Last November, I sailed far above the Arctic Circle to Kirkenes, Norway, then continued overland across the border to Russia. My destination was Nikel, a town of around 16,000 people that time seems to have forgotten. Nikel dates back to the mid-twentieth century when the Soviets decided to exploit the region’s rich deposits of nickel, giving the town its name. Ever since then, giant smelters have been at work, creating a livelihood for the local inhabitants but also creating environmental disaster. People told me I was lucky to visit Nikel in winter, when snow covered the ground and masked the devastated landscape. My first impression was of a quintessential Soviet town, with a looming statue of Lenin commanding the main square, directly in front of the Palace of Culture.
As soon as I entered the palace, I felt the clash of old and new. The past was spread out before me in the form of a lavish buffet that welcomed the members of our delegation from the Nordic Council of Ministers. There on the table were delicacies from the Soviet past: pashtet (pâté), smoked salmon, and tiny shrimp. But there were also heaping pyramids of fresh clementines, fruits that could only have been dreamed of in a small provincial town during Soviet days. Large electric kettles supplied hot water for tea, and the bright red cups stacked next to them offered a decorative touch. Unfortunately, these imported plastic soft-drink cups were intended for cola or iced tea, and as soon as they came into contact with the boiling water, they began to melt.
After sitting through several conference presentations, I needed a break, so I ventured out into the town. Things had definitely changed since Soviet times: there were no lines in any of the stores, and the shelves were full of goods. Even so, self-service had not yet made its way this far north. The old system of purchase was still in place everywhere I went. I first had to place my order with a girl behind the counter, then bring my chit to the cashier, then return to the counter to receive my goods.
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Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
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