Barentsburg. A Russian City on a Norwegian Archipelago

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Barentsburg is yet another indication of Russian presence on Spitsbergen, but a “living” one. The coal mining town hasn’t brought any profit for its state for a long time. I don’t even know if coal mining in the Arctic has ever been profitable. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Arktikugol trust can only stay on the archipelago as long as it continues to support its coal mining business there. In other words, you either do something on the Norwegian territory or get out. So, Russia basically has to pay out of its budget for its presence on Svalbard. During the USSR period, the country had enough money to support as many as three coal mining settlements: Pyramiden, Grumant, and Barentsburg. It can no longer do it today. Grumant is completely abandoned, and Pyramiden is closed, leaving Barentsburg to prove to the world that Norwegians aren’t the only ones who can live in the Arctic. We went to Barentsburg a few days after the trip to Pyramiden, so I already had some idea about how the Russian town would look.

The Population of Barentsburg

Barentsburg has a regular population of 400 people. These are mostly miners from Eastern Ukraine and their families. It’s an interesting paradox: a Russian town on the Norwegian territory is inhabited by Ukrainians. But politics are rarely discussed here. The harsh Arctic unites all people. Overall, the town is rather well equipped with the necessary faculties, so I can somewhat understand why people would come to work and live here. The residential buildings were renovated to meet the inhabitants’ needs, and people can now choose one- or two-room apartments, depending on the family size. Around 60 children of the village attend the local kindergarten school.

Working in Barentsburg

Barentsburg is constantly in need of workers, and there is always a long list of vacancies. Most of them are for industrial workers, i.e. metalworkers, mechanics, miners, machinists, mine managers, etc. But during the Arctic summer, when cruise liners bring a lot of tourists to Barentsburg, English-speaking guides are needed. Waiters, bartenders, and cooks are also almost always in demand. If you’ve always dreamed of working in the Arctic, finding a job wouldn’t be too hard.

Wages in Barentsburg

A long time ago, one could buy an apartment after working in the Arctic for a short period, but that is no longer the case. Today, the wages range, depending on the qualification, from 500 dollars for an ordinary miner to 1,800 dollars for a chief engineer at the Barentsburg mine (as of 2018). One has to work in a rather narrow circle of people, and that also has its drawbacks. From my conversations with some of the people, I understood that conflicts happen more often in a closed community, so it’s very important to be stress-resilient.

Prices in Barentsburg

Even though the employees come to live in very harsh conditions, the Arktikugol trust provides food and residence for money. That is, the payment for food and residence is deducted from the monthly salary. Since the products are delivered from the continental part of Europe, the extra charge for them is rather high. The residence isn’t cheap either. A one-room apartment costs 100 dollars, and a two-room apartment costs 150 dollars per month. Special orders must be placed on additional items or products that are then delivered for a pretty high price. The sum is automatically charged to the salary card at the end of the month. A simple calculation shows that a very small sum is left at the employee’s disposal. Still, people are coming to the Arctic, not for the money but for the unforgettable experience the harsh land provides.

The Barentsburg Mine

The mine was initially owned by the Dutch, who started mining coal in 1920. In 1932, the mine was bought out by the Arktikugol trust. Working here is hard and risky since the place is highly explosive. The mine already suffered 5 accidents due to methane explosions that killed about 30 people. The mine’s accident rate is monitored by both Arktikugol and the governor of Spitsbergen. Nobody benefits from accidents on the archipelago. Coal is mined primarily for Barentsburg itself, only small amounts are exported to Europe. Russia doesn’t need the polar coal.

Communication in Barentsburg

Unlike Pyramiden, Barentsburg has full communication. There is Internet access, as well as 30 Russian TV channels. There is even coverage from the Russian carrier Megafon, so the town’s residents can make calls to the mainland with standard Russian rates, without using roaming. There are several Norwegian carriers, but their services are much more expensive. Furthermore, people can subscribe to the local magazine “Russkiy Vestnik Spitsbergena” (Spitsbergen’s Russian Bulletin). It is filled with all kinds of information, from historical facts to the Arctic fox diet.

Barentsburg’s Hospital

Several years ago, due to high tourist demand in summer, some buildings in the town were renovated, including the hospital. Now it is a big modern building with nice looking wards. Its regular staff consists of general practitioners, i.e. therapists, paediatricians, ENT doctors, etc. If you need a specialized doctor, you’ll have to go to the mainland or the Norwegian town Longyearbyen. You’ll have to pay for the trip yourself, though. Sometimes the townspeople help each other out and chip in for the medical services, which are very expensive in Norway. It’s best to undergo a full clinical examination before getting a job on Spitsbergen to make sure you have no health issues. It’s common for chronic diseases to get worse in the Arctic, so you might end up with medical expenses instead of income.

The Pool and the Library

The work conditions are very harsh during the Arctic winter, so the town has everything you need to keep both body and mind busy. There is a big covered pool with heated sea water. It is of most interest to people that don’t abandon working out even in the Arctic. Barentsburg’s library is a fount of useful information since all the books from Pyramiden were brought here. There are over 30 thousand books to choose from if you’re in a reading mood. So, you’ll always have something to occupy yourself with after work.

The World’s Northernmost Brewery

Numerous tourists visiting the town must be entertained. This function is fulfilled by the Red Bear Bar, one of the two breweries on the Spitsbergen archipelago (the other one is in Longyearbyen). Be sure to visit it, since it is a great way to experience the true polar spirit. Tradition demands that the volume of alcohol in a polar worker’s drink must be the same as their current latitude. The latitude of Barentsburg is 78, so the bar has a special cocktail named Latitude 78 with the appropriate volume. The menu has a curious description for people brave enough to drink it: “Only for strong men and Arctic ladies.” The ingredients are rather interesting: Blue Curaçao liqueur, peppermint, and 80% rum as a third layer. The shot looks very pretty, but be careful and don’t drive a snowmobile after drinking it. You’re guaranteed to have a blast.

Cats in Barentsburg

Keeping cats on Spitsbergen is prohibited by law. This rule is upheld by all residents of the archipelago. All but the Barentsburg’s miners. Because the archipelago has no trees, migratory birds have to nest on the ground. This puts their offspring at risk since the eggs can be eaten by Arctic foxes. Cats are also predatory animals that can cause even more damage to the bird population, so it’s prohibited to keep them as pets. Russian and Ukrainian miners, however, care little for Norwegian laws. They smuggle cats on Russian ships, so there is a small feline population in Barentsburg’s apartments. The governor of Spitsbergen either doesn’t know or pretends not to know about the illegal invasion. No action was taken to evict the kitties. There is a Russian saying that states “Life is not the same without a cat.” Obviously, it is especially true in the Arctic.

Barentsburg is a wondrous place. It is somewhat inconsistent, somewhat archaic and lost in time, but without a doubt unique. Foreigners come here to immerse themselves in the Soviet lifestyle and take some pictures against the communist slogans, while CIS residents come here to reminisce about the USSR. And every visitor will have a different experience. Someone comes here for the money, and someone comes here for the unique opportunity to work in the Arctic. But believe me when I say that you’ll never forget your visit to Barentsburg. It is a fragment of the Soviet past that was lost in the Norwegian waters of the Arctic Ocean. The question is, how long will it be there?

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