Mining for spies in the Arctic.
I was only south of the equator once, that was back in 2009, when I sailed through the Beagle Channel and around Cape Horn on Skip Novak’s Pelagic Australis. That expedition started and finished in the Chilean Naval town of Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino, the southernmost permanent settlement in the world at 54º56’S, just under 3,900 kms from the South Pole.
Ever since then (and probably because of mild OCD) I’ve always felt the need to complete the set and visit its northernmost equivalent – in 2017 I was fortunate enough to do just that.
Longyearbyen is the largest settlement on Spitzbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago and less than 1,000 kms miles from the North Pole – but at 78º13’N, the climate here is much more extreme than it’s southernmost counterpart.
Researching my trip in advance, I was fascinated to read about the abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden, a couple of hundred kms north of Longyearbyen, and immediately set about putting plans in place to visit.
During the winter months, Pyramiden is only accessible by skidoo, which are a great way to travel and capable of high speeds over flat ice – but not this time. Recent ice storms had caused the formation of rock hard sastrugi (wave patterned ice) for large parts of the journey. That coupled with dangerously thin sea-ice, fresh avalanches and high mountain pass diversions, all conspired to turn what should have been a relatively straight forward 6 hour journey from Longyearbyen, in to a back-breaking 200km, 12 hour ordeal!
At one point it looked very much like I wasn’t going to make it there – or back! You can read about that story in another blog post here.
My guide in Pyramiden is Yevgeny, I was fully expecting him to be Russian, but he turns out to be Georgian – so his take on the Cold War days of the Soviet Union is perhaps a little jaundiced to say the least.
The coal mine was initially built by Sweden in 1910, then taken over by the Soviet Union in 1927, throughout the 70s & 80s it was a thriving community of over 1,000 inhabitants. During that period, the USSR invested massive amounts of money to develop the settlement. They constructed dozens of new buildings, including a hospital, a school and a recreation centre called the ‘Cultural Palace’ which included an indoor basketball/football hall, a library, music and ballet studios and a theatre which, to this day, hosts ‘Red October’ the most northerly grand piano in the world (it needs tuning).
There was also a heated indoor swimming pool and a large cafeteria, complete with an enormous stairwell mosaic depicting the Svalbard landscape and heroes of Norse legend. All the buildings were built in the typical low-rise, Soviet block-style, many with rounded corners to lessen the impact of the savage Arctic winds.
Residents were assigned to different residential halls, which soon acquired their own nicknames. There was ‘London’ for single men, and ‘Paris’ for the few unmarried women who came to Pyramiden – there was also a pub on the ground floor of the ladies’ building – it’s rumoured that a tunnel connected ‘London’ and ‘Paris’. ‘The Crazy House’ was for families and earned its name because of the noise from the children who would play in the hallways (well, you can’t really expect them to play outside in -40°c). All of these buildings remain completely intact to this day.
Residents had all the comforts they could wish for and Yevgeny tells me only the best and brightest were selected to work here, it was considered a privilege to be chosen. But the reality, I suspect, may have been quite different.
It almost seemed that extracting coal was far less important than building the perfect, idyllic community.
To this day the Russian mining town of Barentsberg, 50km to the west of Longyearbyen, is still active. However the amount of coal they extract is minimal, causing many people to question the real reason for the Russian presence. There’s no doubt that the Svalbard archipelago has major geopolitical significance to the Northern Fleet, not to mention the as yet untapped offshore oil and gas deposits.
Who doesn’t love a good Russian spy story set in the frozen tundra?
I point to a small office building with darkened windows that overlooks the main square, it seems detached from all the others and ask what this was used for. Yevgeny sheepishly tells me that this was actually the KGB headquarters where dossiers were kept on every employee (and of course, their families back home)! But I get the feeling that I’m still not getting the full story – I guess the inherent Russian fear of authority is very real to this day – probing questions about life in Soviet Russia are brushed off with humorous quips and slightly nervous laughter – perhaps the KGB are still listening?
With a bit more probing, Yevgeny admits that the ultra-strict Communist regime in those days insisted that you were an wholly active, functioning member of the community and that you join in with every activity. If you didn’t play football, they put you on a football team – if you didn’t play music, they gave you a musical instrument and taught you how to play it. Spending time by yourself was simply not acceptable and considered to be highly suspicious behaviour.
Pyramiden of course, was always outside the ‘Iron Curtain’, so there were no restrictions on westerners visiting the settlement – in fact they were actively encouraged to do so (although just getting there was probably restriction enough). At the time, the Soviet Union was very keen for the west to see just how idyllic life was in this ‘typical’ Russian settlement. Probably an early example of ‘fake news’?
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s and then a tragic plane crash a few years later near Longyearbyen, that killed 142 residents of Pyramiden – the mine was permanently closed in 1998.
Twenty years later, it remains almost exactly as it was left – school books in the dusty classrooms, personal possessions and bed linen in the dormitory buildings and the most northerly bust of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin still surveying the settlement from outside the ‘Cultural Palace’.
Scientists say that because of the slow rate of decay in these northern latitudes, the town is quite likely to remain intact for hundreds of years to come.
Today, Pyramiden is slowly being re-born as a tourist destination – a fascinating window into a forgotten history and it is well worth a visit. The Pyramiden Hotel has been re-developed from one of the former dormitory buildings and is surprisingly comfortable and well appointed, the Russian staff are exceptionally welcoming.
During the winter months apart from Polar Bears, only handful of hardy souls on skidoos visit Pyramiden – I was lucky enough to be one of them. But in summer during the midnight sun when the sea-ice has melted, the place comes alive with wildlife – all manner of birds, arctic fox, walrus, seals, whales, narwhal. There is a ship that runs from Longyearbyen to Pyramiden every couple of days during the summer – a wildlife photographer’s dream!
Wandering through these old buildings, you very quickly forget that you are in one of the most remote places on earth. This after all is the high Arctic, the climate here above the 79th parallel is exceptionally hostile and the domain of one of the most fearsome predators on earth – Polar Bear like to wander the streets of Pyramiden all year round, so if you do plan to visit, take a guide and take a gun!
With thanks to: