Monday, 16 October 2017

16 Oct 2016 - Pryamiden and the furthest north Lenin

Sunday 16/10/2016  -2°C, 5m/s. Sunrise 10:39 - Sunset 16:45.
Late Saturday night we arrive and anchor close to Pyramiden 78°39.2´N, 16°22.9´E.
Emerging onto an icy deck in crisp blue morning light, the moon still hangs over a now completely calm sea. In front of us the abandoned Russian settlement of Pyramiden sits silently at the foot of the snow-capped Pyramid Mountain.
Once a model coal mining town until the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, it still bears the scars of its mining days. In 1936, the Soviets acquired the rights to use the coalfields at Pyramiden and built the town to demonstrate Soviet power.
Lenin's view

The Russian government threw money at this place, even importing earth from the Ukraine so there would be grassy areas on top of the permafrost. Once there were green houses full of vegetables, hens laying eggs. A place where only the best coal miners and their families could work.It was desirable to live here - life was relaxed away from Mother Russia, people  had more freedom. Any foreigner could come here without a visa, and it must of been impressive.

In the 1980s more than 1,000 people lived in Pyramiden. Residents were assigned to different residential halls, which acquired their own nicknames -  London for single men, Paris for the unmarried women  (there was even pub on the ground floor of the women's building). Crazy House for families , so called because the children who would always play in the hallways. Gostinka (Russian for “hotel,”) was built to house short-term workers. There was a hospital, a large cafeteria - apparently so that the women didn't have to cook for their families and therefore could be useful workers (!) - a giant mosaic was made depicting the Svalbard landscape populated by heroes of Norse legends. Apparently the heated indoor pool was the best in Svalbard. All was constructed in typical Soviet block-style fashion of brick made on site with rounded edges to lessen the impact of the bitter winter wind. 
Somewhere there is even a grave yard for both humans and cats.

Now blocks of abandoned flats where mine workers and their families once lived, are now colonised by kittiwakes. It''s difficult to imagine this waste land full of industry; I try to imagine families wandering the boardwalks on a summer evening

 At top of town in front of the Culture House the northern-most bust of Lenin surveys empty streets and dilapidated buildings. We wander around the Culture house; inside is full of abandoned items - sets of old skis, a football lies in the sports court, the empty goals still in place - when was the last game? Russian books and pamphlets, old photographs of people who once lived and worked here. 

The world's northern-most grand piano - a "Red October" - sits on the stage in the dark and deserted auditorium. Jordi mounts the stars, sits and plays, the out-of-tune sound echoing eerily through the building. On the wall in a room upstairs is a panorama depicting the surrounding mountains. Who painted it? 

Rotting wooden walkways and bridges, huge mounds of scrap metal lie beside the dock juxtaposed with bright soviet monuments that reach for the sky proclaiming power. Its a pretty horrible mess but the setting surrounded by snow capped mountains, the Nordenskiöld glacier and fjord to the east, is magnificent. Waking to this everyday as you went to work - would you ever get used to it? But then the mine workers would spend their days in darkness, deep inside the mountain, to emerge into either the darkness of a polar night or blinking into the brilliant light of the summer season. 

Rusting swings sit in the playground
With the fall of the Soviet Union the money dried up, wages stopped being paid, there were shortages and standard of living fell, so families left. The town was abandonded. On March 31,1998, the last coal was extracted from the mine; seven months later, just before the ice arrived, on October 10th the last residents left. 
Pyramiden has now become, or they are attempting to make it, a tourist destination with a hotel staffed by a couple of Russians where visitors can enjoy staying in a Russian style room or opt for more European comforts.
The Hotel - Russian style
 Before we leave to get back for dinner I make a quick drawing of the Pyramide mountain rubbing chalk and graphite across the page smudged with the icy water running from the mountain. Not really enough time to do much before we return to the boat. Just beyond me on the path Jordi is filming Spike dressed as a polar bear and sweeping snow.
Drawing the mountain, photo courtesy of Jordi Fornies
The Pyramiden mountain, photo courtesy of Jordi Fornies
Later we troop along the board walks and return in the dark to the hotel and sit in the bar drinking vodka infused with horseradish and then another with ginger (both are pretty good), watching videos of folk dancing Russians bands.
I find the contrast between all this and the surrounding landscape bizarre and also depressing. Must be very weird for the few remaining caretakers who live there all year in the midst of such decay, particularly during the dark months of Polar Night.
The Arctic has a complicated history of exploitation - exploitation of natural resources. Its animals have been fished and hunted to virtual extinction, it’s been mined, claimed, land stolen, people destroyed by disease, and of course now there are global warming issues – the threat of ecological destruction of the planet. When I was interviewed by the anthropologist on board we talked about the north and I found myself relating these places to the wall in the series Game of Thrones holding back the Wildling hoards of the icy north who are threatening to invade and, like Janssen’s Groke, bring winter to the rest of the world. I feel that Longyearbyen and Ny Ålesund are like walls but doing the opposite to that in the Games of Thrones - or maybe not quite the opposite - instead are trying to protect the north, to prevent the world from invading the Arctic, guarding, drawing attention to its fragility – holding us back from inflicting more human exploitation and destruction.