In Little Russia Lenin watches over you as you drink 78% shots at 78° north.
Barentsburg is the second largest settlement on Svalbard with about 500 people, who are all almost exclusively Russian or Ukranian. What are the Russians doing so far east in what is technically Norwegian land, you may ask? Well, Barentsburg is one of the last active remnants of the Svalbard coal mining rush from the 19th century (here‘s my mini Svalbard history crash course if you want to know more).
In the 1920s after the Svalbard treaty was signed, only Norwegian and Russian coal miners remained on Svalbard, working for two rival coal companies: Store Norske and Arktikugol. There were several active coal mines spread out across the land, as Svalbard coal is of superb quality, but lots of them had to be closed because of accidents, depletion or economic loss due to the remoteness of their location and the logistics associated with it. The Norwegian Longyearbyen and the Russian Barentsburg ended up being the largest towns on Svalbard and like all the others both of them started out as company towns, i.e. owned by the coal company and meant as residence settlements for workers.
While Longyearbyen is now owned by the government and became the tourism hub of Svalbard, Barentsburg is still a company town with an active coal mine, both owned by Arktikugol. Nonetheless, it is possible to visit Barentsburg, as the company recently started to invest in tourism as well. The town is the last remaining Russian settlement on Svalbard and rather difficult to reach over land, as it located about 60 km away from Longyearbyen in Isfjorden and there are no roads connecting it to anything else. You need a snowmobile to reach it in winter and they also have a helicopter. In the summer it’s possible to visit by boat, which is what I did when I visited in June 2019.
Since I was a bit pressed for time and money, I chose the 1 day high speed boat trip option to both Barentsburg and Pyramiden (each a half day trip separately), another Russian mining town, which was abandoned in 1998 and is now a popular ghost town. It’s possible to visit them separately on different types of boats (larger high speed cruisers or smaller, more adventurous boats), depending on your budget and how much you want to be shaken in your seat during the boat ride (find your boat trip here). The day I visited was a beautiful sunny day, which quickly turned darker and gloomier out on the steel Arctic waters. The scenery on the way there was breathtaking and we also got to see the Global Seed Vault on the outskirts of Longyearbyen as we passed by.
On the way
When we got to Barentsburg we were met by a Russian guide who told us all about the town and its history. Most of them work in the mine and live in the town with their families, which is why Barentsburg is a proper town with a hospital, a primary school, a coal-fired power station, kindergarten, sports and cultural centre with a gym and a swimming pool, Russian scientific research centre and even a Russian consulate (Svalbard is officially in Norway after all). The first thing you see upon arrival though, is the busy, industrial harbour and the old, derelict houses on the waterfront. The houses used to house workers back when Barentsburg was still a Dutch settlement in the 19th century before the Russians got their hands on it, which is also how the town got its name after the Dutch Arctic explorer Willem Barents. Later on Arktikugol built a more modern dorm building for the workers and the old houses are now considered cultural heritage, but it seems like the Russians haven’t fully decided what to do with them yet.
The guide took us on a short walk around the town and told us a bit about the history of each building. She also claimed that some long-term residents of Barentsburg love living there and that many children who were raised there often returned to work for Arktikugol. To me it smelled a bit like the usual Russian propaganda of “everything is great in our peaceful little town”, but given the beauty of Svalbard and its otherworldly charm it just might be true. According to statistics though, most workers come to Barentsburg for about 2 years, because they earn more there than they ever would in mainland Russia. The conditions are very harsh and during winter they often have to drive from the workers’ dorm to the mine entrance with a car, even though it’s only a 5 minute walk, because the winds can be too strong to get anywhere. We were told the work day is about 6 hours of actual work and about 2 hours of getting down into the mine and back up, but obviously we couldn’t visit the mine. Also, here’s a documentary about the life of coal miners in Barentsburg.
The whole town is surprisingly colourful and its architecture is distinctly Russian and industrial, which is why it’s been nicknamed Little Russia. In fact the workers are actually paid in Russian currency, which they can spend by using their company cards, as they’d officially have to use Norwegian crowns instead. Barentsburg is practically cashless if you don’t count the money the tourists bring in.
Plenty of buildings are covered in street art: some of it is ideological Soviet work propaganda, like an image of a miner with light exploding from his hand and the words: The work of the coal miner provides peace and energy for space rockets. A miner’s hardworking hand yields heat and light for everyone., and some of it, like the art on the school walls, was inspired by the Pomors’s history (Russian early Arctic explorers, hunters and fishermen). Then there’s also the random poem/road blessing mural on the town hall wall, which can be translated as:
…so, where ever you now
still have yet to travel,
On the road of any springtime
You’ll yearn for the polar north,
You’ll see but dreams of snow.
Barentsburg actually has a museum dedicated to the Pomors and their trading activities, called the Pomor museum, but it’s in Russian only. I was told it has a good geological collection though.
Besides the Pomor museum Barentsburg also has it’s own post office, where you can get your passport stamped. Since I wasn’t travelling with a passport, I got my stamp on a postcard. And while we’re at it, Barentsburg is the only place on Svalbard with a cat. Cats were banned in the 90s to protect the local wildlife and bringing them on the archipelago is not allowed. However, some Russian managed to bring in a cat, which was apparently registered as a fox to bypass the regulations and it’s been living in Barentsburg ever since. It’s a ginger cat named Kesha and she lives out in the wild, although the locals occasionally take her in during the coldest nights.
On a more sombre note, the town also has a small wooden Orthodox chapel built in 1996 to commemorate a plane crash in which 141 people died. The plane crash was one of the few that ever happened on Svalbard, which is quite tricky to navigate due to unpredictable weather conditions, but it was the one with the most fatalities. The chapel also has a set of bells that can only be rung with the blessing of a priest. Since there were no priests around I let them be.
Additionally, Barentsburg has a hotel and a even hostel, which has the cheapest rates on Svalbard, so you can actually stay there overnight if you want. The Barentsburg hotel naturally has a bar, where you can try their signature cocktail, and there’s also the Krasniy medved (Red bear) pub and brewery, where they brew their own craft beer. Of course, if you’ve made it this far north, you also deserve a shot with the latitude alcohol percentage, meaning that it’s time for 78% vodka, because life in the Arctic is a party (seriously, they imposed severe restrictions on alcohol sale, because people kept getting drunk as skunks during the dark winter period).
Impressions of Barentsburg
As you can probably imagine, Barentsburg also has a small souvenir shop. They sell the usual tourist crap souvenirs like magnets and t-shirts, but they also sell local handmade traditional products. I ended up buying a small figurine made of dough in accordance with the Pomor tradition.
Kozuli are tiny figurines made from hard rye dough and then baked. The tradition of making them dates back to the 12th century, while the name kozuli comes from koza, the Russian word for goat or more likely any kind of horned animal, as kozuli are typically goats, rams, deer etc. Kozuli had a ritual meaning and were meant to bring blessings into the house or upon a married couple, to ensure peace and good fortune.
The guided tour part was only about an hour and after that we were free to explore Barentsburg as we pleased. I think I saw almost everything, but I would’ve liked to have a bit more time, because the place is really unique and set against the stunning backdrop of Isfjorden. The boat trip I took was meant as a half-day trip though, so we soon had to go back to the boat and then it was onwards to Pyramiden and Grumant and the bird cliffs on the way.