Barentsburg highlights

Barentsburg, you say? Where on earth… ?

The Svalbard archipelago has four settlements of significant size, one of them is Russian. Norway has sovereignty over the archipelago, but the Treaty of Svalbard ensures all parties equal access to scientific and economic activities in the islands.

Enter the Soviet Union. Since 1932, Russian company Trust Arktikugol has run coal mines on Svalbard. Once, they had four settlements in the archipelago. Today, you can visit two of these. Pyramiden is abandoned, slightly spooky and very interesting (more on that in a later post). Barentsburg (named for Dutch polar explorer Willem Barentz) is Russia’s last remaining settlement in the Arctic.

Arriving by boat, the M/S Polar Girl of Longyearbyen, this is my first impression of the little mining community:

Barentsburg, Svalbard

Barentsburg, Svalbard
Barentsburg harbour

Oleg, a Ukrainian, greets us as we dock. The town itself is 254 steps up; not a place for the physically challenged. But once you’re up, most things are located along Main Street, ulitsa Ivana Starostina.

Barentsburg, Svalbard
Main Street

Formerly a colony of about 3 000, this chilly Arctic community provides economically attractive employment. 5 000 Norwegian kroner (about 600 EUR/900 USD) is the monthly salary. Barentsburg is also a non-monetary community. Whatever the residents use in the cafeteria, shop or bar, is subtracted from their accounts. The remaining salary is then paid on return to the motherland after the 2-year-contract is up.

Today, Barentsburg is home to 300 Russian and Ukrainian miners, wives and children. Or 1 000, according to other sources. Let’s go with Oleg’s estimate: 550 – a happy medium. At any rate, the number is decreasing. With a nearly empty mine and a dwindling population, the Russians must devise new plans to keep the place alive.

As we saw a few years ago, the Russians will hardly give up their presence in the Arctic. What will they do – apart from planting Russian flags underground? Five years ago, plans were afoot to recreate the little Arctic community into an environmental flagship. So far, not much has happened.

Near these houses is a statue of Lenin. Can’t believe I didn’t photograph it. Instead, enjoy this example of… shall we call it development in architectural styles.

Barentsburg, Svalbard
Old and new… well, new-ish… Barentsburg houses

The world’s northernmost Russian-Orthodox chapel was built in memory of 141 people who died in a 1996 plane crash and 23 miners who perished in a mine explosion a year later.

Barentsburg, Svalbard
The world’s northernmost Russian Orthodox chapel – probably the world’s northernmost chapel of any religion

Pomor Museum

The Pomor Museum is a tribute to the staunch people who first explored these northern shores. It also features interesting archaeological and zoological displays, including a dinosaur footprint from the area. We spend a good hour. My eyes keep reverting to a low flimsy tent and a thin sleeping bag, trying to imagine shivering through freezing Arctic winter nights in one.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard comes to mind, one of Scott’s men in that fateful Antarctic expedition 100 years ago. In his book The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley describes a winter journey to collect emperor penguin eggs. When telling of freezing in temperatures of 70 degrees below zero, he describes it as a succession of shivering fits taking possession of his body for many minutes at a time, until he thought his back would break from the strain.

Pomor Museum, Barentsburg, Svalbard Pomor Museum, Barentsburg, Svalbard

Several roads lead from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg. Or rather, several means of transportation will get you there. In winter, i.e. for most of the year, you can choose a dog sled, a snowmobile, skis or even a helicopter, if you’re on official business. In summer, it’s a leisurely boat trip away or a 2-day hike. Remember to bring a rifle for polar bear protection. Rifles can be hired in Longyearbyen if you can prove you know how to use one.

You can sleep at Hotel Barentsburg. It’s fairly simple. And fairly reasonable (certainly compared to Longyearbyen hotels). Book by phone + 47 79 02 18 14.

Barentsburg, Svalbard
A Barentsburg family enjoying a Sunday walk

Food, vodka and entertainment in the hotel bar:

Barentsburg, Svalbard Barentsburg, Svalbard

…then perhaps more vodka at the Cafe Bar 78 parallel?

