Wealth Divides 2 Arctic Mining Towns

ReutersA Russian man walking past a bust of Lenin in the northern village of Barentsburg on the Svalbard archipelago.
LONGYEARBYEN, Norway -- Working down a coal mine on an Arctic island does not sound like a dream job for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old woman.

But Norwegian Guro Oydgard says she enjoys the life despite long shifts, choking dust and bone-numbing cold on the archipelago of Svalbard, where Norway and Russia have mines in a former Cold War outpost that has outlived the Soviet Union.

"It's exciting. It's a physical job, not just sitting in an office," Oydgard said in her apartment in Longyearbyen, the world's most northerly village, with 1,800 inhabitants and founded by an American miner a century ago.

"Of course the risks are greater than working in an office, but it's not as dangerous as people think," she said. Oydgard is one of six women working in the modern Svea mine, operated by Store Norske, alongside about 300 men.

The Russian and Norwegian miners and their families live on the same island 40 kilometers apart, separated by a snow-covered mountain range that marks one of the greatest wage divides in the world for doing the same job.

Norwegian miners can earn up to $100,000 per year, more than 10 times the pay of a Russian miner, Norwegian officials say. Norway administers Svalbard, but other nations can exploit natural resources under a 1920 treaty.

Russian miners in the village of Barentsburg, which boasts a big, heated indoor swimming pool and a bust of Lenin on the main square, declined to say precisely how much they earned.

Still, miners in Barentsburg, operated by state firm Arktikugol, say they also enjoy Arctic life, even if expectations are lower. The islands are bathed in the midnight sun for almost half the year, with darkness for most of the rest.

"The pay is higher here than at home. I can make twice what I could in Almaty. Here you can save money," said Vitaly Steganov, a miner from Kazakhstan who worked in the Russian mine.

"It was my childhood dream to live in the north," said another man, who declined to give his name. "You get used to everything. Life always has problems -- you can't live without problems."

Several hundred people live in Barentsburg, where some Soviet-era buildings lie abandoned with snow piled up outside. Some snow is blackened by soot from a coal-fired power plant.

And mine accidents happen. About 20 Russian miners died in an explosion in 1997, in the worst recent accident.

The islands have lost strategic importance for the Soviet Union and the United States since the Cold War. But global warming might make the region more attractive for oil and gas exploration, shipping and tourism.

Still, everything in the economies of both Barentsburg and Longyearbyen is built on coal. Wooden pit props for the Barentsburg mine are imported -- no trees grow on Svalbard.

The Svea mine is a short flight away, where miners work 10 1/2-hour shifts seven days in a row, then have a week off. In Barentsburg, where the mine is under the town, miners work six-hour shifts five days a week.

The Svea mine produces about 3 million tons of coal, mostly for export to Germany and Denmark. Barentsburg's mine produces about 100,000 tons, according to Norwegian estimates.

To most people it would be a hardship posting, but it seems many miners like it that way.

"Life is good here," said one Russian man in Barentsburg walking with his wife, whose smile flashed several gold teeth.