What does the French region of Normandy have in common with Russia’s largest arctic city? Both are named after the Norsemen, an old English term for the Vikings whose extensive trading networks stretched across Europe’s coasts and waterways. Murmansk is also the last city commissioned by Russia’s imperial government, three months shy of the Tsar Nikolai II’s abdication.
Varnichny Creek is a hidden waterway of this far-north city, once a habitat rich with fish that is today heavily polluted with most of its course channelled beneath the city’s surface. The above image is a neglected pedestrian bridge in the October district of the city, where the creek flows in a ravine.
Where it Flows
On this Soviet topographical map from 1970, we see the creek as a disruption on the city map with its apartment superblocks. The furthest source of the stream is Ledovoye (Icy) Lake on the southern edge of the map and its mouth is on the Kola Bay, a widening of the Tuloma River at sea level. A deepwater port warmed by the Gulf Stream, the port remains ice-free despite its location near the top of the globe. The earliest map to show Varnichny Creek was printed in 1909, before the city was founded.
The city was on the maps of planners since the 1870s but its realization kept being pushed back. In the midst of World War One the government recognized the harbor’s importance as a vital port for Russia’s western allies, with ships bypassing territories and seas occupied by the Central Powers. On the planning map above, the ravine of Varnichny Creek in on the left edge which is the south side. The stream’s namesake was a 16th century varnitsa (варница, or saltern) owned by the industrialist brothers Yakov and Grigory Stroganoff. Supporters of Ivan the Terrible, they received his blessing to control trade routes between the Russian arctic and its interior.
The city boomed in the 1920s under Soviet rule following a failed intervention when western allies tried to prop up the White Russian forces. The city’s map hasn’t changed much since then with streets honoring Marx, Liebknekt, Lenin, and Komsomol streets. Others were named in honor of Russia’s polar explorers: Chelyuskin, Papanin, and Schmidt. Between the world wars, the stream’s water was used by nearby bakeries and a bathhouse. Clay from the creek was extracted by brick factories. Over the decades, sections of the creek were channeled into pipes, leaving the visible sections separate from each other, hemmed in by apartment blocks and industry.
In the Oktyabrskiy (October) district of Murmansk, the ravine where the creek flows hasn’t changed much in the past half century and the post-Soviet population decline means that land reserved for more development can remain empty for the time being.
At the Source
The highest source of the creek is a hilltop on the city’s eastern side, Sopka Varnichnaya whose name translates as Source of the Varnichnaya. It is topped by a television and radio antenna that is lit up at night, akin to the Parachute Jump of Coney Island or the Eiffel Tower.
From an opposite hill, one can see the valley where the creek flows covered with identical apartment blocks. Their design can be seen across the former USSR and its satellites, giving neighborhoods thousands of miles from each other the same appearance. Likewise with streets named after the same heroes of communism in every city.
The furthest source is Ledovoye Lake, also ringed by apartment blocks on the city’s edge. Its name is a reminder that while the water of Kola Bay is ice-free, winter in this region is cold, dark, and long. This lake was used for ice harvesting by the city in the prewar years, which is how it received its name Ledovoye, or Icy Lake. With urbanization encroaching on the lake, pollution from gasoline runoff appeared as rainbow stains and oily spots on the lake’s surface. Two of the lake’s three sides have auto repair shops, showrooms, and a gas station that could be contributing to pollution in its water.
Downstream from the lake, dips in the landscape hint at the buried stream that flowed here before the apartment superblocks were built. The ample open spaces between the buildings allow for the development of parks with their playgrounds, sports courts, and trails following the phantom stream.
For now, there is so much work to do in making Varnichny Creek suitable for fish and other wildlife. Perhaps the ideal photo to depict its potential is a lone swing amid overgrown weeds facing the ravine where the stream flows. It is located a short walk from the damaged footbridge in the title photo. This landscape could become the park that it was intended to be, or designated as a nature preserve with native vegetation planted in place of the weeds.
For this young city whose architecture is mostly Soviet-built, Varnichny Creek takes travelers to an earlier time when pioneering Russian settlers built a saltworks at the mouth of the creek, establishing Russia’s control of the Kola Peninsula that later led to the founding of Murmansk.
As Forgotten-NY is the site for New York’s hidden history, my source on Murmansk’s past is On Murmansk, the Russian-language guide to local street names, streams, important dates, and personalities. As with other Russian regional capitals, the city has its own Regional Museum with displays on the indigenous Saami people, native wildlife, Russian settlers, and the city’s role in both world wars.