POLAR YOUTH
Russian Life|March/April 2021
Misha Smirnov has the day off. There are the traditional eggs for breakfast and the usual darkness out the window.
Andrei Borodulin

Now, however, Misha’s black cat Macy is finally darker than the sky: a few days ago, this latitude saw its first sunrise after about two weeks of polar night. By now, the city of Kirovsk is enjoying a couple of hours of sunlight every day, or rather a delightfully prolonged pink sunrise that transitions seamlessly into sunset. On top of that, despite the early hour, the city is bathed in artificial “Northern lights”: the windows of the surrounding five-story buildings sparkle with blue, emerald, and pink strings of light that, in other parts of Russia, only come out for the New Year’s holiday. Polar night forces people to compensate for the lack of light and of chromatic variety.

“There’s not much light, hardly any. I’d been eagerly awaiting the polar sunrise so I could go up the mountain and see at least a sliver of sun again,” Misha looks back on that pre-New Year’s day, December 29, when the heavenly body made its first appearance after half a month.

“The older you get, the harder the Arctic is on your body. I’ve started to have insomnia. I can’t fall asleep even when I’m exhausted,” the 22-year-old laments, polishing off his breakfast.

People who live above the Arctic Circle, especially if they did not grow up there, often complain of fatigue and of having trouble rousing themselves in the morning: out the window, there’s nothing but never-ending night. “The most important thing is to take a lot of vitamins. Fish oil, for example, and vitamin C,” Misha advises. He has lived his entire life in Kirovsk.

Meanwhile, the city doesn’t have much time for yawning and stretching: Macy the cat is watching the yard-keepers clearing the entryways to buildings, which by late winter look like snow tunnels built out of snowdrifts three or four meters high. Car owners patiently work to liberate their vehicles from the snow that took them captive overnight.

Russians are still relative newcomers here, 200 kilometers from the Barents Sea (part of the Arctic Ocean basin): Kirovsk has yet to reach its centennial. Back in 1929, when the first mining settlements were built here, it was given the ancient Saami name of Kukisvumchorr.* Today, statistics tell us that the Saami represent fewer than one percent of the Kola Peninsula’s population.

Reaching toward the still twinkling stars, the Khibiny Mountains tower over the concrete prefab khrushchevki† that house much of Kirovsk. The Khibiny are the highest mountains, not only on the Kola Peninsula, but across a vast stretch of the Arctic Circle’s wooded tundra. Only one slope shows signs of artificial illumination (and only its bottom half): huge snow groomers are clearing trails for the local ski resort. Polar skiing has its enthusiasts, despite the typical 20-below temperatures and periods of nearly perpetual darkness. The skiing season here lasts till late May, and prices for ski passes and rooms are many times lower than in Sochi, or at Russia’s other mountain resorts.

Misha and I head toward the mountains in his Zhiguli. He laughingly mentions that he recently bought the car for 40,000 rubles (a bit over $500). It doesn’t offer much room for skis, even when there are no passengers. Now, there are two, since Misha has invited along his best friend. Vovan (Vladimir, more formally) is a snowboarder and a member of a band called Bita Bandita (the band’s social media page describes it as “street hip-hop from deep in the Khibiny”).

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