Defender of the Fatherland Day is an important holiday in Russia, commemorating those who have served in the Russian army. In practice, the day is celebrated as “Men’s Day.” Erin, Shayna, Charles, Martin and I decided to celebrate the long weekend by going to Murmansk for an an ice fishing trip. A small city of less than 300,000 residents, Murmansk is home to the northernmost McDonald’s in the world and is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. The city is known as a former military base (it earned the special designation of “Hero City” for its services in World War II) and as a destination to hunt for the northern lights.
While the other three students flew to Murmansk from Saint Petersburg, Erin and I decided to take a 24-hour train ride. Trains are a cheap, convenient, and common way to travel in Russia, serving almost every town and city. Russian trains offer three classes: the first-class wagon, ‘Spalny Vagon’, is the most private and spacious. Every car fits 18 people in 9 compartments, each containing two beds, a side-table extending from the wall between them, and a door. In the second-class wagon, called the ‘Kupé’, every compartment has four beds, stacked like bunkbeds. Erin and I road in ‘Platskart’, the third-class wagon. Platskart is the most communal wagon, with 54 bunks in open compartments. The beds are arranged in bays of four on one side and bays of two along the other wall.
At 9:30pm on Friday night Erin and I shuffled into the crowded platskart with only our backpacks. We found our beds, two top bunks across from one another. The aisles were only wide enough to accommodate one person at a time, and we struggled to make our beds in the limited space. The train took off and the two Russian ladies in the bunks below us offered us tea, chocolate, and place to sit on their bunks. Maya, a kindhearted woman in her 50s, grew up in Moldova before winding up in St. Petersburg. Her 17-year old son lives in Murmansk with her husband. She told us about her family abroad: a daughter living in Germany just had a baby, her mother living in San Francisco, and a brother living in Sacramento whose daughter is a tennis star. She told us about the last American she met on a train; he was a journalist and wrote up an article about her and her family. She was flattered to be featured in the article, even though his depiction of her family played heavily on American stereotypes of Russia.
We ended our conversation after the bright, fluorescent cabin lights dimmed to a soft, warm yellow, indicating time to sleep. The upper bunk was a tight space, with enough room to crawl in and lie down, but not enough to sit up. I slept through the night and spent the next day on the train napping, reading, writing, chatting, and sipping tea.
We arrived in Murmansk after dark. The city was decorated with fairy lights: every storefront was iced with strings of blue, red, white, and green, and near the main drag was a winter wonderland park, complete with an ice slide and building-sized Christmas ornaments made of wire and light.
The next morning, Erin and I made breakfast at the hostel (half-raw oatmeal, cereal, instant coffee, and tea) and waited for Shayna, Martin, and Charles, who were staying at a different hostel across town. The company who arranged the ice-fishing for us picked up our friends first and then drove over to our hostel to pick us up. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at a massive winter sports park. Snow covered hills were dotted with skiers, children played on an outdoor ropes course, reindeer pulled sleds around an ice lake, and the five of us shuffled onto the ice to fish.
Our guide, Vasili, was a young guy from the Urals (a mountain range in central Russia). He chatted with us in English while we were on the ice, telling us about his time in college and what brought him to Murmansk. He explained that he went to one of the best high schools in Russia, a Turkish high school where he studied English for 17 hours a week. He told us that he should have been able to go to a top university in Russia, but because of corruption, he couldn’t afford it. He went to college in Kyrgyzstan instead. Now, he works leading winter tourist excursions in Murmansk and summer excursions in Siberia.
Even though it was a balmy thirty degrees Fahrenheit out (shockingly warm for February in the Arctic Circle), the cold caught up with us after hours on the ice. We filled the time not with successfully catching fish, but with stories and good company. Because it was Charles’s birthday, our guides eventually took pity on us and let us fish from a giant, netted basket in the water where they keep already-captured trout to sell to restaurants. Our guides asked if we wanted to keep the fish or throw them back, and Martin decided we could figure out how to prepare the fish on our own. We took our two small trout from the barrel and headed back to the hostel.
On our way, we stopped at a grocery store and picked up food for the birthday dinner: rice, a lemon, butter, Russian soda, beer, chocolate, and marmalade, a gelatin candy popular in Russia. The five of us crowded into the hostel kitchen and got to work on our trout with a WikiHow article. Erin, Martin, and I descaled, gutted, cleaned, and filleted the fish, and Erin cooked them. We each ate a delicious lemon fish filet with rice and ended the night sipping beer and watching “Hangover 2” in Charles’s and Martin’s room.
We flew back to Saint Petersburg the next morning. My time in Murmansk was short—between the train ride there and flight home, I spent 14 waking hours in the city. We spent those short hours freezing on an ice lake or hanging out in hostels. Still, I’ll always remember my trip for the people I met and the company I shared.
By: Dakota Crookston
Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program (RLASP), St. Petersburg, Russia
Term: Spring 2020