This article originally appeared in Lonely Planet Russia, Ukraine & Belarus
I’d come to Severodvinsk, about an hour from Arkhangelsk, to see the submarines. An expatriate Italian bartender living in Arkhangelsk had told me I could take pictures of Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines right from the city’s harbor.
‘Course, what he didn’t mention was that Severodvinsk was a “Closed City” - that is, off limits to foreigners even these days - because it’s a storage area for the Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines that park in its harbor. Formerly it was closed because it was a staging area for the nuclear gear that used to be transported to the islands of Novaya Zemlya, back when the Soviet Union was doing above-ground nuclear testing there.
The bartender assured me that, while the city was closed, it wasn’t “very closed” .
After about an hour of looking on my own (I had taken bus No 3 on a three-loop tour of the city before realizing I was going in circles), I finally asked a kid where the subs were ("Excuse me, where are the nuclear submarines?" - which I pulled off with a dignity equal to that of Ensign Chekhov, who asked the same question of a San Francisco cop in Star Trek V) and was directed to a fence at the end of a long, deserted street.
The “fence” turned out to be the entrance to some sort of naval facility, and as I passed the boundary (there was no one guarding it) I realized that from that point on, no amount of pleaded ignorance would help me if I - an American with a camera in a Russian military facility - were caught.
The water was now in sight, the subs just across the harbor from where I stood, but between them and me, moored at the docks, were two large gunships, sporting several large and rather vicious looking guns fore and aft.
A man with a face of stone and wearing an officer’s uniform stood between me and the subs.
“Hi!” I said, with a smile, “May I take a photograph”
The officer looked at me a and grinned, and said, “Why not?”
There were about eight black submarines parked just across the water, but far enough away to make my photographs look as if they were taken by a spy satellite in the 1960s. Still, I got the shots.
I looked over to one of the gunships and saw on board a young woman in a pink coat looking around ear the bridge. As I walked back past the gangplank, I asked the officer if I could take a look around on board.
He smiled again and said, “Of course, go right up.”
I saw the bridge, and the guns, but I started to get a little nervous; my Russian’s good enough to say what I had said so far, but anything ese would be a hopeless stretch, and I wanted to get out of there fast.
On my way out, a much more senior looking officer approached me with a look of investigatory intent.
“What is he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but speaking to the officer who had let me on board.
“He’s taking an excursion,” said the first.
The senior officer looked at me, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said to the officer, “You know, we really ought to set up a ticket booth out here.
OK, so it’s 27 years later, and I started Google mapping the area. I found satellite imagery of the dock where I was standing: