The Skolkovo of the North
Published: September 28, 2011 (Issue # 1676)
ALEXANDRA ODYNOVA / SPT
A statue of a man riding a fish pays tribute to a fairy tale written by Arkhangelsk’s native son Stepan Pisakhov, a 20th-century writer and artist.
ARKHANGELSK — With a name that means “Archangel” in English, the Arctic city of Arkhangelsk is sometimes dubbed “Russia’s Los Angeles.” But in fact they are poles apart.
The history of one of the most ancient northern Russian cities dates back to 1583, when it was established on the order of Ivan the Terrible to become the first major Russian commercial port. Today, Arkhangelsk is frequently called the “Gateway to the Arctic.”
Nestled among forests, the city has long hosted a great number of timber and pulp-processing enterprises. It also serves as headquarters for companies dealing with oil and diamonds in the region.
But modern Arkhangelsk is turning into a sort of northern Skolkovo focused on the Arctic, the natural resources-rich territory where the Kremlin has been deliberately boosting Russia’s presence. The Kremlin is trying to make Arkhangelsk an Arctic center, and for that reason the city hosts many Arctic-related events, like the Second International Arctic Forum that took place earlier this month and was attended by senior Russian officials and scholars.
Almost a year ago, the government established in Arkhangelsk the Northern Arctic Federal University (narfu.ru), one of eight universities formed to cover all regions from the Far North to the Far East as part of President Dmitry Medvedev’s bid to modernize the economy.
The university’s “key aim [is] to protect Russia’s geopolitical interests in the Arctic,” said its rector, Yelena Kudryashova.
Alexei Kudrin, who resigned this week as Russia’s Finance Minister, has chaired meetings of the university’s board, becoming a frequent visitor to Arkhangelsk. Kudrin himself is a native of the city.
To protect Russia’s Arctic interests, the government has sunk 777.7 million rubles ($27.8 million) into the university during the past year. Uniting several local colleges, the university boasts the modern labs and technical equipment needed to study the Arctic and train specialists, although its leaders concede that not much has been achieved on the practical side yet.
When visited by a reporter in the summer, the city was swamped with posters reading: “Mikhail Lomonosov — the greatest innovator of Russia,” in a nod to the 300th anniversary of the birth in November of the world-famous Russian polymath and scientist who, among many things, discovered that Venus has an atmosphere. The slogan is a clear answer to President Dmitry Medvedev’s call for modernization.
There was no Skolkovo and no Medvedev in the times of Lomonosov, who was born to a peasant family near Arkhangelsk, so he had to travel to Moscow with a fishery caravan to get an education. Centuries on, his name has turned into a brand in his birthplace, where even a local potato carries the name “Mikhailo Lomonosov.”
The city itself is located 760 kilometers north of St. Petersburg and only 40 kilometers from the White Sea. The city covers 60 kilometers from one end to the other and contains numerous islands, not always connected with bridges, so people use boats to get around.
Unlike many other Russian cities, Arkhangelsk has no ancient Orthodox churches. “About 30 churches were blown up when the Bolsheviks came to power,” said Nina Tuchnolobova, an employee at the Stepan Pisakhov Museum. That was the price that the city paid for keeping its religious name.
Instead, there is a number of original wooden houses, often dilapidated, in the historic city center referred to as “Gorod.” They might disappear in a few years, however, because the authorities prefer to build new spacious brick apartment blocks instead of reconstructing the old dwellings.
Locals boast that the nationwide problem of racially motivated violence is uncommon in the city because of its historic background as a hub for foreign traders.
But the Kremlin’s policy may be seen as discriminating toward foreigners in the city. Under a January 2011 decree by Medvedev, foreigners are restricted from owning land in regions on Russia’s borders, including in Arkhangelsk because of its close location to Northern Europe.
What to see if you have two hours
If the weather allows, take a walk along the Severnaya Dvina riverbank past a few ancient wooden mansions, a monument to a seal, and Gostiny Dvor, which used to be a shopping arcade in previous centuries. Nearby stands a statue of Peter the Great, which is relatively small compared with the version on the Moscow River. The image of the Arkhangelsk monument decorates the 500-ruble note.
ALEXANDRA ODYNOVA / SPT
One of the 1,500 remaining wooden houses in central Arkhangelsk.
