Posted by: henrymcghie | April 15, 2016

Voyage to a Russian ghost town in the Arctic

As part of my visit to Spitzbergen last October, we had a trip to Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining community about four hours’ sail from Longyearbyen. The scenery was amazing, with the jagged mountains that give Spitzbergen its name on either side of the fjord. The weather was cold (it is the Arctic), with a biting wind. We sailed alongside some coloured cliffs, with the usual repeating fractal shape that you find in the mountains there. On a flatter almost green (there isn’t much green) piece of tundra we saw a herd of the dwarf Reindeer endemic to Svalbard. Some good seabirds flew alongside the boat: an Arctic Skua, a Glaucous Gull, and lots of very dark plumaged (although not quite entirely blue) Fulmars, as well as lots of Kittiwakes.

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Coloured cliffs on the voyage to Pyramiden

Sailing onward, we stopped in front of the enormous Nordenskjold Glacier. The glacier had a strange blue colour, not at all natural looking, and more like the colour of some kind of kitchen cleaner. It was also very noisy, creaking and groaning, but what was strange was that there wasn’t much disturbance in the sea.

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It’s me and a glacier

We were all amazed when the captain shouted ‘Polar Bear’. I don’t think any of us quite believed him at first, but sure enough, there was a Polar Bear lying down on the ice, and not very far away. I tried to take a photo of it with my phone, but it didn’t come out (it was directly above the big blue hole at the water’s edge in the photograph below). It didn’t look at all white, in fact it was quite yellow; not quite as yellow as a ferret, but not far off.  It wandered about a bit, and we saw it for at least half an hour. We were very lucky to see the bear, and the captain told us that only about 20% of visitors to Svalbard see one. There are quite a few of them in the islands, with a population of about 1,000 or more, but most of Svalbard is extremely remote.


Nordenskjold Glacier (there’s a Polar Bear above the blue hole)

After the ‘ultimate’ Arctic experiences, my heart sank a little as we approached Pyramiden, which looked like any other heavily industrial plant, with the exception that it was high in the Arctic. The black of the coal was in stark contrast with the various white, greys, blues and greens of the ice and snow, especially against the Nordenskjold Glacier.

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Abandoned Russian mine workings at Pyramiden, note the glacier in the background

The mine was opened by Sweden in 1910 and sold to the Soviet Union in 1927. A largely self-supporting community of around 1,000 people lived at the site, and we saw buildings where they had pigs and chickens. Mining ceased in 1998 and the community was swiftly moved out. Pyramiden has since become a tourist destination, and is an extremely strange and disconcerting place. There is a fascinating narrative that it was abandoned virtually overnight and that the site is untouched, although we could see that this view needed some qualification as you could see people moving things around to stage photographs. On the whole, it was a very strange and voyeuristic experience, as we walked through the empty sports centre and a dark concert hall. The narrative was one of loss, of a way of life that was gone forever, although many of the people who lived there are presumably still living. Pyramiden was like a little piece of communist Russia deposited in the high Arctic, with soviet blocks of flats, a community centre and leisure centre, and the most northerly bust of Lenin in the world.

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Pyramiden monument- note the guide in Russian military uniform


Lenin statue looking out towards the Nordenskjold Glacier

Pyramiden was like many industrial heritage sites, in that the site’s apparent cleanliness belies what life must have been like when the site was active. Black coal and coal dust could be seen in places, but far greater quantities would have been visible when the mine was active. Nature is starting to reclaim the site, and we were shown a window that had been broken by a Polar Bear in the winter. A Purple Sandpiper fed at the edge of a pool while the guide told us the story of the site. We saw a beautiful Arctic Fox, called a Polar Fox by Norwegians, but I felt sad that it had a black mark on its back from crawling under the blackened pipes, and that people wanted to get as close as they possibly could to take photographs of it.

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Polar Fox at Pyramiden

On one block, there were clear signs that nature was reclaiming the site: a thick layer of guano on stairs below ledges where seabirds (presumably Kittiwakes) were nesting on the deserted buildings.

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Thick layer of bird droppings beneath seabird nests, Pyramiden

Pyramiden made a very strong impact on me, making me question some of my own beliefs about the Arctic. The contrast between the wonderful wild places surrounding Pyramiden, and the abandoned eyesore of the site itself, reminded me of the feeling when you go for a walk in the hills in Britain and find a fire circle that someone has left before you, except the feeling was magnified many times. What the Arctic is ‘for’ will become increasingly contested as it becomes more accessible, but I was extremely grateful to have had the  experience to think about what a range of different Arctic narratives might be.




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