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On a journey to Murmansk—a Soviet port that lies well north of the Arctic Circle—for a ski race, the author encounters racing reindeer, skating skiers, weatherproof walrus and mind-numbing Northern Lights

March 21: Moscow is sunny when we arrive late in the afternoon. Dark water stands everywhere and shrinking banks of snow are crusted and sooty. Obviously, the Russian spring has sprung here in the capital. But that doesn't interest us much because we are bound for icier, more exotic climes far to the north. We are going to Murmansk. Yes, Murmansk. Not Minsk, not Pinsk, but Murmansk, a city of 400,000 that lies 1,000 miles north of Moscow, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 1,400 miles south of the North Pole.

Murmansk is the Soviet Union's northernmost port. It sits on the Kola Gulf, a 31-mile finger of water that opens on the Arctic Ocean. In one of nature's major anomalies, this subpolar water never completely freezes, because it is constantly warmed by the Gulf Stream, that weird, warm current that runs through the Atlantic Ocean north from Florida to waters off Scandinavia and the Soviet Union. Until the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 soured things, Murmansk's "sister city" was, believe it or not, Jacksonville, Fla., because it lies at the southern end of the Gulf Stream.

Why are we going to Murmansk? Well, for 50 years the city has held an annual Festival of the North at the end of March, a gala week to celebrate the end of another endless winter. This festival includes such native events as reindeer racing and toasts to spring, drunk with a brutal cocktail called Northern Lights, which is made of Russian champagne and Russian vodka. A favorite saying in Murmansk during the Festival of the North is, "Help me, comrade, the Northern Lights have left the sky and entered my head and will not go away." All this is a mere sidelight to the Murmansk Marathon. This is a citizens' cross-country ski race over a 58-kilometer course near the town. Last year about 6,000 racers reportedly turned up for it. That made the Murmansk Marathon one of the dozen largest of its kind in the world. Now I am going to race in it.

By coincidence, another major, perhaps volcanic, change has just occurred in the Kremlin, the vigorous Mikhail Gorbachev, 54, having replaced Konstantin Chernenko, 74, who died on March 10. It is a particularly fascinating time to travel here, perchance to talk with cross-country skiers and drinkers of Northern Lights about change and Gorbachev and the future of the world.

I am traveling with photographer Jerry Cooke. It is my third visit to the Soviet Union; the others occurred in 1974 and 1977. Cooke was born in Russia 62 years ago. He left as an infant in his mother's arms, but has returned for professional assignments 18 times in the last 28 years. He is fluent in Russian and is relentless in his curiosity about exactly what makes the Russian character tick. He tells a baffling "joke" that he believes to be meaningful in revealing the Russian mind: "Two men are standing on the platform at a Moscow railroad station, waiting for the train that goes first to Minsk and then to Pinsk. One says to the other, 'Are you going to Minsk or Pinsk?' The other man thinks for a long time, then says, 'Minsk.' The first man thinks for a long time, too, then says, 'Yes, I know that you are going to Minsk because if you were going to Pinsk, you would have said Pinsk to make me think you were going to Minsk.' "

Perhaps this says as much about Cooke's mind as it does about the average Russian's. But it also echoes the substance of Winston Churchill's famous definition of Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

After Cooke and I check into the Kosmos Hotel in Moscow, we go to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Cooke orders a bottle of vodka with our meal. The waiter brings it and leans over to speak confidentially in Cooke's ear. Cooke reports: "He congratulates us on being sophisticated because we ordered a whole bottle instead of one small glass, as most of the ignorant tourists do."

We ask the waiter what he thinks of changes at the Kremlin. He replies, "Where are you going from here?"

"Murmansk to ski," says Cooke.

The waiter pauses to see if we are joking, then says, "Yes, I believe you. Any foreigner who would order a full bottle of vodka might also have a reason to go to Murmansk to ski."

March 22: Our traveling companions include two men who are named Jim but are otherwise in no way alike. Jim Killmer, 29, from Champlin, Minn., is a curly-haired, broad-shouldered construction worker and hard-core long-distance cross-country ski addict. He has run in Norway's Birkebeiner and Sweden's Vasaloppet, among other races. The other Jim is J.O. Wells, 57, a small, wiry, wide-smiling lawyer from the Indiana farm town of Rochester. Wells has skied in some U.S. citizens' races, but he has never done so in Europe before. As gifts for the many Russians he expects to befriend, he has brought a large supply of Boy Scout patches.

Then there is Tony Clark, 40, an Englishman who was raised in Bordeaux and has lived in New England since 1968. He was at the Murmansk Marathon last year. That was only his first visit to the U.S.S.R., but from it Clark may have gleaned an insight into Russian character every bit as revealing as Cooke's Minsk-Pinsk story. I first heard this tale about the 1984 Murmansk Marathon one night last fall while Clark was entertaining a tableful of guests at his inn in Vermont.

The 6,000-odd participants had gathered for the start in a kind of natural amphitheater on the edge of town. As always in these races, there was a thin rank of elite racers at the front of the mob, national teams and ex-Olympians from the U.S.S.R., Norway, Finland, Sweden, etc. Scandinavians are infamous for jumping the gun, sometimes by as much as a quarter hour. Ordinarily they get away with it simply because it is such an ungodly problem to stop thousands of eager skiers once they have begun to move.

This was not the case in Murmansk. The Scandinavians did indeed leap off the line before the gun sounded. They sprinted furiously for about 80 yards, took a sharp right turn up a hill and found themselves confronted by a small wooden gate, which had been closed and was guarded by race officials and some grim members of the Soviet military. "Nyet!" they shouted. "Nyet!" The woman on the public-address system began ranting in several languages: "Get back! No start! Go back!"

This was easier said than done. Behind the guilty start-busters, the innocent masses had begun to surge forward. Soon the entire six acres of skiers were slowly gaining momentum, flowing with the inexorable force of a flatland avalanche. The men at the front had stopped, but the multitudes behind had not. They kept moving until all the skiers became a solid mass pressed as tightly together as 6,000 sardines canned upright.

The Marx Brothers could not have made it more comic. As Clark told it, "Russian rules are not made to be broken, so everyone was ordered to get back again behind the starting line. But think about what that meant. Here you had 6,000 people with skis on their feet, all pushed together, back to front. You see, there was no way to turn our skis around; and we were too pressed together to bend over and remove our skis. What did we do? We backed up. We backed up all the way to where we had begun. It took 45 minutes to get everyone behind the line again. What a marvelous joke the whole thing was."

Marvelous indeed. And could such a hilarious thing happen again this year? "Well, why not?" says Luba Reznik, our official guide from Intourist, the amazingly efficient Soviet agency that handles every detail of every foreign tourist's visit to the Soviet Union. Luba is a prize. She has a dazzling smile and twinkling blue eyes in a sweet, high-boned Slavic face. She is short and a little bit thick, but as light on her feet—and in her heart—as any sugarplum fairy. I ask her how she handles mean-minded Western tourists who insist on taunting her about the evil empire she lives in. She laughs and says, "I ask them to dance."

March 23: We board the Arktika Express just after midnight for the next leg of our journey to Murmansk. The train is a surprise. The compartments are clean, even homey, with potted plants hanging at each door and a pile of starched sheets on the berths. A short, brisk woman named Vera is in charge. She keeps the car warm by feeding coal into a stove near her tiny compartment. She also has a samovar and makes tea for passengers. She is efficient and has a ready smile full of precious metals.

Our first destination is a small city called Petrozavodsk, a 16-hour, 652-mile trip. Located on Lake Onega, it was created by Peter the Great in 1703 when he built a foundry to make cannon for the war Russia was then fighting with Sweden. The name of the city means Peter's Factory. A full thaw seems in progress when we arrive. Spring has sprung in Peter's Factory, too. We want to do some skiing—but where? Lake Onega, it turns out, is still frozen and has plenty of snow on it. We go down the hill to the lake, put on our skis and head toward the other shore, perhaps four miles away. It is at this point that I discover I have been bypassed in the sport of cross-country skiing. I am from Minnesota, where the land is flat, and for me, cross-country skiing has always meant leisurely long strides, a simple matter of stepping and gliding over the snow.

Imagine my surprise when I see the younger Jim hit the snow on the lake with a series of power-packed skating strokes. In a matter of minutes he is far ahead. From behind he looks like a fleeing speed skater. He uses his poles in a double-pushing action that adds even more momentum to his strokes. As I watch young Jim shrinking in the distance, I assume that this is a man-killing technique reserved for superstar world champions and powerful young construction workers.

Then Clark goes past me using the same skating strokes. Then Wells does, too, shouting, "Only tried this a couple of times before. Works pretty good."

What's going on? Later, I ask Clark, and he says, "I can't think of any sport that has been so totally changed in such a short time. I can't wait to find out how the Russians react to it. I understand they would like to see it outlawed in competition—mainly because they are no good at it yet."

