Travel

White nights and northern lights in Russia

Traditional wooden houses have ornately decorated window frames and symbolic carvings.
Darra Goldstein for The Boston Globe
Traditional wooden houses have ornately decorated window frames and symbolic carvings.

Ever since the Russian winter defeated Napoleon, the cold season tends to scare visitors off. But for me, both summer and winter have their charms, especially in the extremes of the Russian North, where the white nights give way to the wintertime luster of snow and northern lights.

What better place to begin the adventure than Arkhangelsk, the White Sea city where Russia first opened up to the West? In 1553 Richard Chancellor set sail from England, hoping to find a northeast passage to China. He anchored at a small salt-works near the mouth of the Dvina River. Within two years the English had incorporated a trading company that bestowed on the Russians an enduring love of lemons, pepper, and especially the ginger, cloves, and cardamom that flavor the ornamental gingerbread Arkhangelsk is still famous for. The city soon became a vibrant merchant town, though its heyday lasted only half a century. After Peter the Great established St. Petersburg in 1703, Arkhangelsk fell into decline, its port no match for the ice-free Baltic. Today, it’s a charming city, with a beautiful waterfront promenade and a profusion of old wooden houses, the crumbling structures even more picturesque than those that have been restored. Just outside the city limits is Malye Korely, one of Europe’s largest open-air museums, where you can explore the intricacies of wooden architecture from small villages throughout the Russian North. The city’s Northern Maritime Museum is also fascinating, with its excellent installations from Arctic expeditions and artifacts from the famous convoys that carried crucial supplies to Russia during World War II.

Darra Goldstein for The Boston Globe
Oksana Arzhanova enjoys the season’s first cloudberry in the tundra of the Kola Peninsula.

Despite the region’s harsh climate, its flora is astonishingly diverse. The English naturalist John Tradescant, whose collection forms the basis of Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum, rapturously described the plants he encountered on his 1618 journey to Arkhangelsk. His journals tell of magnificent cloudberries, lingonberries, cranberries, blueberries, bilberries, bird cherries, and red, white and black currants, their luscious flavor a gift of the long white nights. Today these berries are tucked into open-faced pies, steeped in vodka, whipped into milkshakes, and boiled with sugar or honey into jam. Foraging for berries, and for equally abundant mushrooms, remains a national pastime, and ecotourism in nearby places like Golubino — next to the extraordinary Pinega Caves — is rapidly taking hold.

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From Arkhangelsk it’s an easy 45-minute flight to the Solovetsky Islands, or Solovki, as they’re colloquially called. Here nature is pristine, and the isolation profound. Huge granite boulders rise starkly out of the sea, trees are stooped from the wind, and mysterious stone labyrinths dot the shores. The majestic 15th-century Solovetsky Monastery, now a World Heritage site, became Russia’s second wealthiest religious community thanks to its lucrative salt-works. Today, young artisans are reviving the art of salt production, and sometimes flavoring the mineral-rich White Sea salt with seaweed, tansy, or reindeer lichen. Solovki is most famous for its fat herrings, which were sent to the czar’s tables. You can enjoy them either fried or poached, with cloudberry-infused vodka to wash them down, at the modest Kaiut-Kompaniya Café run by Svetlana Mashkova, who makes sure the island is provisioned year-round — no small feat given that the sea freezes for a long eight months.

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The islands’ beauty and isolation, coupled with the monastery’s holiness, have made it a mythical place. Yet Solovki is also a place of deep sorrow. Ivan the Terrible exiled misbehaving priests to these islands, and Peter the Great imprisoned criminals in its damp dungeons. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks used the once-sacred site to perfect the system of labor camps that grew into the Gulag. The great scholar Dmitri Likhachev, imprisoned there in the 1920s, considered Solovki an otherworldly place, one that lies between heaven and earth, with its endless summer horizons yielding to winter’s oppressive fog, relieved only by the majesty of the northern lights. Today, the monastery once again houses monks and welcomes thousands of austerely dressed pilgrims. My own pilgrimage was to the memorial museum to the victims of the Gulag, which stands not inside but beyond the monastery walls, its exile a symbol of ongoing political struggles with the Russian Orthodox Church.

With or without a stop in Solovki, Murmansk is not to be missed. Founded in 1916 to receive Allied supplies during World War I (the Gulf Stream keeps its water from freezing), the city is new by any standard. Murmansk has more than one reason to be in the Guinness Book of World Records: it’s the last city established under the Russian Empire, the largest city above the Arctic Circle, and home to the largest nuclear icebreaker fleet in the world. The world’s northernmost trolley system runs through the city, powered by rattling Soviet-era buses equipped with faster Wi-Fi than we have in much of New England. Murmansk is also an epicenter of New Russian cuisine, boasting two of the country’s most talented chefs. Sergei Balakshin at Tundra and Svetlana Kozeiko at Tsarskaya Okhota transform local produce into spectacular dishes like scallops presented in their shells on a bed of seaweed, or shaved frozen reindeer with lingonberry sauce.

From Murmansk, it’s worth driving a couple of hours to Teriberka, on the Barents Sea. This derelict fishing village was the setting for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Golden Globe-winning film “Leviathan,” its natural beauty offering a counterpoint to the film’s depiction of brutal corruption in post-Soviet life. Three years ago a group of young entrepreneurs responded by launching an annual festival called “Teriberka: New Life” that focuses on ecotourism and food, especially the sweet sea urchins and enormous mussels harvested from the Barents Sea. The village is now experiencing a revival, with an eco-hotel in the works.

Speaking of festivals, if you’re intrepid enough to visit Murmansk in winter, consider hopping on a bus to attend the Barents Spectacle, held every February in Kirkenes, Norway, just four hours away. Intended to bridge national divides, the festival celebrates the arts, culture, and food of this extreme region, where summer days never end and winter skies are naturally adorned with swirls of lavender and green.

Mackerel smoked with alderwood at a market in Murmansk.
Darra Goldstein for The Boston Globe
Mackerel smoked with alderwood at a market in Murmansk.

Darra Goldstein can be reached at dgoldste@williams.edu.