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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Clings to Cold War Outpost

ReutersA view of Barentsburg, a Russian coal-mining town of 500 people that sits up against a fjord in Norway's Svalbard archipelago. The photo was taken June 17.
BARENTSBURG, Norway -- A Russian flag flutters over the concrete buildings hugging the side of a fjord on a remote Norwegian island deep inside the Arctic Circle.

A stone bust of Lenin dominates the town square and vodka bottles line the bar's shelves.

This is Barentsburg, a Russian coal-mining town of 500 people in the Svalbard archipelago, about the size of Ireland and 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole.

But it is a coal-mining town that has never made a profit in decades of production. Instead, its main value to the Soviet Union was as a strategic outpost on the roof of the world facing the United States during the Cold War, experts say.

Fifteen years on from the collapse of communism, Russia is not about to abandon this Arctic outpost, an immaculately attired Russian consul Viacheslav Nikolayev said in his office overlooking the mine's fuming chimney stack.

"You know the history of Rossyania and the Pomors who were here for a long time?" he said. "They settled to hunt seals and to survive just like other nations."

Pomors were Russian hunters and fishermen who began populating Svalbard in the 17th century. They lived in isolated outposts and were the first known humans to make the islands their home.

A 1920 treaty handed Svalbard -- which means Cold Edge in Norse -- to Norway but gave others equal rights of entry and access to its resources. It also banned military activity on the islands but both Russia and NATO-member Norway flouted this rule.

The Norwegian town of Longyearbyen, named after American John Munro Longyear who founded the mine in 1906, is 70 kilometers away.

Cold War politics meant a road linking the islands' two towns was never built. Snow scooters in the winter and boats in the summer are used to travel between Barentsburg and Longyearbyen, although officials fly by helicopter.

In Longyearbyen, population 1,800, snow scooters litter the grass waiting for the return of the snow. Children play on bicycles and skateboards, and people wear designer Goretex jackets to keep out the wind.

There are no snow scooters around Barentsburg. Children play in the rusting hulk of a run-down Soviet hovercraft. Leather jackets replace the Goretex.

In the summer, Barentsburg -- a four-day sail north of Russia -- is light day and night, and the polar sun keeps temperatures above freezing. In the winter, it is dark for 24 hours a day and temperatures drop to minus 40 Celsius.


James Kilner / Reuters

A Barentsburg church. Russians and Ukrainians work on two-year contracts.

Glaciers and mountains ring the town and residents cannot leave without a rifle, as polar bears roam the barren landscape.

Although life can be tough in one of the world's most northerly permanent settlements, things aren't all that bad, said Boris Nagayuk, the head of the mine.

"The workers can relax in the sports hall, there is a well-stocked library and cultural activities," he said, gesturing toward a gym adorned with a set of faded Olympic rings. "They can drink vodka, too, but we don't encourage them to drink too much."

Workers, mainly from the industrial areas of Russia and Ukraine, are contracted for two years and paid at the end of their time. They buy from the shop and bar on a credit system.

Ukrainian Oleg Chuzhikov, nearing the end of his third two-year contract, took the work because he could save money in Barentsburg, he said, showing off his paintings of glaciers and polar bears in the apartment he shares with his wife and daughter.

"It's OK here," he said. "But I will finish now and probably move to Longyearbyen for six months. There are more opportunities there."

A ferry carries Western tourists from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg several times per week in the summer. They gawk at the town for 90 minutes and jump back on their boat, relieved to be returning to the comforts of their hotels.