Komsomolsk-na-Amure: A Distant Soviet Pacific Outpost
While most foreigners associate Komsomolsk-na-Amure (Komsomolsk on Amur) with Sukhoi aircraft, many in the Russian Far East have unfairly tagged the city as dangerous because of heightened criminal activity there in the late 1990s. But this peaceful city of 300,000, built in 1932, is a pleasant place to be in and is a surviving example of the pre-Second World War Soviet dream.
Komsomolsk-na-Amure (City of Youth) was built in what looks like middle of nowhere, and like Sakhalin and Vladivostok, was off limits to foreigners and outsiders until the collapse of the USSR. The city is on the Baikal-Amur Main (BAM) railway line, which connects the Russian Far East to Eastern Siberia and runs north of and parallel to the Trans-Siberian railway. A short train ride to Tynda, the headquarters of the BAM railway, would take just 37 hours! Built primarily to be an industrial centre, Komsomolsk has steelworks, a ship-building yard as well as the Sukhoi aircraft factory.
Although the city isn’t bursting with pubs, restaurants and night-clubs, there is no shortage of things to do in any season. For a real adventure, visit the city in the winter to experience -43 degree Celsius weather in real life. The buildings are warm, the snow is beautiful and the vodka flows. Winter is also the best time for star-gazing in the city, with a vista that can challenge the most starlit of southern skies. With the Amur River’s top layers freezing over, a common sight is what’s popularly called ‘penguins.’ Fishermen set up shop on the wide river and actually look like the Antarctic flightless birds from a distance.
Winter is also a great time to try one’s hands at mountain skiing. A two-hour drive away from the city, Lake Amut is one of the best ski resorts in the Russian Far East. By mid-December, there is enough snow to ski or sled or snowboard on the hills surrounding the lake. For those not much into adventure sports, there are several beautiful walking trails in the area and the resort has a nice cafe to just soak in the atmosphere. Amut is also an ideal place to trek and camp from May till October. The lake is warm enough to swim in the summer months as well as during the ‘Indian Summer’ of the Russian Far East in September.
The city is not as compact as Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk but is just a fraction of the size of Khabarovsk, which is about 300 kilometres to the south. Rickety trams connect the riverside with most parts of the city. What’s striking about Komsomolsk is the lack of vehicles on the roads. In the winters, pedestrians directly walk on the roads as the ice piles up on the sidewalks.
Komsomolsk possesses the essentials of every Soviet town such as a public sauna and swimming pool, parks and several monuments dedicated to those who gave up their lives to defend the country, but despite the city’s isolation, there is a great interest in foreign cultures. A Buddhist monk from Denmark helped set up a Mahayana Buddhist centre in the city, which is popular among a large section of the youth. Komsomolsk also has a cinema hall that showcases international non-commercial films. Of course, 7 decades of isolation and a location well off the beaten track, may make the sight of a visible foreigner a bit more than what many locals can handle. But it’s more curiosity than suspicion driving the locals and the warmth and hospitality in the city remain unparalleled.
Video by Konstantin Remennikov
The uniqueness stretches across many attractions in the city. It’s a well-known fact that every city in Russia has a World War 2 memorial, but Komsomolsk is the only city with a Japanese Prisoner of War Memorial. The regional museum showcases the history of the city and has exhibits dating back to the construction of the city, including rare photographs of the swamps that existed before Komsomolsk was built.
The authorities in this “city of the youth” have taken special care to maintain the 1930s cream-coloured buildings, which also contain Soviet mosaics. Like most Soviet cities, there is a Lenin Square in the city centre but hovering over the former revolutionary is a unique piece of architecture. The dom-sa-spilom (literally translated as building with a spire) has been compared to the Stalin-era 7 sisters’ buildings in Moscow as well as the Kremlin. Some call the building the Komsomolsk Kremlin. Most long distance buses culminate their journey near the square, so this beautiful peach building greets visitors to the city.
There is also a special treat for history-lovers in Komsomolsk. The ambience of yesteryear is preserved in some of the city’s hotels. Fans of the USSR must stay in a hotel called Khrushchev’s Dacha, which was built for Nikita Khrushchev’s visit in the 1950s. The main suite in the villa was used by Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev. The suite can by no means be considered budget accommodation, but there are few places on that earth that were used by heads of a superpower that would cost just over a hundred dollars per night. There’s also the charming Hotel Amur, which is as old as the city, but has bright and renovated rooms with a view.
For those interested in the culture of Russia’s indigenous tribes, the Nanai people, who were the original residents of the area welcome visitors to their settlement of Nizhny Khlabny. A few tour operators in Komsomolsk offer an overnight tour to the settlement, where there’s a cooperative market that sells handicrafts made by Nanai women.
Komsomolsk-na-Amure, despite the isolation, is a good transit point for many interesting places in the region. Nikolayevsk-na-Amure, which is 12 hours north, is an interesting town at the mouth of the Amur River and the Tatar Straits. It was from this city that convicts were shipped to Sakhalin during Czarist times. Komsomolsk is also close to Vanino, from where there is a daily ferry service to Kholmsk in Sakhalin. Given the vast distances in the region, Khabarovsk is considered close to Komsomolsk, since it “just takes” 6 hours by bus. The BAM railway line also offers spectacular scenery and the long train ride to Tynda may be a good alternative to the Trans-Siberian.
Whether it’s ice-fishing in winter or getting a tan on a hot July day by the Amur, or trekking in the hills on an autumn afternoon, Komsomolsk-na-Amure is one city in the Russian Far East that promises an abundance of activities all year-round. And despite different developmental patterns in other big cities in the region, Komsomolsk maintains its unique Sovietness.
Ajay Kamalakaran was the editor of the Sakhalin Times from 2003-2007