Glimpses of a Deserted Soviet Mining Town, Preserved in the High Arctic


Sergei Chernikov, my information, had a bolt-action rifle slung over his shoulder — in case we got here throughout any polar bears, he stated, or in case they got here throughout us.

We had been standing at the rudimentary dock in Pyramiden, a ghost city on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, in the High Arctic. I’d heard that in 1998 the Russian authorities had tricked the city’s 1,000 residents into taking a vacation on the mainland, solely to shut the mine and forbid them from returning. According to the rumor, it had been deserted ever since, frozen in time at the high of the world. Was it true? I requested.

Sergei shook his head earlier than I’d even completed my query.

Not so, stated Sergei, who supplied a much less sinister rationalization: The city was abandoned — primarily for financial causes — in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. No such tips had been employed to usher out its residents.

“They say we made that, too,” he stated, waving a hand up at the distinctive peak that provides this previous coal city its title, in a dismissal of the varied rumors that encompass this place. With a number of concentric layers of rock diminishing into the chilly sky, the pyramid-like mountain regarded fairly peculiar. But then, so did virtually all the pieces else at this excessive latitude.

Norway has sovereignty over Svalbard, in keeping with the phrases of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920. But two of the archipelago’s most intriguing vacationer attracts — the mining cities of Barentsburg, which continues to be useful, and Pyramiden, lengthy since empty — are Russian settlements.

The presence of Russian settlements stems from the proven fact that the Svalbard Treaty granted signatories — together with Russia — rights to Svalbard’s pure sources. Eventually, Trust Arktikugol, a Russian state-owned coal firm, took possession of each Pyramiden and Barentsburg.

Pyramiden would go on to outlast the Soviet Union, lastly shuttering its doorways over a collection of months in 1998. In fact, the place had been in fairly steep decline for years. Accidents in the mine, monetary turmoil in Russia and a 1996 constitution aircraft crash that killed 141 folks mixed to seal its destiny.

At over 78 levels north, Pyramiden is a place of information and extremes. When the solar disappears under the horizon every fall in late October, it isn’t seen once more till mid February of the following 12 months. Conversely, in summer season, the daylight is unyielding for greater than three months.

And but, strolling round with Sergei, I couldn’t assist however sense that issues had moved rapidly in the finish. Manuals sat open, bottles of vodka had been left on windowsills. There had been scattered journals, pictures of males with spectacular mustaches, a typewriter — even an previous basketball, burst at the seams.

Perhaps most poignant had been the kids’s toys, scattered amongst what was as soon as a schoolhouse.

In its heyday, Pyramiden offered its 1,000 residents with city amenities and a excessive customary of residing. The city’s choices included a faculty, a library, an ice hockey rink, a sports activities corridor, dance and music studios, a radio station, a cinema that doubled as a theater and a cemetery for cats.

If one thing exists in Pyramiden, then it is rather most likely the northernmost instance in the world. (The settlement is round 500 miles farther north than Utqiargvik, Alaska, the northernmost group in the United States.)

The previous cultural middle homes what’s doubtless the northernmost grand piano {and gymnasium}. Nearby, Sergei and I walked round inside the long-emptied swimming pool — as soon as heated, and the envy of the residents of Longyearbyen, the a lot bigger Norwegian settlement to the south.

On a plinth outdoors that outstanding constructing stands an unlimited statue of Lenin, his chilly head sternly surveying the city, the sole remaining witness to the emptying of Pyramiden.

There’s actual magnificence right here, too: the shimmering fur of a household of arctic foxes residing below the lodge; sapphire blues laser-beaming out of the close by Nordenskiold Glacier; low solar catching cracked home windows in the canteen, kaleidoscopic mild dancing on the flooring; dawn and sundown washing that extraordinary mountaintop in pinks and golds.

While a lot of the city now lies dormant, very slowly decaying, the Pyramiden Hotel — doubtless the northernmost in the world, of course — and the cultural middle have been revived in latest years.

These are the solely buildings in city which might be nonetheless frequently used. While shifting permafrost has warped some of the picket buildings, their sturdy buildings stand agency.

It’s in the lodge that a small group of Russians and Ukrainians stay and work, welcoming day trippers and adventurous vacationers seeking to spend the evening.

During my go to, Dina Balkarova labored the bar. “Normally I live in Barentsburg,” she stated. “But in Russia I don’t work in bars — I’m really an opera singer.” She instructed me that when she had time to herself, she’d ask one of the armed residents (nobody will be with out a gun this deep in polar bear nation) to accompany her all the way down to previous oil drums by the dock. There, she’d check out her voice towards the rusting metallic.

This was the type of eccentricity I’d hoped to search out when, cruising round Svalbard earlier that summer season, I’d first heard about Pyramiden. If something, although, the place was much less unusual than I had imagined — the folks had been heat and proud of the city’s historical past, as they is perhaps wherever else in the world.

The few Russians and Ukrainians who’ve returned in latest years don’t dream of reviving Pyramiden as a functioning city. Instead, they instructed me, they’re hoping to protect its heritage, which had so practically been misplaced.

The buildings, they are saying, could also be chilly and lifeless, however not less than they aren’t totally deserted.



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