Murmansk (10.03.1999 - Juhani Artto) It is a mystery to many Finns that far to the north of the Arctic Circle there is a city of almost half a million people. For the Finns this means a fairly large city, as the population of Finland's capital Helsinki has only recently exceeded the half million mark.

Murmansk is by far the world's largest city to the north of the Arctic Circle. It is only 1,200 kilometres away the North Pole.

During the Soviet Era the existence of a large city far in the north was intelligible to foreigners as the federal government of this Superpower readily pumped money into its massive naval base in the neighbouring area of Severomorsk.

Nowadays, as the flow of federal cash has dried up and Russia's entire economy is in very poor shape, especially after the latest crisis cycle, the mystery of Murmansk is still more confusing than it was in earlier times.

A visit to Murmansk and discussions with its people blows this all away, for there is no mystery. In the city itself a visitor finds people struggling hard to make a living. Although the region is almost on the top of the Earth, the winter climate is no more severe than in most of Finland, Sweden or Norway. The warmth of the Gulf Stream keeps a sea-route to Murmansk open almost every winter. This winter has been exceptionally cold but the causes of the Murmansk region's present hardships have been more economic and social than meteorological.

The city of Murmansk is the capital of the Murmansk region, which is one of Russia's 89 administrative zones. This region covering the Kola Peninsula is sparsely populated, with only 1.2 million inhabitants in 140,000 square kilometres. Outside the city the largest centres have grown up around the mining industry. The earth is rich in valuable minerals such as nickel, copper, iron ore, cobalt, gold and apatite, which is a source of phosphate fertiliser for the domestic and world market.

Russia's economic slump has not hit the mining towns of the Kola Peninsula as badly as many other regions. Vice-Governor Igor Chernyshenko estimates that total production has fallen to a third of the peak which was reached in the late 1980s.

The continuation of mining and metal production has not, however, saved construction workers from severe unemployment. In the mining towns, as in Murmansk, the construction sector is almost idle. In the early 1990s there were 50,000 jobs in the construction and construction material industries. Now the number is counted only in thousands, says Construction Workers' Union Chairwoman Maya Teymurova. The outlook for the next few years is dim, although Nikolai Berezhnoi, who heads the region's Construction Committee, optimistically refers to large-scale energy projects already long under discussion.

Another major loser has been the fishing industry. According to the Fishermen's and Fishing Industry Workers' Union Chairman Alexander Pervuhin, the sector has lost 50,000 jobs. The fishing fleet has shrunk into one third of its best days and the fish is sold in Norwegian ports instead of in Murmansk. This is largely due to Russia's irrational customs regulations. Recently hopes of the fish returning to Murmansk have been rekindled. In Moscow the new Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has made exceptionally rapid decisions seeking to bring Russia's fishing fleet with its catch back to Murmansk.

Teachers and many other trades and professional groups paid from federal budget are doing badly. Many of them earn far less than the basic subsistence income level. In the Murmansk region the calculated monthly minimum is 1,100 roubles (in the first week of March 1999 the US dollar was worth 24 roubles). The average income of those in work is 1,300 roubles. In this respect the Murmansk region lies somewhere between the top and the bottom. In Moscow the average monthly income of workers is 4,000 roubles, but in southern and eastern regions of Russia the figure may be as low as 500 roubles.

As in other parts of Russia, in the Kola Peninsula small home gardens play a vital role in supplementing the daily fare. Fishing, hunting, wild berries and mushrooms offer most welcome additional nutrition, especially for families living in the countryside. In the eastern parts of the Peninsula reindeer herding is still a source of livelihood for hundreds of families.

The shops are not as well stocked in the city of Murmansk as they are in larger Russian cities further to the south, but all basic necessities are readily available. There is also a large choice of French perfumes, foreign blue jeans and Danish cheese. The problem is lack of money. In the winter cold people are generally well dressed. The lack of nutrition is not visible in the streets but it is one factor which undermines people's health and shortens their lives.

According to Vice-Governor Chernyshenko, 40 per cent of the region's people live in poverty.

One in six has an income below the cost of filling the basic necessity basket, says Maria Grinnik, Chairwoman of the Murmansk Region Trade Union Federation. Too low wages and salaries, high unemployment and social expenditure cuts are at the top of the trade unions' daily agenda, but opening up longer term perspectives challenges the movement as well.

"The idea of returning to communism is not on our agenda. What we want is for companies to provide good working conditions to their employees, to pay orderly taxes and to invest here so that the whole society can again begin to move forward."

The Murmansk region trade unions have almost 200,000 members. They are organised in 1,500 local chapters of 16 unions. The strongest union organisations are those organising the workers of the apatite mining town, oil product employees, scientific staff in the Barents Sea research centres, pilots, air traffic controllers and naval base civilian employees, Grinnik points out. The organising rate is about 75 per cent and is no longer slipping down, she says.

She is cautiously positive towards Russia's prime minister Yevgeny Primakov. "If a new president were to be elected now, we would vote for Primakov. In the election next year we will study carefully what the candidates promise. After that we shall decide who gets our support."

The Murmansk trade union movement, like that of Russia as a whole, has opted for a patient and constructive strategy. Today its leaders and activists believe rather in progress through small steps than in radical slogans and calls for change.