In the evening we dine in the hotel nightclub and are bowled over by a floor show that features a troupe of chorus girls who appear dressed as every chorus-line cliché you can imagine—geisha, flappers, Carmen Miranda look-alikes, Siamese dancers. Does this go on every night in Peter's Factory? Luba says no. This is a traveling show that will play for three weeks—a total sellout every night. The crowd scarcely applauds during the show, but afterward the dance floor is packed with writhing young people.

March 24: Still at Petrozavodsk, we meet a few local athletes and coaches. Clark asks them what they think of the new skating technique. A coach frowns, pulls his lip and mutters that knee injuries and spinal deformations could result.

Late in the afternoon, we return to the lake. We ski out to a cluster of fishermen crouched on the ice. Each of them stares into his little hole in the ice with the single-minded concentration of a chess master. Cooke asks an old man what technique he uses to catch fish. The man explains that he drops a little corn mash down the hole when he arrives in the morning. This, he says, attracts fish to the area and they then begin to bite on the hook he has baited with bread. "This is American corn," says the old man. "But our fish seem to like it."

The fish they are after is named yelyet. It is a little larger than a sardine. None of the fishermen seems to agree on exactly what makes the yelyet bite. One says he uses bacon fat on his hook. Another says raw potato. A third says he uses something that Cooke can only translate as "embryo of mosquito." We ask why they are all gathered together fishing in the same place. The old man pipes up loudly, "It is because everything is collective here. No individual does anything alone." He laughs, then he seems to become agitated. "Hey, what are you no-goodniks doing out here on your big-shot skis anyway? Idle rich Americans, are you? And why is Reagan so mad at us? We lost 15,000 people every 24-hour day during the war. Twenty million dead! We saved the world from the Nazi slime. Now Reagan wants to get us from space, too. What's wrong with him?"

Another fisherman says, "I always liked Roosevelt. He was the only real democratic President you ever had." He yanks a wiggling fish out of his hole and says, "We shouldn't be talking about war, we should be talking about fish."

The old man nods. He is calm now. "Yes, we should be thinking about fish. If you make the world safe and peaceful for fish, men will be all right, too."

March 25: We are at the Petrozavodsk railroad station, ready to board the train for the last 16 hours to Murmansk. We hang around the station waiting room, which is packed with people. We are obviously foreigners, wearing Gore-Tex jackets and Nike sneakers. No one stares at us. No one shows the slightest sign of curiosity. The other travelers seem dour and resigned. That, of course, is the prevailing attitude in waiting rooms the world around. But here there is something more permanent—even indelible—about it.

The train arrives, and there are a couple of Soviet skiers on it. One says this is his sixth Murmansk Marathon. He is eager to talk. We ask him about changes in the Kremlin. He shrugs. "What can change? Gorbachev cannot do things the Politburo doesn't like. He is young, they are old, but nothing will be different." We ask if Gorbachev is a skier. He says, "Who knows? We don't have this kind of information about leaders. Do leaders ever ski?" We say that Pope John Paul II skis, but the young man shakes his head and says, "No, you are wrong about that. A pope does not ski."

The train speeds through the night, past a blur of cold Russian towns—Uda, Kem, Poliarnye Zori, Apatity, Olen'ya....

March 26: We cross the Arctic Circle about 3 a.m.; dawn breaks a little after five. We arrive in Murmansk at 10:20. Eighty years ago, the story goes, there was nothing here except a single but owned by a Lapp named Simeon, a tough old hermit who ate only fish and lived to be 103. In 1915 Czar Nicholas II ordered a seaport built here; Russia's ports in the south were closed because of World War I. The new town was named Romanov-na-Murmane, after the Czar's family. That lasted only until the Revolution began in 1917.

The Communists enlarged the port and changed the town's name to Murmansk. This comes from a Lapp word that means "edge of the world." Because the city has no history before the Revolution, it stands as a pure example of modern Soviet architecture. Many downtown buildings have been painted pastel colors in a pathetic effort to cheer the place up. Dozens of large apartment buildings, grim as penitentiary cell blocks, are everywhere on the hills above the harbor. Their leaden presence only adds to the cold emptiness of the tundra.

Cooke sums up Murmansk after a tour of the city: "This makes Petrozavodsk look like Florence."

March 27: We go to the "stadium" where the Murmansk Marathon will be held. It is an open meadow surrounded by low hills. On the trails beyond, we pass low trees and all kinds of high technology scattered about the tundra—a power station, a huge dish pointing at space, various mysterious antennas. There are young Soviet skiers all over the place. Not one is doing anything but the most furious skating on his skis. Clark says in awe, "Not a single skier I saw here last year was skating. Now they're doing it like they invented it."

"Well, of course we invented it," says the lovely Luba with a sunny smile, "just as we also invented the Gulf Stream in order to keep our port useful in winter."

