The time capsule was buried in a secluded square in Murmansk in 1967 on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Inside was a message dedicated to the citizens of the Communist future. At short notice, the authorities brought forward the capsule’s exhumation by ten days, to coincide with the city’s 101st birthday. With the stroke of an official’s pen, a mid-century Soviet relic was enlisted to honour one of the last acts of Tsar (now Saint) Nicholas II, who founded my hometown in October 1916. From socialism to monarchism in ten days. Some of the city’s pensioners accused the local government of trying to suppress the sacred memory of the revolution. ‘Our forefathers would be turning in their graves,’ one woman wrote in a letter to the local paper. The time capsule ‘is not some kind of birthday present to the city; it’s a reminder of the centenary of the great October Revolution and its human cost.’
My father had watched the time capsule being buried. He came to Murmansk aged 17. From his remote village, he had dreamed of the sea but he failed the navy’s eye test. In October 1967, he was a second-year student at the Higher Marine Engineering Academy, an elite training school for the Soviet Union’s massive fishing fleet. As a year-round warm water port, Murmansk – the largest human settlement above the Arctic Circle – is a major fishing and shipping hub, home to the world’s only fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers.
The time capsule was put together by the Murmansk cell of the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. On a Saturday afternoon fifty years ago, my father and his classmates put on their dress uniform – peaked caps and double-breasted black jackets with gold buttons – and marched into the city centre. ‘We weren’t told anything,’ he said. ‘And because we were assembled facing the crowd, I didn’t see much.’
The unearthing ceremony in 2017 fell on a Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps a hundred people, most of them elderly, had gathered at the base of the Monument to the Victims of the Intervention – Murmansk was briefly occupied by British troops during the Civil War. The austere Constructivist structure was the city’s first monument, erected on the tenth anniversary of 1917. A few people were holding Soviet flags. A naval band began to play. Beyond a rope cordon, the boulder and its plinth were pulled away to reveal a concrete slab. As this was being winched out, the mayor gave a speech. The crowd turned towards the hole. There was another slab underneath. This too was prised off, revealing a square cavity filled in with cement. ‘The capsule is missing,’ someone said. ‘Somebody must have got there first.’ A few minutes later, a soldier arrived with a metal detector, followed by men with high-vis vests and hammer drills. They began to chip away at the cement.
Progress was slow. With no sign of the capsule, an archived copy of the original text was produced and handed to a retired local actor. ‘Our dear successors, fellow citizens,’ he read out: ‘We are gathered here on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Great October Revolution, at the foot of a sacred place: the Monument to the Victims of the Intervention. Through five subsequent decades, we extend our hand in brotherly greeting from 1967.’ The letter listed the achievements of the preceding generation: ‘In a half-century of Soviet rule, a sleepy, derelict Russian hinterland became a large industrial and cultural centre, a beautiful city of 300,000. In the tundra we built mines and factories, created a mighty fleet, laid roads and learned to grow rich harvests in the thin Arctic soil.’ There was a smattering of applause. ‘We are proud and happy to live in the 20th century, which signalled the start of the transition from capitalism to socialism,’ he read on. ‘We are certain that you, our descendants, will complete the revolutionary transformation of the world.’ Awkward pause. ‘We even confess to being a little envious of you, who will live to see with your own eyes the fruits of our labours. We took the first step into space; you will fly to other planets. Try to remember us, your ancestors, who built your city and gave their lives to building communism. Fiercely love your wonderful motherland! Let the eternal fire of immortal Leninist ideas always burn brightly in your hearts – the fire of revolution sparked in the unforgettable year, 1917.’
There was polite clapping, and a few hurrahs. As the drilling continued, dusk started to fall on the thinning crowd. Finally the slender, foot-long sharp-tipped metallic cylinder was lifted from the rubble. It looked like a relay-race baton. By that point, only a smattering of reporters and die-hard capsule buffs remained. An official announced that it would be opened another day, when more people could witness it. With that, the last of the crowd dispersed.