Barentsburg, Svalbard

Send a postcard home from Barentsburg post office. It’s a branch of Longyearbyen post office, thus stamps will be Norwegian. But there’s a special Barentsburg postmark.

Post office, Barentsburg, Svalbard

Get your Soviet kitsch at the cultural centre and only shop in town, Polar Star. I bought Glacial El Dorado Spitsbergen, a gorgeous photo book with English and Russian texts for 100 kroner, a bargain.

Barentsburg, Svalbard
Strapping young Soviets adorn the cultural centre

Svalbard Things To Do on raveable


For a longer narrative on Barentsburg, have a look at my article The Last Remaining Russian Settlement on Svalbard.

For more PhotoFriday fun, have a look at DeliciousBaby.

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38 Responses to “Barentsburg highlights”

  1. RyukyuMike 7 July 2011 1449 #

    Wow ! The photos and story here just blow me away. Super post, Sophie. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Randy 7 July 2011 1827 #

    Awesome! Beautiful and slightly eerie. Are those two (woman in green and man in black) singing Karaoke?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 7 July 2011 2002 #

      @Mike and @Randy Thanks, guys 🙂

      No, they weren’t singing karaoke. I think it was a visiting Russian duo. They were singing what sounded like melancholic Russian folk music. We just happened upon some sort of feast that had just finished.

  3. Abby 7 July 2011 2203 #

    Walking along Main Street in a small Russian town in the Arctic just doesn’t seem real! I think I’d need a lot of that vodka to stay warm….

  4. jade 8 July 2011 0151 #

    The idea of using what you need and that being taken out of your pay is an interesting concept for living… I agree with Abby- I’m not sure this town seems real!

  5. Italian Notes 8 July 2011 0952 #

    I didn’t know Russia had a settlement in the arctic. Thanks for interesting insight.

  6. Sherry 8 July 2011 1240 #

    I have to say, I learn something new from you with almost every post. Russia’s last remaining settlement in the Arctic is something I would never have known about by chance without you and it kind of reminds me of some of the small island villages in the Puget Sound. Of course, its fitting since the US’s Pacific NW has a very strong Norwegic and Russian influence. I like that Barentsburg still keeps its charm and is still accessible today. Sounds like a great stop when visiting some arctic locations.

  7. Dominique 8 July 2011 1634 #

    I’ve always wanted to visit some of the Arctic areas of the world. Looks fascinating to me!

  8. Jessica 8 July 2011 1702 #

    That was a fascinating read. Thanks for helping me learn something today. I am glad to hear that other people neglect to take pictures of important things and then kick themselves for it later. Love the chapel.

  9. Jeremy Branham 8 July 2011 1911 #

    Love the Russia-Norway mix here. This would have been a great “Where in the world am I?” destination! 🙂

  10. Sonja 8 July 2011 1929 #

    Fascinating and so informative. What an interesting place!

  11. Wanderluster 8 July 2011 2258 #

    Wow, we are SO not in Kansas anymore!

  12. PreparingForTakeoff 9 July 2011 0426 #

    The arctic is definitely on our list it looks so different and interesting, we were thinking of Norway.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 9 July 2011 0533 #

      @PreparingForTakeoff – the Arctic is indeed a fascinating place – harsh, brutal, yet absurdly beautiful! Lots of opportunities to experience teh arctic in Norway, both in the Svalbard Archipelago and on the mainland. Come in summer for the midnight sun, or winter to see the Northern lights.

  13. Turkey's For Life 9 July 2011 0650 #

    I love the little orthodox chapel. Apart from that, what a really odd place. I think I would go a bit crazy living there.

  14. inka 9 July 2011 0805 #

    Sophie, this looks so much like Greenland. These harsh unexotic places have a great attraction all their own.

  15. robin 9 July 2011 1537 #

    I’m loving the look of that live music act.

  16. The Travel Chica 9 July 2011 1737 #

    I had not heard of a non-monetary community before. Very interesting. Makes you wonder what will happen to this place in a few years.

  17. Erich F. 9 July 2011 2232 #

    What an intriguing, almost surrealistic place this looks. Thanks for pointing me to Apsley Cherry-Garrard, too. I love reading memoirs of polar explorers.

  18. Tina 9 July 2011 2249 #

    Love this article. As always, I learn heaps from you about the most unusual places. Do polar bears ever wander into town?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 10 July 2011 1144 #

      @ Erich – So do I! Just finished Shackleton’s South – been reading it on and off for years, didn’t want to it to finish. I recommend Apsley’s fascinating account as well. And Amundsen’s The South Pole, of course :). Naturally, he’s in focus this year because of the centenary celebrations of the first expedition to reach the South Pole.

      @ Tina – Yes, polar bears do meander into the towns every now and then, both in Barentsburg and Longyearbyen. Important to be aware.

  19. Christina 11 July 2011 0021 #

    This is amazing! What an unusual place, and what an unusual place to travel to. True exploring! Thanks for sharing this with us.

  20. Lisa 18 July 2011 0039 #

    That place is completely unexpected! Wow, what brought you there?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 July 2011 1226 #

      @Lisa – Curiosity brought me there 🙂

  21. A Lady in London 21 July 2011 2253 #

    Great post! I love the photos, too! What a unique place.

  22. Lewis 12 October 2011 0456 #

    Thanks for helping me learn something today. That was a fascinating read. I am glad to hear that other people neglect to take pictures of important things and then kick themselves for it later.

  23. Calogero 26 October 2011 2326 #

    Nice photos :-).

  24. Andrew 28 October 2011 2121 #

    That is such a fascinating place, but one I have utterly no urge to visit. I am not so much into sweating, but the idea of that kind of barren coldness doesn’t appeal at all.

    Thanks for sharing so I don’t have to go on my own. 🙂

  25. Louise 9 November 2011 2200 #

    Your kids get the most unusual experiences. Inspiring!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 9 November 2011 2333 #

      Thanks, Louise 🙂

  26. Rodney Laing 1 September 2012 1146 #

    Do you know if Barentsburg Hotel has a website or e-mail contact. I’m hoping to fly to Longyearbyen then make my way to Barentsburg by boat and stay 3 nights to fully emerse myself in everything that is Barentsburg 🙂

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 1 September 2012 2230 #

      Hello Rodney,
      I don’t think there is a website. You’re best off trying the phone number. Three days in Barentsburg should be an interesting experience. Let’s know how you fare.

      • Rodney Laing 4 September 2012 0856 #

        Thankyou. I will definately post my thoughts and experiences!

  27. Miguel Angel Bautista 21 January 2013 0413 #

    Hola: Soy pensionista y estoy hablando con la Embajada Noruega en Madrid, porque quiero ir ahí a vivir. Fijar mi residencia. Soy un amante del frío intenso. Pero deseo que sea en las mejores condiciones. Este mismo año iré a visitaros, Estaré en el Hotel. Miguel. León. Spain.

  28. Andre Barendse 17 October 2013 1124 #

    Interesting. I was doing a bit of heraldry research on Barentsz, as I am related to the Willem Barentsz the Barentz sea is named after, and also its subsequent Barentzsburg. And so Google’s autocomplete suggested the barentzburg… and so I had to click on it.

    I found the read particularly heartwarming as the place seems to have that signature “mad for the fun of it” ambition associated with my family and it was nice to find such distant crazy people! Yeay for adventure! I must say I like the town coat of arms. Thought the friendly polar bears looking over the miner’s shoulder was a nice humorous touch.

    I was always fascinated with Russia, and its also fun for me to see a connection there between my family and the Russians. Maybe I’ll tour that part of the world someday and go visit my crazy and very dead anscestors:-)

    Keep the adventure going!

    Sunny summer greetings here from South Africa
    André Barendse

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 October 2013 1340 #

      What an interesting family history you have, Andre. Hope you get a chance to visit Barentsburg and the rest of Svalbard soon. (Meanwhile, South Africa is a lovely place to be this time of year 🙂 )


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