The time capsule was buried in a secluded square in Murmansk in 1967 on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Inside was a message dedicated to the citizens of the Communist future. At short notice, the authorities brought forward the capsule’s exhumation by ten days, to coincide with the city’s 101st birthday. With the stroke of an official’s pen, a mid-century Soviet relic was enlisted to honour one of the last acts of Tsar (now Saint) Nicholas II, who founded my hometown in October 1916. From socialism to monarchism in ten days. Some of the city’s pensioners accused the local government of trying to suppress the sacred memory of the revolution. ‘Our forefathers would be turning in their graves,’ one woman wrote in a letter to the local paper. The time capsule ‘is not some kind of birthday present to the city; it’s a reminder of the centenary of the great October Revolution and its human cost.’
My father had watched the time capsule being buried. He came to Murmansk aged 17. From his remote village, he had dreamed of the sea but he failed the navy’s eye test. In October 1967, he was a second-year student at the Higher Marine Engineering Academy, an elite training school for the Soviet Union’s massive fishing fleet. As a year-round warm water port, Murmansk – the largest human settlement above the Arctic Circle – is a major fishing and shipping hub, home to the world’s only fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers.
The time capsule was put together by the Murmansk cell of the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. On a Saturday afternoon fifty years ago, my father and his classmates put on their dress uniform – peaked caps and double-breasted black jackets with gold buttons – and marched into the city centre. ‘We weren’t told anything,’ he said. ‘And because we were assembled facing the crowd, I didn’t see much.’
The unearthing ceremony in 2017 fell on a Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps a hundred people, most of them elderly, had gathered at the base of the Monument to the Victims of the Intervention – Murmansk was briefly occupied by British troops during the Civil War. The austere Constructivist structure was the city’s first monument, erected on the tenth anniversary of 1917. A few people were holding Soviet flags. A naval band began to play. Beyond a rope cordon, the boulder and its plinth were pulled away to reveal a concrete slab. As this was being winched out, the mayor gave a speech. The crowd turned towards the hole. There was another slab underneath. This too was prised off, revealing a square cavity filled in with cement. ‘The capsule is missing,’ someone said. ‘Somebody must have got there first.’ A few minutes later, a soldier arrived with a metal detector, followed by men with high-vis vests and hammer drills. They began to chip away at the cement.
Progress was slow. With no sign of the capsule, an archived copy of the original text was produced and handed to a retired local actor. ‘Our dear successors, fellow citizens,’ he read out: ‘We are gathered here on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Great October Revolution, at the foot of a sacred place: the Monument to the Victims of the Intervention. Through five subsequent decades, we extend our hand in brotherly greeting from 1967.’ The letter listed the achievements of the preceding generation: ‘In a half-century of Soviet rule, a sleepy, derelict Russian hinterland became a large industrial and cultural centre, a beautiful city of 300,000. In the tundra we built mines and factories, created a mighty fleet, laid roads and learned to grow rich harvests in the thin Arctic soil.’ There was a smattering of applause. ‘We are proud and happy to live in the 20th century, which signalled the start of the transition from capitalism to socialism,’ he read on. ‘We are certain that you, our descendants, will complete the revolutionary transformation of the world.’ Awkward pause. ‘We even confess to being a little envious of you, who will live to see with your own eyes the fruits of our labours. We took the first step into space; you will fly to other planets. Try to remember us, your ancestors, who built your city and gave their lives to building communism. Fiercely love your wonderful motherland! Let the eternal fire of immortal Leninist ideas always burn brightly in your hearts – the fire of revolution sparked in the unforgettable year, 1917.’
There was polite clapping, and a few hurrahs. As the drilling continued, dusk started to fall on the thinning crowd. Finally the slender, foot-long sharp-tipped metallic cylinder was lifted from the rubble. It looked like a relay-race baton. By that point, only a smattering of reporters and die-hard capsule buffs remained. An official announced that it would be opened another day, when more people could witness it. With that, the last of the crowd dispersed.
On a plane a few days later, I sat next to Evgeny, a fiftysomething photojournalist from Chita, near the Manchurian border. I told him about the time capsule. Suddenly, he said: ‘I regret my part in destroying the USSR.’ Had he been on the barricades in 1991? No, he replied. ‘But at some point in the 1980s, I began to take honest photographs. Empty shop counters, that kind of thing. Please understand, I wasn’t trying to exaggerate anything. But even so, had I known what it would all come to, I’d have kept them locked in my drawer.’
I asked Elena Naimushina, chairman of Murmansk’s municipal culture committee, how the city was planning to mark the centenary. ‘Like our president and as members of United Russia, we don’t acknowledge that date,’ she said. ‘There will be individual events, but they will be organised by the Communist Party.’
In the office of Gennady Stepakhno, the Moldovan-born ethnic Ukrainian leader of the Communist Party’s caucus in the Murmansk Duma, visitors are greeted by an enormous oil painting of Marx. A Stalin-themed calendar sits on his secretary’s desk. ‘I want to go back to the USSR,’ a sticker on a nearby wall proclaims.
Stepakhno thought the unveiling of the time capsule a success, despite the date change. It was a ‘true ode to socialism’ – unlike a similar capsule recently dug up in a nearby town. There, the authorities had ‘cleaned up the text ahead of time’. He confirmed that on 7 November, ‘left patriotic groups’ would march through Murmansk town centre, ‘fighting for the return of socialism’, and presented me with a commemorative medal minted for the centenary. It depicted the Aurora, the battleship which fired the first shots at the Winter Palace, under a red banner with the words ‘100 Years’ engraved below it.
