Murmansk region nuclear submarine fleet and wrecks

  - darkometer rating:  10 -

A truly scary place in the extreme north-west of Russia – almost inaccessible for tourists. It's scary due to the fact that various naval bases and shipyards along the fjord in the Murmansk region, served or still serve as the main port for nuclear submarines and icebreakers, many of which are now abandoned and rusting away. These and the spent nuclear fuels storage, esp. on board rusting support vessels, are potential time bombs.   
What there is to see: You're not supposed to see anything! The naval bases and spent fuel storage facilities are naturally out of bounds to tourists. Also you should not point your cameras at anything of this nature. The Russian approach is basically to ignore the existence of those sites and suppress any attempts by nosy foreigners at finding out about them. But they cannot stop you seeing the sites from the sea when sailing out of the harbour. This is currently the only way to catch a glimpse of these strange and scary sites as a non-Russian civilian.
But why would anyone sail out of Murmansk harbour as a tourist? Well, the atomic icebreaker fleet also offers what must be one of the most exotic (and expensive) cruises on offer on the planet: going directly to the North Pole. The heaviest icebreakers can these days get to the exact spot of the North Pole without much difficulty. It is reckoned that in a few years' time it may even be free of ice in the summer (cue: climate change) … though for the time being, a heavy icebreaker is still needed to navigate there. In fact the very heaviest and strongest nuclear icebreaker is currently used for such tourist trips to the North Pole. This ultimately exotic cruise on Earth's northern hemisphere is possibly only second to some extreme expeditions in Antarctica's ice. As you would expect, such a trip to the North Pole is crazily expensive: between 24,000 and 35,000 USD (plus flights!). In that context, seeing some of the dark bits in the form of the fjord's more visible naval bases would only be a tiny (free) bonus at the beginning and end of the cruise.
The only more affordable way of at least going out into Murmansk's Kola Bay and past the naval shipyards would be on a small cruise boat just up the fjord. But that may not be easy to organize as a foreigner (if you can read Russian, you could try – apparently you can hire the boat, with crew, by the hour or half/full day). In any case, getting anywhere near the wrecks or active submarine bases is not advisable in any case, as it would attract the attention of the Navy – and you wouldn't want to be arrested and interrogated by Russian security guards, would you?
Obviously, you can't see radioactivity, but the sight of old submarines moored or rusting away in the desolate bays off the Kola bay/fjord must be a pretty gloomy sight as such. But just drifting up the fjord you wouldn't be able to see much of this sort. Only if you use satellite images (on google etc.) can you make out the more secluded places where subs are simply left in shallow bays, as well as various moorings and repair shipyards that are still active. The main such nuclear submarine base is located near the closed city of Polyarny, in a western arm of the fjord north of Murmansk. The spent fuel storage facilities are set well back from the fjord and will not be visible to uninvited eyes at all (which is probably a good thing too!).

Location: north of the city of Murmansk in the extreme north-west of Russia, close to Norway, on the Kola Bay fjord about 20 miles (30 km) from the Barents Sea – it's Arctic!
Google maps locator:[69.1,33.4]
Access and costs: getting to see the submarine graveyard and other naval sites may not even be possible, but getting to Murmansk itself is surprisingly easy: there are direct trains from Moscow (36 hours) or St Petersburg. Flights too. Even overland bus connections – including ones from Kirkenes just accross the border in Norway. Murmansk is not a touristy city by any stretch of the imagination, but there are facilities like hotels and restaurants. Some knowledge of Russian is helpful, to say the least. It also has a few points of interest for the dark tourist of its own.
Time required: Theoretically it shouldn't take long to cast a glance at the submarine graveyard, but getting to anywhere where that view can be had is another story. If you can organize a boat cruise for this you may be lucky. Better allocate a few days … Going on one of those super-expensive North Pole cruises from Murmansk takes about two weeks – plus travel to/from Murmansk.
Combinations with other dark destinations: As a kind of stand-in for an actual icebreaker cruise, you could visit one that has been turned into a museum: namely the very first nuclear icebreaker, the "Lenin", now permanently moored in the regular harbour close to the centre of Murmansk. The city also has few other dark attractions such as a memorial to perished submariners that incorporates a piece of the ill-fated nuclear submarine "Kursk"! There are several WWII memorials too, including the gigantic Alyosha statue of a soldier on a hill above the harbour.
One tour operator in Murmansk (NMSTour) also mentions visits to the naval base town of Severomorsk, north of Murmansk, but whether access is indeed possible for foreigners could not yet be determined (officially it has the status of a "closed town").
A bit further afield 120 miles (190 km) north-west of Murmansk, a few miles off the Norwegian border en route to Kirkenes, is Nikel, a mining town whose Norilsk Nickel smelter plant has turned the surrounding landscape into a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland due to extreme pollution.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Adventure and/or extreme landscape tourism, basically, including 4x4 treks over the Kola peninsula tundra, salmon fishing, skiing and the like. No mainstream tourism.

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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