If you have time to go further, stop by the two colorful Orthodox churches facing the river. Next, turn left and walk to the crossing with Ulitsa Chumbarova-Luchinskogo, a cozy pedestrian zone that resembles Moscow’s Arbat. The street still has several picturesque wooden mansions, though sometimes spoiled with distasteful plaques, and two amusing monuments to Stepan Pisakhov, a 20th-century fairy tale writer who set most of his stories — narrated by poor peasant Semyon Malina — in the Arkhangelsk suburb of Uyma. Nearby stands a museum (10 Pomorskaya Ulitsa; +7 8182-20-59-78; arhmuseum.ru) dedicated to him that boasts an original, modern design.
What to do if you have two days
While the city center has little well-preserved wooden architecture, a good collection of Russia’s northern-style buildings is presented at the Maliye Karely Museum (korely.com; the web site does not include contact information but does offer a beautiful photo gallery and a live webcam). But take note: It might take a day or more to take it all in. Located some 25 kilometers from Arkhangelsk, the open-air museum’s 140 hectares resemble an ancient Russian city with some 120 wooden mansions, churches, windmills and barns — all built between the 16th and 20th centuries. The best way to get there is by taxi or bus.
Another remarkable sightseeing destination — also not close to the city center — is the Novodvinskaya Fortress, established back in 1701. The fortress, surrounded by water, is isolated from Arkhangelsk by the river, and it takes a ride by car or bus, followed by a ferry, and then by vehicle again to get there. After being closed to the public for a long time, the fortress today is somewhat abandoned. Once it helped fend off attacks from the Swedes in the 18th century, but now the fortress consists of crumbling ruins and long-docked rotting ships. During the 20th century, the fortress housed a prison for juveniles and a factory, and signs of both are still evident inside its ramshackle buildings. Don’t bother looking for more information on the fortress’s official web site (novodvinka.ru) just yet; a recent visit showed that the site’s owners owed $134 and were in danger of losing the rights to the domain name.
Upon meeting a tourist, Arkhangelsk residents often say: “You might have heard that this is a northern city, but, no, polar bears don’t walk the streets here.” And it’s true. In fact, there are many young people who walk along the pleasant promenade beside the Northern Dvina River, looking at passing ships and beautiful sunsets. June might be the best time for riverside walks because of the famous white nights of Arkhangelsk, praised even by St. Petersburg residents who are no strangers to never-ending evenings.
When whipped by northern winds or hounded by a cloud of mosquitoes, you can check out the local music club Koleso (4/1 Ulitsa Gaidara; +7 8182-20-97-99; arkoleso.ru), known for its live jazz concerts.
The city also has three theaters: The Arkhangelsk Regional Youth Theater (9 Loginova; +7 8182-21-58-88; teatrpanova.ru); the Arkhangelsk Regional Drama Theater (1 Lenin Square; +7 8182-21-56-69; email@example.com); and the Arkhangelsk Regional Puppet Theater (5 Troitsky Prospekt; +7 8182-20-52-40; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Where to eat
Locals view the Stare Mesto beer restaurant (41 Ulitsa Chumbarova-Luchinskogo; +7 8182-28-87-72; staremesto.ru) as the best beer place in the city. Located in the center and just steps from major business and administrative buildings, the place is popular with the city’s elite. The restaurant boasts Czech-brewed beer, original cuisine and perky waitresses in traditional Czech-style dresses. The average bill per person runs from 500 to 800 rubles.
Restaurant Pomorsky (7 Pomorskaya Ulitsa, third floor; +7 8182-20-18-58, gkpolina.ru/business/pomorsky) is a more prestigious and less busy place located in the central business center. Its interior design is reminiscent of a northern seaside village of the early past century and is filled with fishing nets and folk ware. The menu offers a good range of traditional meals, like venison with lingonberry sauce or cloudberries for dessert. Expect to pay 800 to 1,000 rubles for one.
Where to stay
Hotel Pur-Navolok (88/1 Naberezhnaya Severnoi Dviny; +7 8182-21-72-00, alrosa-hotels.ru/hotels/arhangelsk) is located in the city’s historic center and offers a wonderful view of the ship-dotted river. The cost for a room ranges from 2,700 rubles ($95) for a standard single to 8,300 rubles ($293) for a three-room suite.
Business Center Hotel (8 Voskresenskaya Ulitsa, +7 8182-21-01-30), a cozy hotel with 22 rooms located half a kilometer from the city center, includes a restaurant that holds VIP events and counts Britain’s former Consul-General Barbara Hay and State Duma Deputy Lyubov Sliska of United Russia among its pleased visitors. Prices start at $92 a night.
ALEXANDRA ODYNOVA / SPT
A girl going for a swim while waiting for an inner-city ferry to arrive.
Arkhangelsk used to be famous for its fishing industry, and locals these days are eager to complain about its absence. Ask: “Where are the fish?” and locals will reply with a sigh or a sarcastic smile: “In the water.” Among other things that the residents — known as Arkhangelogorodtsy — are eager to discuss are bad roads, which are quite noticeable, and the high cost of living. They are also proud to mention that Kudrin is a native son and that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin did his military service here.
Like in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Arkhangelsk authorities are battling against gypsy cabs, though more successfully. It might be challenging to catch a car on the street, but Arkhangelsk has several taxi companies that deliver cabs within minutes. But don’t let them rip you off: Fixed prices for a round-the-city trip usually range from 70 to 90 rubles ($2.40 to $3.10). While crossing a street, beware that local drivers frequently ignore traffic rules.
How to get there
Several airlines make the one-hour, 30-minute flight daily to Arkhangelsk from St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. A round trip in economy class costs about 10,000 rubles ($315). It’s cheaper to go by train, where a one-way ticket costs from 1,200 to 6,000 rubles ($38 to $190), but note that the trip takes about 26 hours.
Main industry: timber
Mayor: Viktor Pavlenko
Founded in 1584
Interesting fact: Thanks to its unique geographic location, Arkhangelsk has been named the center for Arctic exploration in Russia.
Sister cities: Oulu, Finland; Mulhouse, France; Emden, Germany; Piraeus, Greece; Vardo, Norway; Slupsk, Poland; Kiruna and Ljusland, Sweden; Portland, Oregon; U.S.
ALEXANDRA ODYNOVA / SPT
An abandoned boat decaying near the old Novodvinskaya Fortress.
Helpful contacts: Arkhangelsk Chamber of Trade and Industry chairman Oleg Semkov (+7 8182-20-42-14; tpparh.ru/en/contacts/tpp); Olga Galvas, city hall department for investment and support of entrepreneurs, (5 Lenin Square; +7 8182-60-71-39; email@example.com; arhcity.ru/?page=228/0)
• Titan Group (7 Pomorskaya Ulitsa; +7 8182-46-24-92) includes several companies engaged in timber, tourism, security, bioenergy and real estate.
• Solombalsky Pulp and Paper Mill (4 Kirovskaya Ulitsa;
+7 8182-67-96-79) produces wood-based materials and products exported to Europe.
• Arkhangelsk Sea Commercial Port (52 Troitsky Prospekt;
+7 8182-21-05-80) is a big multipurpose port with open navigation all year long.
Q: What sets Arkhangelsk apart from other northern cities in Russia’s European area?
A: Just imagine: This is a big Russian city, northward of the 61st parallel; a historical, political, economic and military outpost of the country in the Arctic. On the whole, it can be called a sort of mini-region: 60 kilometers in length and comprising three islands. Besides, the city has always been nationally significant historically and geographically.
Q: What positive changes have happened in the city recently?
A: The main achievement of the mayor’s team in 2010 was that we overcame the financial crisis and managed to boost the city budget’s income by 16 percent. We continue to construct public housing. Arkhangelsk is one of the few cities where people (about 4,000 residents) are waiting for new housing because there are more than 1,500 ramshackle wooden houses. Last year, 400 people got new housing.
Q: Why should Russian and foreign businesspeople consider Arkhangelsk attractive for investment? Which city sectors have the most potential?
A: Arkhangelsk is the cultural, educational and engineering capital of the Russian North. We will develop housing, energy and infrastructure.
Arkhangelsk is a gateway to the Arctic — a city able to receive considerable investment. Arctic exploration offers a great potential for the city’s development in terms of new jobs and investment.
Arkhangelsk also has remained an important transportation hub. It plays an important role in President Dmitry Medvedev’s initiatives for Russia to return to the Arctic region, which is strategically important and rich in raw materials.