Text by Toby Skinner / Photography: Tom Robinson, Tim E White & Rebecca Marshall
Whether you arrive by boat or snowmobile, arriving in Barentsburg is a surreal experience – if feels like you’ve just stepped off in Soviet-era Russia, because in many ways you have. There’s the brutally austere architecture, the obligatory statue of Lenin, the propaganda murals exhorting miners to “use their strong hands to create heat and light”. Of the roughly 500 mostly male Russian and Ukrainian miners here, it’s said that three speak English and two speak Norwegian. When they’re not working, many go to the gym, a throwback with a murky green saltwater pool. Day-tripping tourists have cold buffets at the “five-star” Barentsburg hotel (the food comes direct from mainland Russia), buy overpriced t-shirts and kitsch art at the souvenir shop, and drink 2.5% ABV (rules mean it can’t be any stronger) beer at the world’s northernmost brewery.
Russia and Svalbard have history. Russian claims that they were the first to discover Svalbard have largely been discredited – many say Norsemen visited in the 12th Century, but it was Dutchman Willem Barentsz who made the formal discovery in 1596. Russian hunters first arrived in the 17th Century, but it wasn’t until the 20th Century that they built up a dominant mining presence. They established the Grumant mine in 1913 (Grumant, which may be a corruption of “Greenland”, was also the Russian term for Svalbard as a whole), which had a population of more than 1,000 in the 1950s; bought the Pyramiden mine from Sweden in 1927; and took over Barentsburg from the Dutch in 1932. During the Cold War, more than two thirds of Svalbard’s 4,000 population was Russian, almost all of whom worked for the state-owned company Trust Arktikugol.
But the population has declined fast. The Grumant mine was abandoned in 1965, and Pyramiden – which also had a 1,000-plus population – was deserted in a single day in 1998, leaving an eerie ghost town in its wake.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, deputy foreign minister Andrei Fyodorov stated that Russia no longer had an interest in remaining on Svalbard. Yet as Russia privatised its coal industry, Arktikugol was made an exception, though it was forced to start selling coal to Western Europe (at low prices, given its relatively poor quality and high sulphur content) rather than giving it back to the Soviet Union.
Since then, the Barentsburg mine – essentially still run on the old communist model – has relied more and more on subsidies, and dealt with serious issues. A mining accident in 1997 killed 23 people, and a damning 2005 report by the Accounts Chamber of Russia found that 17.5 per cent of man hours were spent resolving accidents, while also criticising the mine’s management and accounting practices. With the closure of Pyramiden and a reduction of workers at Barentsburg, the Russian population on Svalbard fell from 2,500 in 1990 to 450 in 2010.
The official line in Barentsburg is that they’re expanding into tourism, and drawing more and more Russian tourists. Anastasia, the only English-speaking guide in town, informs us that the Arktikugol-owned Barentsburg Hotel is “as good as anywhere in the world” – but, really, the blocky building is a brutalist curiosity, and not in the same stratosphere as the genuinely world-class hotels in Longyearbyen. It has reportedly failed to make money since opening in the 1990s. The kindergarten/school has an English teacher, a music teacher and a teacher for all other subjects, but has struggled with declining welfare funding.
It's not too much of a mental leap to see Barentsburg going the same way as Pyramiden 16 years ago. In fact, the two places are strikingly similar, from the architecture to the Lenin statues, the mosaic murals and the retro gyms/pools. Both look like they came from the same model for a state-owned mining town. With everything in Barentsburg still essentially owned by one company, it's hard to see its diversification working. It's a fascinating place, but you wonder at what point it will go the same way as Grumant and Pyramiden and become a relic.
For our May issue, the entire N by Norwegian team visited Svalbard. See more of our coverage from Svalbard here
Norwegian flies to Longyearbyen from Oslo. Book flights and a hotel at norwegian.com