Apropos of that, I ask her if she knows exactly what the scientific explanation is for he Gulf Stream. She nods briskly. "Of course I know, but I cannot tell you because it is deep Russian secret."

March 28: Simon, the local Intourist man, a pleasant, smiling fellow with a lifelong case of five o'clock shadow, takes us on a tour of Murmansk. He tells us that there are 52 days in November, December and January in which there is either no sunshine at all or only a glimmer at midday. He says schoolchildren have daily sunlamp treatments during this period.

It is cold and misting, but we go to visit one of the Soviet Union's most famous war monuments. It is a 125-foot statue of a Soviet soldier that stands on the highest hill in the region. The memorial is dedicated to the thousands of Russians who died defending Murmansk against the Germans. The critical battles took place about 30 miles away in a region known during the fighting as the Valley of Death. After three years, the Germans were beaten and the place was renamed the Valley of Glory.

We go to the harbor to visit a Soviet fishing trawler. The captain tells us that his ship both catches fish and processes them. The ship works mainly in the Pacific Ocean off South America. Every five months the trawler is taken to a port in Peru where it is overhauled. The captain says his fishing crew consists of 92-83 men and nine women. There is a group of French tourists with us on the ship and one of them asks if the women must be overhauled in Peru, too, after spending so many months at sea with so many men. This is not considered a funny remark by the captain.

We are told that we are welcome to take any literature we like from a small rack in the crew's recreation area. We take copies of a booklet entitled Who Is Undermining the Olympic Spirit? It is a vituperative defense of the Soviets' decision to boycott the 1984 Olympics. It depicts Los Angeles as a crime-crazed jungle and says that every third woman in L.A. must be ready from the age of 14 to be "raped at least once in her life." It also says that the city is "terrorized by armed bandit gangs who have divided the Olympic city into fiefdoms." What this stuff is doing on a fishing trawler in Murmansk, I cannot say.

March 29: We see a statue of two polar bears on a busy street, and Luba explains jovially, "Everyone in Moscow thinks there are polar bears always walking in the streets of Murmansk. This was put here to make those dreams come true."

The marathon is two days away. Cooke, Clark and I attend a meeting of various festival committees. The chairman of the reindeer races says that two racing groups from Lapp collective communities north of Murmansk are already in town, but that reindeer from another collective are having trouble getting here. He says it would put a serious crimp in the racing card if the third group doesn't turn up, but he is confident that it will, sooner or later. The chairman of the marathon itself says that 10,000 skiers are expected, although only 693 have actually registered.

I ski about six miles with Clark and try some skating. I have hopes I can master his graceful but grueling technique—someday. For this race, however, I plan to remain loyal to the Minnesota trudge.

March 30: The reindeer arrive from the missing collective, and the races go on around a vast frozen marsh surrounded by apartment buildings. Each team and driver races around the mile-long track twice against the clock. The reindeer churn up chunks of snow that spatter over the cursing driver, who, in turn, mercilessly prods his steeds with a long pole. After the prescribed two laps, the reindeer look exhausted and depressed.

There is no betting. The prizes are cheap medals. I ask a sleigh driver if the racing reindeer are specially bred for the sport, and he replies, "No, they are animals who are our friends and fellow workers, although we will probably eat them eventually."

We are taken to a small pond not far from the war monument and are introduced to some morzhi, which means walrus. They prove to be a close-knit group of workers whose favorite pastime is jumping into the pond through a hole in the ice. They do it every workday at 6 a.m. and every weekend day at high noon. On weekends they draw a small group of spectators. I ask one of the morzhi what he thinks of changes in the Kremlin and he replies, "Nothing matters as much to us as keeping the ice from covering up the water of this pond."

March 31: The big day, the big race. It is sunny, not very cold at all. The race is to start at 10 a.m., and we arrive in our In-tourist bus at the stadium about 9:15. There are hundreds of soldiers and uniformed cadets from Murmansk's merchant marine academy milling about, but there are very few skiers.

I have thought I might try the full two-loop course—35.6 miles. Now, as J.O. and I register with officials, they ask how old we are and how far we intend to ski. We tell them, and they say, "Nyet." No one over 45 is allowed to go around twice. We are "veterans," and "national policy" doesn't allow codgers like us to do more than a single 17.8-mile loop. I don't argue about this, but J.O. does a little. Nyet, nyet, nyet. This is a rule, no exceptions. Nyet.

The crowd grows. It's only 10 minutes to race time, but I figure there are maybe 3,500 or 4,000 skiers in the meadow, tops. The announcer, however, reports that there are more than 10,000.

