On the Road: A Russian Town in the Norwegian Arctic

by Bill Murray

Two dozen strangers meet by the fjord at the edge of town. We are utterly out of our element, tourists through and through. Today we shall pound across the tundra on snowmobiles, a means of conveyance most of us have never been aboard.

We’re all curious about our tour company-issued Arctic wear. We paw through different sizes and splay ourselves out across the room pulling on one-piece snowmobile suits.

The outfitters can’t be responsible for your hypothermia, so you strap yourself into their suit, boots, helmet, goggles and today, double balaclavas because it is cold cold, the guide named Hans Peter says. One man opts out of the trip rather than surrender his medical shoes for mandatory fur boots.

The suits work. They keep you if not warm, not cold either. The danger is the contact points between goggles and balaclava because if you expose skin there while moving at 35 or 50 kilometers per hour, wind chill will cause frostbite in short order.

All suited up, everybody looks like everybody else. Anonymity serves as metaphor for the dark season here, where the sun set on October 25th and only rose again (for an hour) on February 15th.

This is Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway, eight hundred miles from the North Pole. Our destination, across the island, is a Russian settlement called Barentsburg.

They put 22 of us through a precious few novice moves, how to drive a snowmobile. Just a five-minute lesson because there really isn’t much to learn. Push this to start the engine, pull that to go, wiggle your body with the curves. And supervision is close at hand.

They herd us in a tentative straight line along a coastal plain, the Isfjorden to our left, just a little ice bobbing in the water, shuttered and abandoned coal mines on our right, busy with the pylons of old coal-carrying cableways, stacked up along the hill that hems in Longyearbyen to the east.

The propriety of handing unfamiliar go-fast machines to anybody who shows up, I’m not sure about that, but opening up to 70 kph is a pure thrill. Now we are firing across capacious plains ringed by snow-laden hills. From here to Barentsberg we run for forty, fifty minutes between stops. First, we buckle in, adjust our balaclavas and goggles to cover our faces and plunge into an extended run the length of Adventdalen, the valley behind the ridge east of Longyearbyen.

Clean, dry, bitterly cold. Utterly unmediated by man save for snowmobile tracks. Beauty no one sees. Bits of moisture not quite snow, not hail or rain, evanescent, suspended, rising as often as they fall in the monochrome. The air is alive but the earth is stone still.

It tickles me, the grim military bearing our leaders wield like a club to bring all these unsteady novices to a stop. Up front Hans Peter surges forward and opens up a little space between him and the pack so that he can hop off his mount and guide us all in for a rest stop, forming up in rows four or five abreast. He moves to each spot and rotates his forearm down from the elbow with a stiff wrist flick and I imagine a scowl of doom behind his helmet.

We stop on a low rise called a pingo, a dome-shaped mound like a mini-volcano, formed in permafrost when artesian groundwater freezes and rises under pressure from the water below. Pingos take decades or longer to form, often at the base of fells (fell, “fjall” is the Old Norse word for mountain), as has the one on whose summit we sit frozen to our seats this morning.

Interesting in a textbook maybe, but you don’t read textbooks on a lump of frozen tundra. It is not unlike the landscape as far as the eye can see. With the temperature firmly, stubbornly below zero, I use Hans Peter’s pingo lecture as an opportunity to dab ineffectually at my nose and balaclavas with my mittens, and readjust my goggles.

I have run into the indelicate problem of a very runny nose. Your nose is meant to prep the outside air to meet your nice warm, moist lungs. Cold air is usually dry, so when you breathe in, your nose is preauthorized to add moisture, and will automatically produce fluid. Then when you exhale, the outside air can’t hold all the moisture in the nice warm air inside you, so it condenses right there on the tip of your nose. Cold air gets you coming and going.

There may be an avoidance technique the accomplished snowmobiler knows but I have no idea. In long stretches of snowmobiling there is no opportunity to clean your balaclava, so the problem … accumulates. At occasional stops, wearing mittens with only thumbs, it is a challenge to, ah, rectify the problem, especially in the midst of your 21 new best friends.  At least we are anonymous.

