Murmansk: Casino Lights and the Arctic Circle

In the spirit of Russian capitalism, we've launched our "12 cities for the price of 11" Russian Chronicles deal! Because we rushed through the first five cities to join our Lake Baikal expedition by October 1st, we ended up with an extra week in the trip's second half. So on Sept. 23, we invited readers to "tell us where to go!" And despite the plethora of suggestions for warmer, sunnier, and more scenic locales, we picked... Murmansk!

After 36 hours on trains, we've finally made it up here, high above the Arctic Circle. If this latitude (for the record: 69 degrees N) translated into seats in a basketball arena, we'd be dying of nosebleeds. We're so high up, the sun can barely haul itself over the horizon before falling exhaustedly back down below.

Since 1995, neon-lit casinos like this one in Moscow have popped up all across Russia. (David Hillegas)

Meanwhile, nights here are -- like in every city we've been to -- lit up by the flashing lights of casinos. This is one of the biggest changes I've noticed since 1995. Back then, there were a few casinos and gaming tables in the fancy-pants hotels. Now, there are casinos absolutely everywhere, ranging from gaudy, crushed-velvet rooms like the Corona in Moscow, to hole-in-the-wall slot-machine joints on every other street corner.

I don't know the figures on who's playing or what effect it's having on society. Anecdotally, we had a waitress in Birobidzhan who makes $100 a month tell us that her co-worker lost $600 to the slots in a single night. We've also been told that a TV ad showing an old woman happily gambling her pension money was taken off the air after a public outcry. The only certain thing is that someone must be making serious money off these casinos, because they're sprouting like spring mushrooms.


Speaking of gambling, this trip's biggest roll of the dice came back in late June when David Hillegas agreed, on 10 minutes notice, to come along as the photographer. Gary Matoso couldn't come, then a second photographer suddenly dropped out, and time was running out. So I called David -- who I'd never met, though we'd exchanged emails -- and basically said, "Yes or no! It's now or never!" To my relief, he said yes almost immediately.

Photographer David Hillegas enjoys a warmer day back on Lake Baikal. (David Hillegas)

Some have asked us how two people who don't know each other can get along for 11 weeks of constant travel, while crashing in people's homes and working like loons. The shocking answer: they can't! Or at least, not without having their fair share of sharp words and tense moments. This project is tailor-made for maximum stress, especially considering the Russian language barrier.

Yet with exactly two weeks to go, and the light now peeking at us from the end of the tunnel, we're chugging along contentedly. It's been a long haul, and each of us could probably write a dissertation about the other's psychological quirks. But as cornball as it sounds, I feel just as lucky now as I did in June that David agreed to come. If we ever speak to each other again after this, I'll tell him so.

(Ha! Kidding.) (Really.)

Tomorrow: Report from Murmansk.

By Lisa Dickey |  November 8, 2005; 10:15 AM ET  | Category:  Travel
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