s it for now. We’re powering our way into the Barents Sea now.

It’s early in the season and the ice is still quite far south, so we may find ourselves breaking the white stuff before hitting our pillows tonight even! Tomorrow we should pass into the island group of Franz Josef Land. And then… Then it’s over the continental shelf, into deep water and into thick ice.

The Arctic Ocean is an amazing place.

You’ll hear from me soon.

Cheers.

Colin