My fingers have formed to the shape of the handlebar grip; my shoulders are frozen high-and-tight to my neck. We thunder into Grøndalen, green valley, that leads to Grønfjorden, green fjord, a liquid icicle intruding fifteen kilometers inland from the larger Isfjorden. A track along the eastern shore, our entrée to Barentsburg.

Driving conditions are good because now, late-in-the-season, snow is compacted, and that’s where snowmobiles work best. Their tracks naturally slide into grooves made by those who came before.

•••••

If, as Sylvain Tesson suggests, the art of civilization is combining the most delicate pleasures with the constant presence of danger, then Norway has not civilized this archipelago, but only the little settlement at Longyearbyen.

For outside of town, on the other side of those Beware of Polar Bears signs, there is only ice. None of the perpendiculars of carpentry, no angular form fashioned by man. Just snow, ice, a horizon that undulates, and sky. No sound but snowmobile engines and the wind in your helmet.

No evidence of life beyond us and the sound of our engines. No animals, no birds, no roads or road signs, no cables carrying power or pipes pumping water. An entirely inanimate place, or at least one whose only animation, the glacial movement of ice, evades our perception.

To the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, adventure was just bad planning, but to the poor lady in our improbable tribe who inexplicably veers off alone, so deep into uncompacted snow that her snowmobile judders to a halt in a bank she tosses up higher than she, snowmobiling is no adventure.

There is no reason why. It just happens. We pull up to wait while they fish her out of the snowbank. She is shaken and insists on riding pillion from now on. They tow her snowmobile.

While we wait the sun bursts through the clouds onto the opposite shore, so gorgeous, so pristine, all the earth silent. We are thirty five miles of coastline toward the Greenland Sea from Longyearbyen and we might as well be alone in the world.

We leave our machinery in a big jumble in the middle of Barentsburg town – happy not to be vibrating to the motor and bouncing on the snow – and fan out along Main Street. A Lenin statue, the kindergarten, housing blocks, a brewery. The Orthodox church perches lonely at the far end of town, toward the water. The most modern-looking building, the Russian consulate, sits way at the back of town, behind the blocks of flats.

Walking one end of town to the other and back takes scarcely ten minutes. Then it takes a half hour for all of us to climb out of our gear, find our own place on the floor to make a pile of it and assemble in the dining hall, and another half hour to repeat the process in reverse when it is time to go.

Outpost Barenstburg’s Sovietness is decades and a Cold War away in style. Even this far from the Motherland it has what the young Croatian writer Sara Nović calls the “Eastern Bloc aura – the posturing with size and cement.”

Could Norilsk, way up the River Lena, feel like this? It must be even more bleak out there in Siberia. Barentsburg’s coal dust must be cleaner than living by a nickel smelter. If the eastern shore of Gronfjorden is this bereft of succor, Norlisk, where life expectancy doesn’t even touch fifty, must be a not very virtual hell.

Arktikugol, the mining company and only local employer, has been pulling coal out of the ground in Barentsburg since 1932. Arktikugol bought the operation from a Dutch company which named Barentsberg after the Dutchman who discovered Svalbard in 1596. Barentsburg was shelled to the ground by the German battleship Tirpitz during World War Two after its Soviet citizenry had been evacuated to Arkangelsk.

Most workers are Donbass Ukrainian. Léo Delafontaine, a French photographer who has made three trips here (and whose expertise informs my impressions of Barentsburg), tells me the conflict in eastern Ukraine bubbles not far underneath the surface:

“You can find in Barentsburg pro-Russians, pro-Ukrainians, pro Donbass Republic. In my opinion, pro-Russians are more willing to express their opinion. And the pro-Ukraininans are more discreet. But everybody knows in the town on which side you are. They just don’t talk about it in order to avoid conflicts. Barentsburg is very small, and it’s better like this.”

Life in the mine may be dangerous as the civil war back home, above ground may be cold, but you won’t be sniped dead from the rooftop across the way. The pay, around $1,000 a month, runs triple what they might get back home, even if it is in rubles. Which is okay with most workers, who come from the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine.

