I’m in Pyramiden, once a showcase of the Soviet Union, a perfect mining community, set between mountains, glaciers and fjords in the Svalbard archipelago. Today, it’s an Arctic ghost town.
The decision to abandon the settlement was sudden, its implementation even more so. The inhabitants were given just hours to pack their bags and leave. Remnants of that hasty departure are visible everywhere. The only remaining Russian settlement in Svalbard now is the peculiarly interesting little community of Barentsburg.
As we walk the few metres from the harbour into town, our guide Constance has a rifle casually slung across her shoulder. A necessary precaution, as polar bears often roam the streets of this abandoned outpost. The sun is surprisingly warm and we unzip our fleece and windbreakers. It’s hard to imagine a polar bear in this weather but Constance spotted one only a couple of weeks ago right where we stand.
A large yellow block of flats, once home of miners and their families, has been taken over by loud predating sea gulls nesting on window sills. Flowers can still be spotted behind a broken window – all dried up now.
Rusted playground swings and slides are also taken over by incessantly cackling gulls. What nature gives, nature takes back. Nowhere have I seen this better illustrated than here.
A petrol pump is left standing.
The red, star-topped pyramid was erected as the entrance to this Arctic community,
Miners’ cars were left behind. The final load of coal was brought out of the mountains on 31 March 1998.
Painted on the wall of the abandoned school, is a scene from a fairy tale. It’s as if I can hear children playing and laughing. Then it fades, like a dream. Fertile ground for the imagination up here.
The public library of this little community counted 50 000 books: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and much more. Not for the first time, I marvel at the literary interest of the average Russian. For a moment, I’m brought back to a cold winter night in St Petersburg, back when it was called Leningrad, discussing Ibsen with a drunk on a street corner. Even though Ibsen was my fellow countryman, he knew more than me.
Pyramiden was a self-sufficient community, including a ranch with pigs and cattle. Cats aren’t normally allowed on Svalbard as they threaten the indigenous wildlife, but Pyramiden had many to combat the rats and mice that naturally come with livestock. In the hurry to leave Pyramiden, the cats were left behind. When a cleaning crew arrived a few weeks later, they found them all dead. A metal sunflower marks the cats’ grave.
It’s a bit surreal, walking along the avenues of this Soviet ghost town with Vladimir Ilyitch Uljanov looking down at me from his pedestal. This is the world’s northernmost statue of Lenin.
But rumour has it, plans are underway to shine it up, reopen the hotel and recreate Pyramiden as a tourist destination. Could be something to that. When we docked at the harbour, three men were there to clean the place up and collect newly introduced docking fees.
Pyramiden is surrounded with mountains, the bright blue waters of the fjord and the magnificent Nordenskiöld Glacier. Yeah… I can see myself coming back for a bit of hiking.