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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 October, 2003, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
The UK's Arctic graveyard
Alex Kirby
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent in Murmansk

I had thought Murmansk would be a chilly, muddy mess, gritting its teeth against the Arctic gales and the worst that centralised planners could do to scorch and scar the forests and the tundra.

I approached the city from the west, from Norway, travelling by road with a jolly group of Norwegian conservationists.

British cemetery   Alex Kirby
Eighty-five years on, the cemetery is still cared for
True enough, we passed several horrors on the way from the border, including the town of Nikel. The smoke pouring from the chimneys of its smelter hung in the clear autumn air: for several miles the surrounding hills were stripped bare of vegetation, smothered by the sulphur dioxide.

In the town itself life expectancy for men is 47 years, though the foul air probably does little more harm than the alcohol levels.

But Nikel was a mere blot on a beguiling landscape of golden birch and open uplands stretching to far horizons.

As dusk fell we came down the far side of the fjord to see Murmansk strung out opposite, its streets well-lit and busy. I wandered those streets for the next few days, unbothered and probably unnoticed by the passers-by.

There were diversions - an excursion to a nature reserve whose warden, a brisk uniformed figure, was one of the few Russian officials I've met who actually twinkled as he welcomed us.

Tramping through the reserve we stepped carefully round a purple pile of fresh bear dung, clear evidence of the diet of blueberries that seems enough to sustain them just now.

View of Murmansk   Alex Kirby
Murmansk fails to disappoint the visitor
We saw no sign of the decomposing corpses of the Soviet northern fleet's nuclear submarines where they moulder in the fjord, waiting for someone to draw their fangs. But it was a memory of an earlier and a hotter conflict that I wanted to explore in Murmansk.

High above the city stands a memorial to the Allied servicemen who died in the Arctic convoys 60 years ago. So when I picked up a map and found a cross marking the location of what was called "the British Cemetery", I decided to go there.

It took a bit of finding, but I eventually located it - a small square plot trapped between a warehouse and a patch of waste ground, but walled off, and gated, and obviously looked after. Someone had even bothered to plant several neat rows of marigolds round the edge, giving the cemetery a cared-for look.

Inside were 44 trim headstones, and almost as many wall tablets, each bearing the name of a British serviceman either buried there, or at least commemorated.

That was the first puzzle, that there were fewer than 100 names out of all those who had died in the storms out at sea or from their wounds once they had reached port.

Nor could I understand why almost all the dead men had served in the army - in units like the East Surreys and the Royal Sussex Regiment.

Most puzzling of all was the fact that every one of them had died during or shortly after World War One: there was no mention of any who had fallen in the war against Hitler.

Before I left Murmansk, I went to see the deputy director of the city museum, and mentioned what I had seen.

"There is a cemetery for the men from the convoys," she said, "but that's not it.

Russian nature reserve   Alex Kirby
The nature reserve: Every prospect pleases
"What you saw is the burial place of British troops who were sent here to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks after the revolution. For a time they managed to hold Murmansk and Archangel, before Britain decided to withdraw its forces."

It wasn't hard to guess what she must have thought of that British intervention, with her disparaging reference to Mikhail Gorbachev's "so-called perestroika", and her politically-correct references to some of today's leaders.

There must be in Murmansk, and across Russia, a generation like her, for whom the flame of the revolution still burns brightly.

Yet despite that, and for 80 years, the city has made space for men who came to crush Russia's attempt at a new start.

It's easy enough now to say that start turned rapidly into a lethal dead-end. It cannot have been so easy down the years to honour your country's enemies.

Murmansk failed to live down to my expectations. To a visitor it can seem a lively place, far more outgoing than you might hope for from an industrial Arctic port.

Within a few years it could become a northern Kuwait, a boom-town grown rich on the abundant oil and gas reserves beneath the Barents Sea, which Western companies are queueing up to exploit.

Then the pressure for land within the city limits really will take off. I wonder if the British cemetery will last for another 80 years?

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