They mostly sign up for two-year deals. A few come from farther corners of the former Soviet space. Tajiks and Armenians do less skilled work. Armenians tend to work in construction so they mostly live in Barentsburg in summer. Tajiks clear the snow. While the Russians and Ukrainians have proper apartments, the couple dozen Tajiks and Armenians sleep in dormitories or shared flats.

There is no cash money in Barentsburg. Rubles are paid to a magnetic card issued when the worker signs up with Arktikugol. The canteen and  supermarket are priced in rubles.

But this is Norway, after all, and so the hotel bar takes Norwegian kroner. Much better for the hotel, also owned by Arktikugol, but not so great for workers.

It is a fair question how much post-Soviet life has improved: spending your pay (in scrip) only at the company store. Trudging to your frozen dormitory after mining coal grim and underground. Eying the bulging muscles of the heroic workers on the murals, knowing their time – like the Lenin statue’s – is firmly past.

Out front of your door a rusty monument mocks you: “Our Goal – Communism!” With an exclamation mark. (There are prettier murals, of fishies and flowers, children and walruses and whales).

If you must grasp for superlatives, you can claim Barentsburg as the second-largest settlement in Svalbard, which is true, but besides Barentsburg and Longyearbyen there are only Ny-Ålesund, a research station with a population of 35 this time of year, two Norwegian meteorological outposts with populations of ten and four, and a Polish science station with a population under a dozen. In the good old days over a thousand fellow Russians lived in the mining community of Pyramiden, just across the fjord, but they abandoned that operation in 1998. 

But wait just a minute. What? Russians and Poles? What are they doing in Norway in the first place? Svalbard’s origin, like Antarctica as a territory not owned by any nation, became untenable once mineral wealth was discovered. At Versailles nine countries signed the Svalbard Treaty making the archipelago part of the Kingdom of Norway but guaranteeing all the signatories the right to carry out commercial activity (the list has grown to 42 today including Afghanistan and North Korea). Russia keeps Barentsburg no more for coal than as a perch alongside NATO’s northern flank.

During the most frigid part of the Cold War workers sought out the Barentsburg cold. There was a sports palace and a cultural center. There was a cow house and a greenhouse and food from the mainland, and all of the food was free. Everything was free. No unemployment. A worker’s paradise. Barentsburg was a self-contained mini-city, the mining business supporting the cinema, the apartments, day care. The collapse of the Soviet Union was as tough on Barentsburg as it was on Russia. Barentsburg’s population fell from over 1,300 to about 350 today. 

In 1996 an Arktikugol-chartered flight carrying 141 workers and their families slammed into the mountain Operafjell on approach to Longyearbyen. There were no survivors. The crash so devastated the Russian community that it precipitated the closure of Pyramiden. Since then five Russian helicopters have crashed. Since 1989 forty workers have died in the mines beneath this ground.

There is a small museum and a sports center with pool. In Chernobyl I saw the Olympic-sized pool they built for the leading Soviet scientists who came to live in that model city. I didn’t see the pool in Barentsburg but I learned it is about half Olympic size.

There is a textile factory that clothes the miners and a Norwegian company uses the factory’s low prices to produce traditional Norwegian costumes. Fifty kids live here, or twenty. The numbers change year to year. There is a kindergarten and a primary school. The murals of flowers and fishies  and children at play are pretty but not entirely accurate. Children must play inside in the winter.

There is no movie theatre now, replaced by the internet in the early 2010s.

Heading home, we drive through intermittent but ferocious bursts of snow, reducing all visual cues to one – the tail light on the snowmobile in front of you. Damn it Hans Peter, slow down up there before my last connection with color in the whole wide world disappears. I’m not going to lose sight of that tail light. I will not become lost in the Arctic snow.

As we are about to gun it over the glacier and back into Longyearbyen, an attempt that takes two tries because some of our fellows miss the approach, Sigrid, the trailing guide, comes around to each of our snowmobiles to make sure we engage “sport mode.”

“We like sports here,” she explains.

It shows. She doesn’t need to be drawn to boast of her project for the coming summer – filming the eastern fjords by kayak.

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