Earlier, over tea in Naimushina’s office, I had asked her whether the tsar had ever visited Murmansk – its original name was Romanov-on-Murman. ‘You mean Vladimir Putin?’ she replied instantly and apparently without irony. I wondered if she was trying to catch me out. ‘No, Tsar Nicholas, of course,’ I said. ‘Oh, Romanov? No,’ she said after a pause. ‘But Putin has!’
A week earlier, at a Moscow rally for the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, protesters held up signs saying ‘Down with the Tsar!’ Navalny, the charismatic anti-corruption campaigner, isn’t eligible to take part in next year’s presidential election because of a five-year suspended sentence for embezzlement. Yet, in defiance of what he calls an unconstitutional ban, he kicked off his nationwide election campaign in September, and Murmansk was his first stop. Despite widespread intimidation – including warnings that schoolchildren’s names would be passed to the security services – the organisers claim 3000 people came out in driving rain to hear him speak (the authorities put the figure at fewer than 500).
There were no red banners in Navalny’s largely teenage and twenty-something audience. But if Russia has any revolutionary energy left, it isn’t to be found among Stepakhno’s ‘left patriotic youth’, but here, among Navalny’s supporters. Not that 1917 itself is much of a marker these days: young people are taught next to nothing about the October Revolution, said Violetta Grudina, who heads Navalny’s small but active Murmansk cell. ‘The very word “revolution” has been branded extremist. Better not to talk about it – what if people find out that it’s possible?’ Navalny’s aim isn’t to ‘overthrow anyone’ but rather to ‘make a revolution in people’s heads’. Yet she acknowledges that this is an uphill struggle. ‘People here are afraid of change, because none of the changes so far have done any good.’
In my childhood bedroom, I found a guidebook published in 1989, when Murmansk’s population peaked at 500,000 or so. ‘Day and night, winter and summer,’ the guidebook proclaimed, ‘the lights of the bay never go out. Murmansk’s industrial heart keeps a steady beat.’ The city’s trawler fleet, one chapter boasted, is responsible for a sixth of the USSR’s entire seafood production.
In 1992, halfway into the time capsule’s interment, the lights of the bay began to go out. The infrastructure needed to sustain a global fishing operation – subsidised fish at home, guaranteed markets in the Warsaw Pact countries and a network of supply and refuelling ships roaming the world’s oceans – collapsed when the USSR did. That October, Yeltsin launched the privatisation programme. Within months, state enterprises were broken up and sold for a pittance, either to local gangsters or former Soviet managers known as ‘red directors’ (often one and the same). In the 1990s, the real money came from procuring and trading fishing quotas, often for bribes. Today the Murmansk Trawler Fleet operates a handful of ships from rented offices in its stuccoed former headquarters.
‘Those people who wrote the time capsule letter believed in something – a bright future, positive changes,’ Grudina said. ‘Maybe it’s for the best that hardly anyone was around to hear it read out – it would have been too upsetting. As a society, we have no more ideals, no big idea.’ Yet she is suspicious of the fashion for all things Soviet. ‘To lift our spirits, the government tries to make us proud of things from the past. It’s a pseudo-patriotism. The only things we have left to be proud of are World War Two and Gagarin in space: that is sad.’
Sure enough, that evening our local cinema was showing Salyut-7, a fictionalised account of two cosmonauts’ mission to repair a malfunctioning Soviet space station in 1985. On a Friday night, my parents and I were three of 18 occupying the 700-seat hall. Posters in the lobby advertised three films: Salyut-7, Matilda – whose depiction of Tsar Nicholas’s youthful affair with a ballerina provoked Orthodox vigilantes into torching cinemas – and Crimea, whose tagline reads: ‘Love is stronger than hate.’ I asked the lady selling tickets whether it was a romantic drama. As she began to answer, her colleague interjected: ‘Young man, what are you talking about? It’s about how we took back Crimea!’ The lady smiled, resigned: ‘It’s more of a tragi-comedy.’
Where Murmansk once embodied a grand project – industrial, scientific, cultural and ideological – today it has become, like Crimea, no more than a strategic outpost in Putin’s obsessive game of Risk with the West. The city’s smooth roads, well-tended flower-beds and freshly painted buildings testify to its importance for Moscow, if only as a gateway to the increasingly militarised Arctic. Yet in less than a quarter century, Murmansk has gone from being a net donor to a net recipient of government funds.
There’s a scene in Salyut-7 where Vladimir, the lead cosmonaut, tells his wife about a dream he’s had: his re-entry vehicle crash-lands on a remote island whose inhabitants take him for a deity. He tells the islanders about the stars and the planets, and about his life in the USSR. ‘And what sort of life did you have back in the USSR?’ she asks. ‘A daughter, a wife, football, building communism,’ he replies. For my father, building communism was about ‘striving to be the first, to be the best you can be, whether it’s going into space or bringing home the biggest catch’. Imagine, he told me, ‘what it feels like to earn the right to carry the Trawler Fleet banner in the 7 November parade. To this day, I feel that pride. Maybe for some people, Crimea and Syria have taken its place. But for me, nothing has. Nothing ever could.’