Amphibious Trilogies

The lap of time

A passages is a process, a negotiation, a transformative activity. Yet it’s also the passing of time. This delta region has a vibrant history as we hope to shortly see in the Arkhangelsk Regional Museum.

Amanda and I walk along the Northern Dvina river, its concrete embankment rising above sandy beaches and the bulge of its course headed by the Historical Museum’s two conical towers. We are yet to enter its thick walls and to learn more of the intricate history of this city up river from the open sea, a delta city of 350 000 today, its airport with daily flights to mostly other major Russian cities and its railway still busy, once a key route to securing the city’s prominence at the western edge of the Northern Sea Route. It is from Arkhangelsk that early 20th century Russian Arctic expeditions set out; the region includes the snowy mountainous and glacial islands of Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya.

To the north east lies the strategic military and naval city of Severodvinsk, home to nuclear submarine testing and repair, one bearing the city’s name. With the population fallen to just below 200 000 since its heyday in the late 1980s, this is a city that requires a special permit for foreigners due to its military focus.

As quietly flows the Northern Dvina through Arkhangelsk, we are reminded that this is a key coastal region in the passage of the Russian Federation’s historical legacies – from Tsarist and Soviet times – but also in its current policy to maintain, develop and connect shipping, services and strategic interests. Search Severodvinsk on Google images and photos of submarines abound! Images of the built city look rather similar to the cityscapes of Archangelsk. These are both cities that were central to Russia’s northern presence and to its maritime shift from timber to nuclear powered tonnage.

The region is also marked by the first of the ‘corrective’ Soviet labour camps, the remote Solovki Prison Camp established in 1923 and operational until 1939 on the Solovetsky Island in the White Sea. Remote from the mainland and centres of slated counter-revolutionary activity, this camp supplanted the earlier Russian Orthodox Solovetsky Monastery, a refuge from earlier persecutions. It also initiated the wider system or gulag or labour camps in Soviet times.

This has long been a region for the testing of human-nature relations, and of human and technological engineering. While it is reputed that many prisoners were executed here, so too were many moved from this camp to forcibly work on the White Sea-Baltic Canal. Opened in 1933 after considerable challenges and loss of life under Stalin, the canal key passage designed to facilitate the movement of goods and troops between the Baltic and Arctic oceans.

We learn too that the region of the Arkhangelsk Oblast – a vast tundra regions of larch, pine and spruce forests, lakes and swamps and wetlands but hillier in the east – has a considerable population totalling around one and a quarter million people (2010 census). In addition to these two cities, further to the south lies Koltas a city of c 60 000 on a river junction.

The evening is quite still. The river makes little noise at this distance. Occasionally, a small boat darts along its wide, soft silken expanse. This is high summer. In winter this will be a rock hard surface. In spring it will be filled with jagged ice breaking up and floating down river, melting.

Gradually, at a similar latitude to Bodø in Norway, the sun begins to drop towards the horizon. Water, low silhouettes of buildings and one of the harbours to the north, cranes immobile.

We stand and look. The lap of time at day’s end, nearing summer’s midnight, not dark but a glowing sunset. Sky and land and water. History shimmers. Time lapses, times lapse. The water lapping time below the surface of water and ice.

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