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William Oscar Johnson
April 29, 1985
On a journey to Murmansk—a Soviet port that lies well north of the Arctic Circle—for a ski race, the author encounters racing reindeer, skating skiers, weatherproof walrus and mind-numbing Northern Lights
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April 29, 1985

Trip To The Edge Of The World

On a journey to Murmansk—a Soviet port that lies well north of the Arctic Circle—for a ski race, the author encounters racing reindeer, skating skiers, weatherproof walrus and mind-numbing Northern Lights

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March 21: Moscow is sunny when we arrive late in the afternoon. Dark water stands everywhere and shrinking banks of snow are crusted and sooty. Obviously, the Russian spring has sprung here in the capital. But that doesn't interest us much because we are bound for icier, more exotic climes far to the north. We are going to Murmansk. Yes, Murmansk. Not Minsk, not Pinsk, but Murmansk, a city of 400,000 that lies 1,000 miles north of Moscow, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 1,400 miles south of the North Pole.

Murmansk is the Soviet Union's northernmost port. It sits on the Kola Gulf, a 31-mile finger of water that opens on the Arctic Ocean. In one of nature's major anomalies, this subpolar water never completely freezes, because it is constantly warmed by the Gulf Stream, that weird, warm current that runs through the Atlantic Ocean north from Florida to waters off Scandinavia and the Soviet Union. Until the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 soured things, Murmansk's "sister city" was, believe it or not, Jacksonville, Fla., because it lies at the southern end of the Gulf Stream.

Why are we going to Murmansk? Well, for 50 years the city has held an annual Festival of the North at the end of March, a gala week to celebrate the end of another endless winter. This festival includes such native events as reindeer racing and toasts to spring, drunk with a brutal cocktail called Northern Lights, which is made of Russian champagne and Russian vodka. A favorite saying in Murmansk during the Festival of the North is, "Help me, comrade, the Northern Lights have left the sky and entered my head and will not go away." All this is a mere sidelight to the Murmansk Marathon. This is a citizens' cross-country ski race over a 58-kilometer course near the town. Last year about 6,000 racers reportedly turned up for it. That made the Murmansk Marathon one of the dozen largest of its kind in the world. Now I am going to race in it.

By coincidence, another major, perhaps volcanic, change has just occurred in the Kremlin, the vigorous Mikhail Gorbachev, 54, having replaced Konstantin Chernenko, 74, who died on March 10. It is a particularly fascinating time to travel here, perchance to talk with cross-country skiers and drinkers of Northern Lights about change and Gorbachev and the future of the world.

I am traveling with photographer Jerry Cooke. It is my third visit to the Soviet Union; the others occurred in 1974 and 1977. Cooke was born in Russia 62 years ago. He left as an infant in his mother's arms, but has returned for professional assignments 18 times in the last 28 years. He is fluent in Russian and is relentless in his curiosity about exactly what makes the Russian character tick. He tells a baffling "joke" that he believes to be meaningful in revealing the Russian mind: "Two men are standing on the platform at a Moscow railroad station, waiting for the train that goes first to Minsk and then to Pinsk. One says to the other, 'Are you going to Minsk or Pinsk?' The other man thinks for a long time, then says, 'Minsk.' The first man thinks for a long time, too, then says, 'Yes, I know that you are going to Minsk because if you were going to Pinsk, you would have said Pinsk to make me think you were going to Minsk.' "

Perhaps this says as much about Cooke's mind as it does about the average Russian's. But it also echoes the substance of Winston Churchill's famous definition of Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

After Cooke and I check into the Kosmos Hotel in Moscow, we go to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Cooke orders a bottle of vodka with our meal. The waiter brings it and leans over to speak confidentially in Cooke's ear. Cooke reports: "He congratulates us on being sophisticated because we ordered a whole bottle instead of one small glass, as most of the ignorant tourists do."

We ask the waiter what he thinks of changes at the Kremlin. He replies, "Where are you going from here?"

"Murmansk to ski," says Cooke.

The waiter pauses to see if we are joking, then says, "Yes, I believe you. Any foreigner who would order a full bottle of vodka might also have a reason to go to Murmansk to ski."

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