Minutes crawl by. The highly charged front ranks of elite racers look ready to break. The memory of last year's start is fresh in everyone's mind. The man on the public-address system speaks to the eager elite in a voice as soothing as a psychotherapist's: "Easy there, fellows. Calm down now. Come on, No. 124, relax. Don't step on the start line yet, comrades. Cool down there, No. 459...."

It is about two minutes to 10. The time has not yet come, but someone lunges over the starting line. The front ranks spring forward as one man. The crowd behind charges, too. But there has been no gun. The start is false. Is it Marx Brothers time in Murmansk?

An official is ordering the gate closed, blocking the course. The skiers at the front are skating fiercely up the hill. They see the shut gate, they hesitate, they slow down. The crowd behind begins to bunch up. But then the course director flings up his arm, shouts a command, and—can it really be?—the gate is removed! The race is on! Russian rules have actually been bypassed, broken.

This may have momentous meaning—the signal that speaks volumes about change in the Kremlin, the key to the future. I stop dead in my tracks and write in my notebook: Gorbachev's Gate? Open Doors at the Kremlin? The throng passing by jostles my arm, skis over my skis, bumps into my back. But the note has been taken. A labored symbol maybe, but what the hell. When you're dealing in enigmas, you take what you can get.

I begin to ski. I am really deep in the crowd now. The flying leaders have long since disappeared. I don't care. Around me are dozens of giggling, struggling Russians. Many have wooden skis that won't grip the snow going uphill. Some appear to be using sawed-off broomsticks for poles. Metal teeth gleam everywhere in the radiant sun. There are no furious skating strokes here, no power pole-punching. Believe it or not, I am about the best cross-country skier in sight.

However, it turns out that all of these good people at the rear are doing only a supershort version of the marathon—a leisurely five-kilometer loop. They all turn off from the major marathon track. I am the only one who continues on. I had expected to be surrounded by people, but I am alone. Behind and ahead as far as I can see, there is no one. I keep going, but I am troubled. At last I hear the sound of sliding skis behind me. A Russian catches me, begins to pass without a word. I ask anxiously, "Marathon? Marathon?" He barks "Da!" and I feel better. I have no further human contact for another hour. At that point the front-runners begin to flash past me, one after another, grim as running wolves. They are on their second loop, bound for the finish.

I continue on through sweet Russian sunshine and immaculate snow. My thoughts are pleasant, wandering through recent memories: Minsk and Pinsk, Vera of the Arktika Express, the Valley of Glory, the Gulf Stream, Gorbachev's Gate....

I reach a feeding station—called a "filling station" by Luba. Pretty girls stuff me with sausages, lingonberry juice, sweet tea and lemon wedges coated thick with sugar. Refreshed, I charge on, thinking of riddles and enigmas.

At last I am in the stadium, making one final circle to the finish. A handful of people remain. Cooke, Clark, the Jims and Luba cheer as I cross the line. I raise my poles in weary triumph.

Later, I learn that I am 213th among the 215 who skied just one loop of the marathon. My time is four hours, 20 minutes, 18 seconds, and that is a very long time to ski 17.8 miles. The winner of the whole shebang is one Andrei Sergeev, who dashed the full 35.6 miles in two hours, 40 minutes, 56 seconds. He came in exactly two minutes before his nearest competitor. This is impressive. Best of all, it turns out that the new champion is—dare I believe it?—from Minsk!

That night, we toast everything we can think of with glasses of Northern Lights—the race, peace, friendship, Minnesota, Indiana, skiing, skating, spring, winter—everything. At last Cooke says he'd like to toast the winner of the race. He pauses, then says, "Here's to him. He may say he's from Minsk, but personally, I'm betting on Pinsk."



The 32-hour run from Moscow lo Murmansk on the Arktika Express was made easier by the ministrations of Vera (below), ever ready al the samovar.



Though these reindeer obviously lapped up their wintry surroundings, the "morzhi," or walrus (below), were critters who also liked the snow and ice.



The skyline of Petrozavodsk is a bleak backdrop for fishermen crouching on frozen Lake Onega.



Though the yelyet is a Russian fish, it is strangely attracted to American corn mash.



An old man talked of making the world safe for both fish and men.



"Everyone in Moscow thinks there are polar hears in the streets of Murmansk," said Luba. There are.



Most skied just for the fun of it; a few of the zealous racers jumped the gun and, surprisingly, got away with it.



A "filling station" attendant served up tea.



Watching a ski marathon may seem a tedious task to some, but it mesmerized these Murmanskers.



The winner, a skier from Minsk, headed for the finish to the sound of muffled applause from Luba.