Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/22 posted by hidden europe on

Year by year, the population of Obozersky dwindles. Fifty years ago, more than 7000 people lived in this little town in the Russian Arctic. More than half have left. They took the train south and never returned. The cream and brown railway station is spick and span and, along with the Orthodox church, is one of the smartest buildings in town. Railways and religion are the mainstays of rural Russia. The church has a copy of the famous Tikhvin icon of the Virgin and Child. "It is the Tikhvin icon that guards the northern limits of Russia," explains a woman in the church, reflecting the local consensus that Obozersky is at the very end of the world.

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Dear fellow travellers

Year by year, the population of Obozersky dwindles. Fifty years ago, more than 7000 people lived in this little town in the Russian Arctic. More than half have left. They took the train south and never returned. The cream and brown railway station is spick and span and, along with the Orthodox church, is one of the smartest buildings in town. Railways and religion are the mainstays of rural Russia.

The church has a copy of the famous Tikhvin icon of the Virgin and Child. "It is the Tikhvin icon that guards the northern limits of Russia," explains a woman in the church, reflecting the local consensus that Obozersky is at the very end of the world.

Those who tire of life in the north move south or turn to vodka. But Obozersky is not the end of the line. Five times each day a train heads north from Obozersky to Tundra and beyond. Eighty-six kilometres of solitude separate Tundra from Obozersky. Solitude and sedges, mosses and marshy pools. And berries aplenty at this time of year. The train ride to Tundra takes three hours. That is about the period of time that loggers need to fell a few hundred trees in the tropics. It's about the time that a peak-time commute across Los Angeles might take in an oversized, overpowered SUV.

On the train to Tundra, you'll learn a thing or two about environmental change. It's a reminder that humility is the cardinal environmental virtue - a sentiment that lies at the very heart of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a book that was first published fifty years ago this summer. Oleg joins the train when it pauses at a wayside halt on the way to Tundra. He has never heard of Rachel Carson, but he knows how mankind's modern ways are changing life in the Russian north. "The Pomors and the Sami loved this land," says Oleg. "They approached it with respect." This sheer vastness of the Russian North inspires humility.

"We cannot rely on the seasons as once we did," protests Oleg. It is strange to hear folk complaining that the fierce northern winter is no longer as long as once it was. But mobility in the Arctic depends on the security of frozen terrain.

Three times the train stops on the way to Tundra. And thrice we count the blessings of the north in summer. There is an eerie, delicate quality to the light. There are inky pools of blue-black water and there are the telegraph wires that dance across the landscape to infinity.

"There's nothing in Tundra," says Oleg. "Just the station. Last time we stopped there, I noticed someone had stolen the sign with the station name."

That's Tundra, the remote railway station where life has ebbed away. What use is a railway station without a sign? It was a good name, while it lasted. Tundra. A village that took its name from one of the most threatened biomes on the planet.

Even Tundra, so far north as it is, lies well before the end of the line. The train continues beyond Tundra to Severodvinsk, a sprawling industrial town on the shore of the White Sea. It is a graveyard for the worn-out nuclear submarines that once served the Soviet fleet. You really know you've reached the end of the world when you arrive in Severodvinsk.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.