Russia clings to Arctic Cold War outpost
By James Kilner
BARENTSBURG, Norway (Reuters) – A Russian flag flutters
over the concrete buildings hugging the side of a fjord on a
remote Norwegian island deep inside the Arctic Circle.
A stone bust of Lenin dominates the town square and vodka
bottles line the bar’s shelves.
This is Barentsburg, a Russian coal-mining town of 500
people in the Svalbard archipelago, about the size of Ireland
and 1,000 km (620 miles) from the North Pole.
But it is a coal-mining town that has never made a profit
in decades of production. Instead, its main value to the Soviet
Union was as a strategic outpost on the roof of the world
facing the United States during the Cold War, experts say.
Fifteen years on from the collapse of communism, Russia is
not about to abandon this Arctic outpost, an immaculately
besuited Russian consul Viacheslav Nikolaev told Reuters in his
office overlooking the mine’s fuming chimney stack.
“You know the history of Rossyania and the Pomors who were
here for a long time?” he said. “They settled to hunt seals and
to survive just like other nations.”
Pomors were Russian hunters and fishermen who populated
Svalbard from the 17th century. They lived in isolated outposts
and were the first known humans to make the islands their home.
A 1920 treaty handed Svalbard — which means Cold Edge in
Norse — to Norway but gave others equal rights of entry and
access to its resources. It also banned military activity on
the islands but both NATO-member Norway and the Russians
flouted this rule.
The Norwegian town of Longyearbyen, named after American
John Munro Longyear who founded the mine in 1906, is 70 km (45
Cold War politics meant a road linking the islands’ two
towns was never built. Snow scooter in winter and boat in
summer are used to travel between Barentsburg and Longyearbyen,
although officials fly by helicopter.
In Longyearbyen, population 1,800, snow scooters litter the
grass waiting for the return of the snow. Children play on
bicycles and skateboards, and people wear designer Goretex
jackets to keep out the wind.
There are no snow scooters around Barentsburg. Children
play in the rusting hulk of a dried up Soviet hovercraft.
Leather jackets replace the Goretex.
In summer Barentsburg — four days’ sail north of Russia —
is light day and night and the polar sun keeps temperatures
above freezing. In winter it is dark for 24 hours a day and
temperatures drop to minus 40 Celsius (-40F).
Glaciers and mountains ring the town and residents cannot
leave without a rifle as polar bears roam the barren landscape.
GYM, BOOKS AND VODKA
Although life can be tough in one of the world’s most
northerly permanent settlements, things weren’t all that bad,
Boris Nagayuk, the head of the mine, said.
“The workers can relax in the sports hall, there is a
well-stocked library and cultural activities,” he said and
gestured at a gym adorned with a set of faded Olympic rings.
“They can drink vodka, too, but we don’t encourage them to
drink too much.”
Workers, mainly from the industrial areas of Russia and
Ukraine, are contracted for two years and paid at the end of
their time. They buy from the shop and bar on a credit system.
Ukrainian Oleg Chuzhikov, nearing the end of his third
two-year contract, took the work because he can save money in
Barentsburg, he said, showing off his paintings of glaciers and
polar bears in the apartment he shares with his wife and
“It’s okay here,” he said. “But I will finish now and
probably move to Longyearbyen for six months, there are more
A ferry carries Western tourists from Longyearbyen to
Barentsburg several times a week in summer. They gawp at the
town for 90 minutes and jump back on their boat relieved to be
returning to the comforts of their hotels.