Like most Canadians, I have only heard of the Arctic and never visited, despite a big chunk of it being in our national territory. I once got as far as Dawson, but that’s still well south of the circle’s current marker of 66°33′46.5”.

I’ve heard stories, of course, largely relating to why you don’t want to go there. It’s freezing; it’s dark all winter; it’s expensive. While global warming has pushed the temperature up well past what it should be, it’s still frigid. Maybe in December the stars are out all day, but for now, the sun skirts the horizon from about 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., casting a daylong dusk on the region.

And it’s only expensive in the Western hemisphere because it’s so inaccessible. Not so in Russia.

Exactly 100 years ago, during the First World War, the Russians decided to build a great city in the north, an ice-free port on the Arctic Ocean, something enemies would look upon in envy. They connected it to the rest of Russia—and by extension the rest of Europe and Asia—by railway.

Today, amid the atomic icebreakers, the Soviet regalia, the loud and cranking machinery of the port and the three feet of snow, the Russians have created a beautiful, liveable city of 300,000 in the most inhospitable of climes. In this city, Murmansk, touching the Arctic Ocean (the third of four oceans we’ve reached without planes), we ate deer burgers in a fancy bistro and watched the final of KGV, a sketch-comedy show, in a microbrewery. Everything is well lit, cheerful without being annoying and warm on the inside.

Our first stop in Russia was Moscow, a 60-hour train ride from our last stop in Kazakhstan. Moscow is the great centre of Russia, the place where political dreams became nightmares, what great tides of invaders—Mongol, Tatar, French, German—came to destroy, but couldn’t.

I was as shocked as any good humanitarian to see Stalin’s gravestone in the Kremlin covered in flowers and bowed before by penitents. Didn’t this filthy bastard kill 40 million people? But some people don’t see it that way. It reminded me of the endless arguments South Koreans would employ when justifying their dictatorial past: “You wiped out your native peoples and developed on the backs of slaves when that kind of thing was liberally cheered,” they’d argue. “We do it and you’re down our throats with self-righteous indignation.”

st basils cathedral russia

Moscow’s famous, one-of-a-kind St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Paeans to Stalin notwithstanding, Russia’s famous hospitality has been forthcoming. Visiting in November helps, since everyone wonders what the hell we’re doing here outside of summer.

What we’re here to do is have a good time. Moscow is up there with New York when it comes to constant bustle and movement, and there’s always something going on. You can spend a week and not make it to every museum. But the ones you do see can be deeply moving, like the Jewish Museum or the Museum of Contemporary History; exciting, like the Moscow Museum of Modern Art; or absurd, like the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, where your admission includes 15 Soviet kopek coins so you can curse at the most poorly made video, pinball and table-hockey games the ’80s could muster. I mean, can a bastard get Donkey Kong in here? If that’s what the kids had to do in the ’80s, no wonder they found time to overthrow the system.

soviet arcade museum

Mario Comrades: The Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines.

There are also box offices on every second corner selling tickets to everything—unfortunately it’s usually sold out weeks in advance. But we did manage to get tickets for the Mariinsky Opera in St. Petersburg, the newer of Russia’s major two cities; more European, classier, warmer, smaller and duller.

But the Mariinsky Theatre is like an explosion of every bit of Russian architecture ever conceived of, piled on top of itself, a great domed cathedral to the arts. We got 700-ruble (CAD$14), third-balcony tickets to Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa.

isaacs cathedral petersburg

Inside St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

The opera was wonderful and suitably Russian. Set in the early 18th century, an elderly Ukrainian hetman—a military man—seduces the young daughter of his friend and they elope together to Kiev. The rest is an exquisitely sung savagery of revenge, torture, killing, war, insanity and the rest of what makes a civilized evening out in Europe. I recommend the Ararat cognac for intermissions.

Speaking of booze, we were outraged to discover that hard liquor is now banned on Russian trains. I don’t know when it happened, but it was sometime after all my friends had visited and told me about their great vodka-fuelled adventures on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

sunrise murmansk russia

Sunrise at 11:30 a.m. in Murmansk, Russia.

If you’re lucky, the provodnitsas that maintain each cabin will surreptitiously sell you a bottle of vodka wrapped in black plastic bags, shoved into your hands like it’s a half kilo of heroin rather than a half litre of Russian Standard. Then you take care not to flash it around, stashing it under your bunk or table. Drinking from opaque tea cups is the best option.

But sometimes they have nothing, and you’re stuck with the (legal, lesser) beer. When I feigned innocence and asked the provodnitsa on the way to Murmansk if she had any vodka, it was answered with a firm, “Vodka, nyet!”

Fine then. Part of travel is breaking stereotypes.

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