Putin’s fortress city fuelling his propaganda machine REVEALED – Welcome to Murmansk | World | News

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Icy view of the insular fortress city of Murmansk (Image: Bogomyako / Alamy Stock Photo)

The majority of Russians have bought into his characterisation of their country as a global target with no choice but to protect itself with massive military investment. And, as their de facto dictator refashions his ­country’s constitution to ensure he never has to retire, nowhere offers a better ­demonstration of the firepower backing him up than Murmansk. 

Tucked away off the Kola fjord are the ­narrow fingers of deep water inlets where Russia’s staggeringly expensive fleet of ­submarines, battle cruisers, fast destroyers and frigates, and missile carriers are based.

Huge national resources have been thrown towards the development of the warships. They are not defensive weapons but, in the event of war, would be used to attack the West, cut its Atlantic resupply routes, and dominate the ocean. 

Protecting the moorings is a new deployment of S-400 ground-to-air missiles designed to shoot down Nato aircraft and missiles long before they can get close to the bases, of which the most sensitive are those housing Russian submarines. 

Murmansk is a garrison city where the need for vigilance against foreign espionage has been constantly rammed down people’s throats. It is also the setting of my new novel, Beyond Recall. 

I needed to visit this fascinating city, gauge its mood and atmosphere, better to understand this remote and paranoid part of Putin’s Russia. To Western eyes, the concept of Nato forces launching a full-scale assault on modern Russia, out of the blue and ­without warning, is simply absurd. 

Russian President Putin

President Putin clearly has no intention of relinquishing power (Image: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

But the diet of propaganda fed by state-controlled media, along with the stream of TV material showing the Russian military preparedness – missiles streaking into the air, massive submarines at sea, and Sukhoi interceptor aircraft criss-crossing the skies – is aimed at convincing a population that the threat marks a real and present danger.

The threat of future war and current spies is the glue that the regime of President Putin uses to hold on to the loyalties of his people. He needs to provide an eternal enemy and the Northern Fleet is the clearest example of the protection of the Motherland that, the drip-fed message goes, is provided by the Kremlin. 

And the danger to us, here in the West, of this incessant military build-up? An ever more pressing need to demonstrate the armed power of the state and continually ratchet up the risk, the threat, the danger. 

It’s the potential for high level mistakes that makes for anxiety. In my fictionalised portrayal of Murmansk, my central character and sometime hero, is an ex-corporal from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, one of the UK’s most elite outfits.

A nuclear-powered submarine

Show of strength: A nuclear-powered submarine (Image: Reuters)

The character is a Syria veteran, expert in lying up in covert sites hour after hour, day after day, watching what is in front of him and all the time in extreme danger if spotted. A PTSD victim, invalided out of the Army, he has seen atrocities that have scarred him for life. 

But he is sent to Murmansk because he alone can do the “eyeball”, positively identify a Russian intelligence officer guilty of a war crime when a village was destroyed and its people massacred. 

Others, later, will provide a dose of rough justice and all my man has to do is make that identification, then hike back to the border and reach safety. 

In London that all seemed possible, but in reality, Murmansk is home to 300,000 people, most working for the government or the military, and the city endures the twin strains of the Arctic winter and the Arctic summer. 

For 40 days and nights the sun never rises over the horizon, and for the same number of days and nights the skies don’t darken. 

Workers are persuaded to stay by inflated wages, but they suffer from heart and lung problems. Mental disorders are commonplace. Both HIV and acute narcotics ­dependency are at the highest levels recorded inside Russia. 

Murmansk war memorial

Murmansk war memorial (Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

By train, 36 hours to the south, is Moscow where the new Russian elite can flaunt their spending power in luxury hotels and glitzy shopping malls. 

The domes of St Petersburg, 29 hours away by train, are coated thickly in gold paint, but the wealth coming to Murmansk is for the hulls of submarines and their engines and torpedoes and cruise missiles, not for the families living here. 

No cranes rise over the city. There is no building boom here. The great majority of people live inside the concrete walls of the five-storey apartment blocks built in the Khrushchev days, and the nine-storey blocks from Brezhnev’s time. There is no longer any pretence of providing homes in a Soviet workers’ paradise. No football pitches, no gardens, nothing to make the grim tower blocks more attractive. 

But, and this is the clue to what makes President Putin’s state tick, the best-kept park in Murmansk is high on a hill ­overlooking the fjord and is the home of the huge war memorial, a 100-feet high concrete statue of a soldier. 

Mown lawns surround it and on a plinth in front of it an eternal flame burns. Fresh scones have been laid out, along with fruit and vodka bottles. The heroism of Russian society in the face of the German assault is hammered into today’s young people. In the museum detailing the Northern Fleet’s ­history there is barely a mention of the heroic British and Commonwealth Arctic convoy sailors who fought through atrocious weather and incessant German attacks to reach Murmansk with the munitions that sustained the Red Army. 

The sun sets over Murmansk harbour

The sun sets over Murmansk harbour (Image: Getty Images/Flickr RF)

A smaller military memorial marks a ­disaster that again reflects Russian attitudes. Tucked away down a slope from drab ­housing blocks is the front section of the “sail”, the enormous conning tower of the Kursk, a state-of-the-art submarine that sunk with all hands when a torpedo exploded on board ­during an exercise in the Barents Sea in August 2000. Many European nations with diving expertise offered their help, but it seemed that it was better for the crew to die in a tiny space, suffocated and poisoned by fumes, than that the Russian navy should be seen to need foreign help. 

The main street in Murmansk is Lenin Prospekt. At its western end is the massive building that houses the FSB – a mix of UK’s MI5 and the American FBI. The size of the office complex is witness to the paranoia of the regime about espionage, and feeds the narrative of constant danger, constant threat. 

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov recently claimed: “Employees of the US military attaché love to travel around in rental cars using local Russian registration which lessens the chance of them being noticed. Murmansk is an area of espionage activity.” 

The FSB is ruthless in exercising its authority as Greenpeace activists found when a stunt out in the Barents Sea to draw attention to Russian oil-drilling saw them arrested and locked up in a Murmansk jail: not an experience easy to forget.

In the last presidential elections, any rallies in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were immediately ­broken up. I didn’t carry a Geiger counter when visiting Murmansk, but environmentalists condemn the area as a toxic cesspit because of decommissioned and dumped nuclear powered submarines. 

Air defence system units fire a missile

Air defence system units hold training exercise in Murmansk Region (Image: Lev Fedoseyev/TASS)

One sunken submarine with its reactor still on board lies on the seabed. Close to the Norwegian border is the town aptly named Nikel where smelters belch out columns of fumes from chimneys, and the prevailing wind carries pollution into Norway. Clean up requests are routinely ignored. 

But, if the military gets endless cash for its kit, the utilities struggle. A submarine base near Murmansk has one heating system for 10,000 crew and their families, but the ­boilers, local media report, regularly break down, this in a place where temperatures can plunge as low as -10C.

One of the regular power cuts proved to be a catastrophe for Russia’s only aircraft ­carrier, the Kuznetsov, last year when it returned to Murmansk for a £2.5billion refit, after launching bombers over Syria. 

She was in the city’s largest dry dock when the electricity failed and the dock pumps stopped. The dock tilted, then started to sink and a crane collapsed on to the flight deck and holed it. 

I wouldn’t recommend Murmansk as a holiday destination, and its few visitors shouldn’t expect to a warm welcome, but as a good place to see the new Cold War becoming more glacial, it can hardly be bettered.

• Beyond Recall, by Gerald Seymour, (Hodder & Stoughton £18.99) is out now. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via expressbookshop.co.uk

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