With Stalinist architecture, a prominent bust of Lenin and posters extolling the motherland, the desolate mining town of Pyramiden is one of the last Soviet outposts in the Arctic.
The journey to Pyramiden, on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, felt a little like a journey to the ends of the Earth. First I flew to the north of Norway, to the outermost reaches of the European continent. Next, I boarded another plane north to Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital, on the island of Spitsbergen, an island closer to the North Pole than it is to Oslo. Then, just when I imagined that I had already reached the world’s furthest north – in a place where the sun doesn’t rise for four months of every year and doesn’t set for another four, a place where Arctic fox and Svalbard reindeer roam the streets – I went a little further.
The final leg to the all-but-abandoned coal-mining town left behind the known world, or, rather, the world as most of us know it. I sailed on the small, thrice-weekly tour boat from Longyearbyen, chugging out through churning Arctic waters while scanning the horizon for polar bears. By the time we rounded the first headland and turned for the far north, all was silence.
Looking like cartoon caricatures of Arctic birds, puffins flew alongside the boat, a prelude to the great seabird colonies on the cliffs. Clouds swirled around snow-bound summits and high valleys where the snows turned charcoal grey in mid-summer snow flurries, then blinding white in sudden sunshine rays. Great, grey, scalloped outcrops rose from fjord beaches, stony and deserted. I was in awe.
And then, across waters still nearly ice-bound deep into summer, lay Pyramiden.
Few arrivals convey the disconcerting power of pulling into Pyramiden. To the east, across the icy summer waters of Billefjorden, the glacier of Nordenskjöldbreen pushed relentlessly into the sea, a reminder that more than 60% of Svalbard consists of glaciers. Austere under summer cloud, elemental in its confluence of ice and water and rock, it was a poster child for Arctic beauty.
Pyramiden itself was littered with coal-mining detritus – steel girders and rusted ironworks lurching at odd angles, mine buildings collapsed into rubble, great mounds of black tailings – that loomed like a post-apocalyptic vision. Derelict mine railways scarred the steep hillside away to the north, while the grim uniformity of buildings built in the Stalinist style seemed to be trying their hardest to undo the beauty all around them. It could have been a movie set for a Cold War thriller in the Arctic.
But there on the pier was Sergei Rubelev, waving enthusiastically in his white fishing sweater and beaming smile. Pyramiden may be a neglected outpost of the old Soviet empire, but Rubelev was, more than anything else, a human happy for company at his place of lonely vigil, and his welcome was warm.
Apart from winter snowmobile expeditions and the occasional supply plane, Pyramiden is cut off from the outside world for eight or nine months of the year; not long before my arrival, Rubelev had over-wintered here. Starting in June or July, tourists descend on Svalbard’s capital, Longyearbyen (population 2,400), on cruise ships and daily flights, with dozens of excursions and activities on offer, from dog sledding, kayaking and hiking to boat excursions in search of walrus. Among these excursions are the small tourist boats carrying 10 to 15 travellers at a time (and sometimes supplies) to Pyramiden, numbers and weather permitting. Sometimes the boats drop off or pick up scientists or local trappers at isolated huts along the way. Even in summer, the boats sometimes can’t make it through the ice, and weeks pass without any boats arriving. No wonder Rubelev was happy to see us.
It was the Swedes who first discovered coal at Pyramiden in 1910. At the time, the legal status of Spitsbergen (as Svalbard was then known) was disputed; most of Norway’s Arctic neighbours considered Spitsbergen to be international territory where they could do as they pleased. In 1925, nations from the Arctic and beyond signed the Svalbard Treaty. Under the treaty’s terms, which remain in force to this day, the island archipelago belongs to Norway. But Norwegian power here is not absolute, and the treaty provides that “All citizens and all companies of every nation under the treaty are allowed to become residents and to have access to Svalbard including the right to fish, hunt or undertake any kind of maritime, industrial, mining or trade activity.”
Taking advantage of Svalbard’s somewhat anomalous legal status under the treaty, Sweden sold Pyramiden to Stalin’s Russia in 1927 and it became one of two Russian outposts on Spitsbergen (the other, Barentsburg, is much closer to Longyearbyen). These were coal-mining towns – coal was the only reason they existed – operating under the Soviet behemoth mining trust known as Arktikugol. Hard as it is now to believe, Pyramiden in the 1950s had more people living here – 2,500 – than today live in Longyearbyen. It even outlasted the Soviet empire: its 60km of mining shafts were still in use in the early 1990s.
“This land belongs to everyone, and it belongs to no-one”
However, it couldn’t and didn’t last. Dwindling coal production, coupled with the eye-watering cost and logistics of maintaining a town in such a forbidding place, sealed Pyramiden’s fate. The mines closed in 1998, and, there being no other reason to live here, the town was abandoned. Only a skeleton staff of Russians like Rubelev remain to keep watch, although for what purpose remains unclear; it is difficult to imagine anyone mounting a raid to seize this forsaken corner of the Earth, nor could Rubelev do much about it if they did.
As Rubelev led me along empty boulevards and past the hollowed shells of apartment blocks, a rifle slung over his shoulder to protect us from visiting polar bears, he smiled enigmatically when I asked whether we were walking on Russian or Norwegian soil. “Both. Neither. This land belongs to everyone, and it belongs to no-one.” He stopped for a moment, looking around him at the cracked pavements and Cyrillic slogans exhorting loyalty to, and extolling the virtues of, the Soviet Motherland. “If you want it, you’re welcome to it.” And then he laughed, a great belly-laugh that I sensed had been building in the lonely hours and days since the last boat arrivals came ashore.
I had never been anywhere quite like Pyramiden. It was a dispiriting place, a cliché of human folly, a vacant monument, poignant and solemn, to a fallen empire, all writ large against a backdrop of astonishing, jaw-dropping beauty. A bust of Lenin watched over a parade ground overgrown with weeds. In the gymnasium with its broken glass windows, posters from the 1950s called on the patriotism of athletes to run faster and jump higher. Elsewhere, the floorboards sagged and creaked along corridors of sad, monochrome apartment blocks with faded brown wallpaper and worn, brown carpet.
“When I am here, I count the days until I can leave. But then, when I am back home in Russia, I long for this place and its silence”
And yet, the view from the windows was arresting. High Arctic summits encircled the town, creating a glorious natural bowl by the water. Chill winds picked the earth clean, revealing a scene rendered somehow more beautiful when seen through the silhouette of a semi-collapsed steel tower. Looming above the town was the pyramid-shaped mountain that gives the town its name. And glaciers. Everywhere to the horizon, there were glaciers.
I asked Rubelev whether he could see the beauty of Pyramiden and its surrounds. “When I am here, I count the days until I can leave,” he replied. “But then, when I am back home in Russia, I long for this place and its silence.”
The tiny bar of the Tulpan Hotel was a snapshot of Pyramiden as it once was. Almost the entire population of Pyramiden – seven, at the time of my visit – sat at the bar where Olga Kuznetsova served vodka shots and discussed the news from far-off places. Over to the side by the window, were memorabilia – Lenin lapel pins, Karl Marx caps – that Kuznetsova sells to visitors whenever a boat comes to town. Kuznetsova’s father worked in the mines of Pyramiden and she spent part of her childhood here. Was she nostalgic for Pyramiden’s past, I wondered?
“Sometimes yes,” she replied in heavily accented English. “Sometimes it seems as if life was simpler back then. But the mind can play tricks. It was a hard life here. Now Pyramiden is like a house haunted by ghosts and that makes me sad. But for all that, I love it here. It is a special place. It gets under your skin. Once that happens, it is very difficult to leave.”