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Sightseeing in downtown Murmansk

Teenagers jiving with hand-wired boom boxes, wearing Chicago Bulls T-shirts. Some riding homemade skateboards. A guy sleeping in a tent, protesting a variety of inequities posted on a sign outside his door. Black-marketeers hawking their wares, mainly vodka and caviar.

Black marketeers? This is downtown Murmansk, a place with the largest concentration of human life (about 440,000 people) north of the Arctic Circle.

I'm one of those people who has never harbored an intense yearning to visit Russia. It always seemed too far away, too big and too hard to enter and leave. But recent political events had piqued an interest. And while visiting northern Norway, I heard of a tour company running high-speed boats over the Barents Sea from Vadso, Norway, to Murmansk.

You can do it in a day, a 16-hour day. It's not overly expensive. Three meals and luxury transportation over the lead-colored sea, next to the defiant northern edge of Europe. Why not?

Yet, when I walked off the plushly appointed jet catamaran on the Murmansk dock, I wasn't sure I'd made a wise decision: A long line stretched through customs. The yard was filled with broken ships, half-floating dry docks and grotesque cranes, all coated in brown rust. A gigantic nuclear-powered factory ship listed across from us. Even on a warm and sunny Arctic day, it was a depressing sight.

But while in line I met an interesting fellow. He was Norwegian, from Tromso. He carried two large suitcases. "You must be planning a stay?" I inquired.

"Oh no, they are empty," he replied. "I've come up to pick up my girlfriend for a "holiday' in Norway and she has no suitcases."

The customs procedure is simple enough. The officers take your passport and give you a brown Russian passport that has the rules for visiting the country: on buying and selling imported products, currency exchange (no black market dealing), etc. You get your own passport back when you leave. The Norwegian saw me glancing at these rules and shook his finger, "Don't pay any attention to that; nobody follows those rules anymore."

He moved into the crowd to his girlfriend, who jumped into his arms. I went off on one of the buses arranged by the tour company to the Murmansk city museum, for some background material on the place.

The tour company arranges a set itinerary for tourists. But if you don't want to go on this tour, you only need to be back at the boat at 7 p.m. I noticed that many of the Norwegian people went off on their own. They had come to buy items on the black market, particularly vodka. Or to hang out in bars and do some cheap drinking (a beer is normally $6 in Norway; it is 30 cents here: A bottle of vodka can be as cheap as 20 cents on the street).

At the museum, I met a person who provided the substance of the visit: Irena, one of the museum directors. She would be my guide through the museum, and she would be a personal guide because I was the only English speaker on the trip and she was the only person in the museum who spoke English. The regular guides lead only German, French and Norwegian speakers.

"You are only the fifth English speaker to visit the museum this year," Irena told me. So I learned the history of Murmansk and the Kola Peninsula. I learned that the people here have a solidarity with the Finns and neighboring Norwegians because of a long history of trading and because they all share the struggle against the harsh Arctic climate. There is hope that the trading activities that were cut off by the Communists will now be restarted.

And, of course, the cooperation in World War II is something still dear to the Russians. The Russians liberated Norway from the Germans and fought a great battle against the German army one valley to the west. Murmansk was the entry port for much of the allies' military aid to Russia. Enormous convoys sailed to the city and ferocious sea battles were fought against German submarine wolf packs and battleships off the Norwegian coast.

After the museum, we strolled down Avenue Lenin to the Arctika Hotel for lunch. This is Murmansk's showplace. It stands overlooking Constitution Square, now re-named Five Roads, as it was before communism. "All the old names are coming back and the Communist names are being changed," Irena explained, referring to the dusty patch of land.

"If you look at the hotel, you notice the third-floor windows are all frosted; they are not (guest) rooms. They were the headquarters of the KGB."

She went on to say that nobody pays any attention to government authority now. This seemed obvious, for there was a bustling black market being conducted on the hotel's steps.

Over lunch I heard the long complaint about how ineffectual the Communist government had been. "It promised to send money and people to help us," Irena said. "But it never happened. People are still living in crumbling apartments built by Khrushchev that were supposed to be temporary, until better housing could be built. Right now our biggest problem is the lack of good housing, and organized crime, of course."

Incidentally, the meal of vegetable soup, boiled fish and cake wasn't bad.

Before we went out on the square again, Irena provided some guidelines for the black market hustlers awaiting:

"The only things you shouldn't buy are military uniforms. It's illegal but, more important, the military doesn't really like this. But the uniforms are very popular with tourists."

Sure enough, Navy uniforms were offered to me. But the big-selling items were vodka, caviar and balalaikas. I bought a jar of caviar, paying with Norwegian kroner and receiving nearly worthless Russian rubles in change. I didn't mind; I wanted them as souvenirs. "Technically, it's illegal to take rubles out of Russia," Irena said. "But it's no big problem _ just show them at customs."

During the afternoon, other visitors mounted buses with German, Norwegian or French flags for a tour of the city and surroundings. I could have gone on the French bus with a French-speaking guide, but it seemed more interesting to stay with Irena.

We strolled the streets between the dreary buildings and talked. She thought the future of Russia looked grim. "You know all the clever people were killed by Stalin. We have no good leaders to lift us out of this mess." I assured her that our Western leaders weren't particularly clever either, a notion that seemed to surprise her.

We looked into grocery and department stores. The stories you hear in America about low quantity and poor quality of Russian products certainly hold true in Murmansk. "You know, I can only wash my clothes three or four times before they start falling apart," Irena complained. But she was smartly dressed, and it made you aware of the effort it took for her to be so.

At the end, we went to the harbor and looked at the nuclear ice breakers. There sat the Lenin, the first of their fleet _ big, rusty, dangerous looking. "They keep the Arctic water open to shipping all winter. It's about the only thing the government can do right," she laughed.

I must admit that I wasn't unhappy when the time came to reboard the catamaran for Norway. It was certainly the brightest spot in this city of poor people, rusting boats and deteriorating high-rise apartments.

Jeff Frees is a freelance writer living in Colorado Springs, Colo.

If you go

Booking the boat: The boat trips are run by Finnmark Fylkesrederi & Ruteselskap, N-9600 Hammerfest, phone 47.84-1165. The season is from June 15 to Aug. 31. The boat leaves daily, except Sunday, from Kirkenes. On Saturday the boat originates from Vadso and stops at Kirkenes on the way. You must book two weeks in advance. The cost is about $120.

Getting there: Wideroe Airlines has daily flights to both Kirkenes and Vadso from Oslo. Perhaps the most pleasant way to get here is by the famed coastal steamer, which calls on Kirkenes each day, completing the seven-day trip north from Bergen.

Staying there: In Vadso the SAS Hotel, phone 085-51681, is an agreeable place. A double room is about $135. In Kirkenes the best hotel is the Rica Arctic Hotel, phone 085-92929. A double room is about $120.