hidden europe 32

Old submarines come home to die: Severodvinsk

by Nicky Gardner


Severodvinsk's most famous export product is nuclear submarines. No other shipyard city in the world has as much experience as Severodvinsk in the design and construction of such vessels. This remote community on the White Sea, even further north than a place called Tundra, reveals a side of Russia not seen by many tourists.

The old checkpoint on the road into Severodvinsk is back in business. “And a good thing too,” says Ludmilla Prusakova, who claims to be distantly related to the Russian widow of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man presumed to be the assassin of John F Kennedy.

“In the days when there was a military checkpoint, we had jobs,” explains Ludmilla. “Then Severodvinsk lost its closed-city status, and unemployment rocketed. Now that we are a closed city again, things may look up.” Ludmilla’s take on economic theory is quirky but has a Russian logic. Closed cities in Russia benefit from a range of tax breaks and federal protection.

Severodvinsk seems like the end of the world. It is certainly the end of the railway line. On alternate days a train arrives from Moscow. It pulls in at 7 pm after a twenty-four-hour journey from the Russian capital. Next morning the train leaves again for the journey south back to civilisation.

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is a good principle when it comes to activities governments don’t want too many folk to know about. Severodvinsk is a city of 180,000 people. “And how that number has fallen,” says Ludmilla, referring to the catastrophic decline in population that Severodvinsk has suffered over the past twenty years. “In 1992, there were a quarter of a million people in this city,” explains Ludmilla. “And yet no one in the West had any idea that Severodvinsk even existed.”

Ludmilla slightly deludes herself over the shortcomings of western cartography, for in truth Severodvinsk features on many old maps, and the intelligence agencies of the USA and other western countries surely took a great deal of interest in what was going on in Severodvinsk.

The city on the White Sea, 450 km east of the Finnish frontier, is a relic of the Soviet Empire. It is a place apart, a city that was created by the Soviet Union and one which has not quite come to terms with the demise of the empire that it once served. Until the mid nineteen-thirties, these lands on the remote shores of the White Sea were populated mainly by fishermen and their families. Then Soviet engineers and planners arrived and a great city devoted to shipbuilding developed in the wilderness. At first it was called Molotovsk, in honour of the Soviet politician and diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov.

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