It’s a bright June morning and the M/S Polar Girl is setting out from Longyearbyen, the Norwegian capital of the Svalbard archipelago. We’re at 78 degrees north; Mother Nature is showing her most favourable side. En route to Barentsburg, we’re surrounded by snowy mountain peaks and icy blue glaciers. The sun glitters brilliantly in the deep turquoise waters of Grønfjorden. Sea gulls and puffins glide past us. Near the Esmark glacier, a seal slips lazily off an ice floe and into the sea.
Against such a pristine backdrop, my first glimpse of this post-Soviet community seems surreal. Industrial buildings line the snow flecked mountain sides and pipes are spewing out thick black smoke. It looks absurd, like belching cigarette smoke in the face of a baby. It’s as if I can hear the earth coughing.
Barentsburg is one of four settlements of significant size on Svalbard. In English, this Arctic archipelago is more commonly referred to as Spitsbergen. In reality, Spitsbergen is the name of the largest island in the group. Norway has sovereignty over the archipelago, but the Treaty of Svalbard ensures all parties equal access to scientific and economic activities in the islands.
Named after Dutch polar explorer Willem Barentz, the coal mining community is run by the Russian State Trust Arktikugol. Oleg, a cheerful cherub-faced Ukrainian and an official Barentsburg guide, greets us as we dock. To get from the harbour to the centre of town, about 250 steps have to be negotiated; no alternate route, no lifts or escalators exist. When buying tickets for the passage, this is made abundantly clear. That does not stop some tourists from complaining, however; even demanding to be carried. At times, that would be as feasible as carrying a small elephant. Russians and Norwegians are different in many ways, but remarkably similar in others. Neither are easily insulted nor overly polite. Therefore, such demands are simply shrugged off as obvious idiocy.
Large brick buildings line the top of the stairs on either side. On the left is the cafeteria; on the right a sports complex with a swimming pool adorned by a large painting of three strapping young people, one woman and two men, looking fit and healthy. There’s also a small souvenir shop named the Polar Star. Their selection is somewhat limited, but I purchase a large coffee table book entitled Glacial El Dorado Spitsbergen with English and Russian texts and gorgeous photography. At 100 kroner, it’s a bargain.
Further up is a wooden chapel – the northernmost Russian Orthodox chapel in the world, no less – built after two tragic disasters. In 1996, a Russian aircraft crashed into Operafjellet (Mt Opera) when attempting to land at Longyearbyen airport. All 141 on board died on impact. A year later, 23 miners lost their lives when a mine exploded.
Barentsburg has had its share of tragic accidents. However, this chilly Arctic community provides financially attractive employment for Russian and Ukrainian coal miners, we’re told. They sign two-year contracts and are paid 5,000 Norwegian kroner (about 600 EUR/900 USD) per month. As this is also a no-cash community, whatever they spend, is subtracted from their accounts. The remaining salary is then paid on their return home.
Formerly a colony of about 3,000, the current number of inhabitants is 300, or 500 or 700, depending on who you’re listening to, apparently. Official Russian sources say 400, and they should know. Most are miners and some have brought their families. The Norwegian factory, Barents Tekstil, employs about 40 women who produce children’s clothes, but the population is in decline.
Seventeen children presently live in Barentsburg: today, 15 of them are conspicuously absent and the two I see look rather pale. It’s a crisp and sunny Sunday afternoon. To my mind all the children should be out playing. This could be a case of cultural bias on my part, though. Where I come from, it’s practically considered child abuse to keep children indoors in good weather. Out in the fresh air whenever possible is the Scandinavian mantra. The crew of Polar Girl occasionally arranges a barbecue on board for the children. This cannot be done on the spur of the moment, however. They must send an application to the proper Russian authorities, then wait for a formal approval complete with appropriate signatures and stamps.
Along main street is another large brick building housing the Barentsburg Inn, the post office and a bar. As we enter, a Russian trio is doing a rendition of a Russian folk song. It’s a melancholic, pretty song. The woman is dressed in national costume, complete with a green head dress reminiscent of the wives of Henry the Eight. Recently abandoned plates of pickles, salmon, herring, sausages, slices of brown bread, cakes and bottles of vodka tell of a party just finished.
