Svalbard and Jan Mayen Islands Travelogue

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Pyramiden - A Russian Ghost Town in the Arctic

As I meander down main street in this abandoned coal mining town, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov looks at me from his most northerly pedestal. We're at 78 degrees, 93 minutes N, only 620 miles from the North Pole.

Landscape of extraordinary beauty surrounds Pyramiden. High above Lenin, jagged peaks kiss the sky. The bright sunshine glitters in the deep blue waters of the Billefjord. Across the bay, the icy blue Nordenskild glacier seems almost translucent. The Arctic, normally so stark, seems somehow warm and friendly here. No wonder the Soviet Union chose this spot as their showcase, their perfect little Arctic community.

Pyramiden, one of four mining settlements on the Svalbard archipelago, was established in 1910 by Sweden and named after the pyramid-shaped mountain rising above it. Norway has sovereignty over the archipelago, but the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 ensures all signatory parties equal access to scientific and economic activities in the islands.

In the early 1930s, the Soviet State Trust Arctikugol bought the mines at Pyramiden, Grumant and Barentsburg. Today, Barentsburg is the only one still in operation and even there the coal supply is dwindling.

Constance, our guide, carries a gun; a necessary precaution, as polar bears roam this hastily abandoned outpost. The sun is bearing down on us and the chance of bumping into a bear seems minuscule, but Constance spotted one only a couple of weeks ago right where we're now walking.

I'm childishly excited and very pleased to be here. Walking this deserted street along abandoned buildings and hearing the mad cackling sea gulls feels almost surreal. The possibility, even if ever so slight, of seeing a polar bear up close is spine-tingling.

A red, star-topped pyramid marks the entrance to Pyramiden. In front of the monument is a miners' cart commemorating the final load of coal brought out on 31 March 1998. A total of 9 million tons of coal were brought out of the mountains here.

Behind a broken window, I spot a pot of flowers all dried up now, 9 years later. A large yellow block of flats, once the home of miners and their families, has been taken over by loud predatory gulls building nests in the windows. They are everywhere; even on the playground swings and slides, now covered in rust. Once the home of 1,000 people, today Pyramiden belongs to polar bears, reindeer and sea gulls. What nature gives, nature takes back.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians have had two major disasters in Svalbard. In 1996, a Soviet jet liner bringing miners back from Russia and Ukraine, crashed in Mt. Opera and all 141 people on board were killed. Only a year later, an explosion in a Barentsburg mine caused the death of 23 miners.

Mining in Pyramiden was no longer sustainable and the decision to cease operations was sudden. One day, the settlers were given a few hours to pack their bags and leave. Remnants of that hasty departure are visible all around: an abandoned miner's cart, two petrol pumps, dried plants on window sills, books still on the library shelves.

Pyramiden was supposed to be an ideal community, a shining example of the Soviet experiment. The town was self-reliant, the economy non-monetary and food was free. A greenhouse ensured fresh vegetables and pigs and cattle took care of the settlers protein needs. A swimming pool and a sports complex offered exercise and the cinema showed movies every night. The public library counted 50,000 books, with Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky all part of the selection.

There was a school and a kindergarten. A scene from a children's story is painted on the school wall and I can almost hear the sound of children laughing and playing in the large field at recess.

As rats, mice and assorted rodents naturally come with livestock, the settlers kept cats. Normally, cats aren't allowed on Svalbard, as they threaten the indigenous wildlife. This doesn't seem to be enforced in the Russian communities, however. In the hurry to leave Pyramiden, the cats were forgotten and when a clearing-up crew showed up after a while, they found dead cats everywhere. The cats were buried together in a small rock-covered grave sweetly marked by a tall, metal sunflower.

As recent events have shown, the Russians are eager to maintain their presence in the Arctic. What will they do, apart from planting flags underground? Rumor has it, plans are underway to recreate Pyramiden as a tourist destination. This may be true. As of June 2007, harbor fees have been introduced and as we docked, three men from Barentsburg were here, collecting fees and cleaning the place up.

But for now, Pyramiden is still sleeping.