At the Pomor Museum we spend a good hour. As well as being a tribute to the staunch, rough people who first visited these northern shores, the museum also features interesting archaeological, geological and zoological displays, including a dinosaur foot print from the area. My eyes keep reverting to a low pyramid-shaped tent with a flimsy cloth floor and a thin sleeping bag. I can’t imagine shivering through freezing Arctic winter nights in one of those. I’m reminded of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Scott’s fateful 1910 – 1913 Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica. In his book The Worst Journey in the World, he describes a winter journey to collect emperor penguin eggs. He talks of freezing in temperatures of 70 degrees below, as a succession of shivering fits takes possession of his body for many minutes at a time, until he thought his back would break from the strain.
At least Apsley didn’t have to worry about being woken up by warm polar bear breath on his face. Oleg recounts a number of amusing anecdotes regarding encounters with polar bears. Most involve settlers inadvertently bumping into a bear rummaging through the rubbish, trying to open the door of the cafeteria or blocking the door for a miner on his way to work in the morning.
Imagine that! What do you do? Call in sick? Of course, it could be easily verified as the boss probably would be within shouting distance.
“Hey, boss, can’t make it to work today, a polar bear is blocking the door and won’t budge an inch.”
“Yeah? You tried climbing out the window?”
“Well, no! I’m rather afraid I might become Teddy’s breakfast. Would you mind popping over and – well, pop him a bullet, as it were?”
“Afraid you’re on your own, mate.”
“Oh. I might not make it to work today, then.”
“Well, OK. But remember a day’s pay will be deducted from your salary.”
“Well, that’s not really fair, is it? I mean, you can see I’ve got a good reason for staying home.”
"Sorry, mate. Life’s not fair."
Relations between the Russians and the Norwegians on Svalbard are generally good, but disagreements do occur. About a year ago, the Norwegians were convinced the Russian community suffered from a lack of vitamins, so a Longyearbyen chef sent over six tons of fresh food. This was not well received by Trust Arktikugol. In an article in Svalbardposten, the local Longyearbyen paper, the general director was quite incensed with this gift. He conceded a lack of fruits and veggies in Barentsburg for a short while, but that did not entail a crisis. Understandably, this was humiliating for the Russian authorities.
I don’t know what to make of this episode. The food shipment, although well-intentioned, might have been a bit hasty. After all, nobody dies from a temporary lack of fruit. At any rate, alcohol seems to be plentiful. Some years ago, 14 seagulls were found dead on a rubbish-tip. The gulls were sent to Oslo to be autopsied, and were found to have died from alcohol poisoning.
Walking back towards the stairs, I notice a variety of building styles. A faded, yet pretty blue 1920s house stands next to a large concrete block of flats, showing, I suppose, a development in Soviet architectural styles. The colours are worn; brutal weather conditions see to that. Sea gulls nest on windowsills and Lenin looks somberly down at me from his pedestal, as if nothing has changed, and his grand experiment is still alive and kicking.
From all accounts, I had expected Barentsburg to be a depressing experience. It was not. A bit surreal perhaps, but not depressing. Geographically, it’s only 50 kilometres from the Norwegian capital of Svalbard. Economically, it’s light years away. It’s worth seeing, if only as a counterpart to the affluence of Longyearbyen. The people I met; well they might not be wearing the latest fashion in polar gear, but they were friendly.
As we’ve seen, the Russians are eager to maintain their presence in the Arctic. With a nearly depleted mine and a dwindling population, they have to come up with new plans to keep the place alive. What will they do – apart from planting Russian flags underground? In August 2006, plans were afoot to build a zero emission gas power plant and recreate this little community as an environmental flagship. So far nothing has happened, but a meeting between Norwegian and Russian authorities is scheduled to be held in Longyearbyen later this month (October 2007). I’ll be interested to see what the future holds for this outpost.
Several roads lead from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg, or rather, several means of transportation. In winter, i.e. for most of the year, you can choose a dog sled, a snowmobile, skis or even a helicopter, if you’re on official business. In summer, it’s a leisurely boat trip away or a nice hike.
Remember to bring a rifle for polar bear protection. Rifles can be hired in Longyearbyen; you'll need to prove you know how to use one. Bear in mind, however, that bear hunting is strictly prohibited. Self-defense is the only acceptable reason to shoot at one of these huge, Arctic teddies. Strict rules must be followed: first, warning shots to give the bear a chance to back off. If the bear still advances, you’re best aiming for the body, its head is quite small. If you’ve killed a bear, the incident must be reported to the sysselmann (governor of Svalbard) immediately, and the carcass must be surrendered. The governor will launch an investigation.