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Barentsburg: a Russian coal mining settlement in Spitsbergen

Barents­burg is a Rus­si­an coal mining sett­le­ment in Grønfjord, about 37 kilo­me­t­res west­s­ou­thwest of Lon­gye­ar­by­en as the Ful­mar flies. The mining histo­ry goes back to 1912, when a Nor­we­gi­an com­pa­ny to the area, which was then no man’s land, into pos­ses­si­on. They left a guard to keep a watchful eye on the place in case a com­pe­ti­tor would come along. The guard was Knut Emil Glad from Fin­land. He brought his wife Anna Jose­fi­ne for the win­ter in a small hut in Glad­da­len, just abo­ve the cent­re of Barents­burg today. On 09 May, 1913, she gave birth to a boy. They cal­led him Charles Emil Polar Glad and as far as we know, he is the very first per­son born in Spits­ber­gen – the first real Sval­bar­di­an, as they would say today!

Map Barents­burg

Pan­ora­ma sub-pages of Barents­burg

In 1916, the Nor­we­gi­ans made the first attempts at least for some tri­al mining, but did not real­ly get any­whe­re with it as they did not have the capi­tal for mining on an indus­tri­al sca­le. So they sold their pro­per­ty in 1920 to a Dutch com­pa­ny, the Neder­land­sche Spits­ber­gen Com­pa­gnie (NeSpi­Co). The Dutch foun­ded Barents­burg and named the place after Wil­lem Barent­sz, one of their polar sea heroes. They mined coal on a lar­ger sca­le, but mining has always been an eco­no­mic­al chall­enge in Spits­ber­gen and they final­ly had to sell. The new owner was a Rus­si­an com­pa­ny, which was soon tur­ned into the sta­te-owned Trust Ark­ti­ku­gol. This is the owner which still owns and runs Barents­burg and the other Rus­si­an pro­per­ties in Spits­ber­gen today.

The Rus­si­ans con­tin­ued mining in Barents­burg in the 1930s, but the Second World War put a serious stop­per. Tog­e­ther with the other sett­le­ments, Barents­burg was evacua­ted in 1941. In 1943, it was lar­ge­ly des­troy­ed during a major attack by the Ger­man batt­le­ships Scharn­horst and Tirpitz tog­e­ther with smal­ler ships. Soon after this attack, the Nor­we­gi­ans estab­lished a gar­ri­son in Barents­burg in Ope­ra­ti­on Frit­ham, which also suf­fe­r­ed los­ses from Ger­man attacks.

Only the old can­teen, the big buil­ding to your left as you are on top of the stairs from the har­bour, is in its core pre-1939. All other buil­dings that you see in Barents­burg today were built later. The­re was a quick rebuil­ding peri­od after the war to ensu­re coal sup­pli­es to the indus­try on the Kola Pen­in­su­la in nor­t­hern Rus­sia. Most of today’s buil­dings were actual­ly built during the 1970s and 1980s. In tho­se years, the Soviet Uni­on was powerful and ambi­tious and a strong pre­sence in Spits­ber­gen was obvious­ly some­thing that the lea­ders in Moscow app­re­cia­ted.

As the eco­no­my went down in Rus­sia in the 1990s after the break­up of the Sov­jet Uni­on, Moscow for­got about her peri­phery and things went downhill. A strong blow for the Rus­si­an com­mu­ni­ty in Spits­ber­gen came in 1996 with the crash of an air­plane at Ope­raf­jel­let. The second Rus­si­an sett­le­ment in Spits­ber­gen, Pyra­mi­den, was aban­do­ned in 1998. Barents­burg con­tin­ued its exis­tance, but under dif­fi­cult con­di­ti­ons for some years. The buil­dings suf­fe­r­ed from the cli­ma­te, slo­pe move­ments and lack of main­tainan­ce and the num­ber of inha­bi­tants drop­ped from once more than 1000 to a few hundred. Mining had to be dis­con­tin­ued after acci­dents bet­ween 2008 an 2010. Final­ly, the Trust Ark­ti­ku­gol star­ted again to invest in Barents­burg. Some of the old buil­dings were remo­ved and others were refur­bis­hed. Many examp­les of the old, Sov­jet working-class pro­pa­gan­da dis­ap­peared, but some were kept, inclu­ding the Lenin sta­tue, one of Barentsburg’s most popu­lar pho­to objects.

Lenin Barentsburg

Lenin in Barents­burg.

Coal con­ti­nues to be mined, but quan­ti­ties are small in a glo­bal con­text with about 100,000 tons per years. To secu­re inco­me and jobs, it was deci­ded to deve­lop tou­rism. The hotel was moder­nis­ed and acti­vi­ties are now offe­red to tou­rists who spend more time than just the 2 hours that tho­se have who come on a day trip from Lon­gy­e­r­abyen. Now, you can visit the coal mine, take a cour­se in Rus­si­an han­di­craft or join a gui­de for a hike. The Rus­si­an Gru­mant Arc­tic Tra­vel Com­pa­ny has announ­ced to deve­lop their pro­ducts fur­ther in the future and we can be curious what kind of offers they will have!

Wit­hout any doubts, the com­bi­na­ti­on of an acti­ve Rus­si­an mining sett­le­ment and the arc­tic sur­roun­dings makes Barents­burg a uni­que place, which has got much more to offer than what you can see in the 2 hours that you have got within a day trip from Lon­gyar­by­en. So far, most peo­p­le take a trip of 8-10 hours from and to Lon­gye­ar­by­en, be it by snow mobi­le (main­ly late March to ear­ly May) or by boat (April-ear­ly Novem­ber). But if you spend more time, then the­re is defi­ni­te­ly a lot to dis­co­ver!

But a lot has chan­ged sin­ce the Rus­si­an full-sca­le inva­si­on in the Ukrai­ne star­ted. The rela­ti­onship bet­ween Nor­we­gi­ans and Rus­si­ans in Spits­ber­gen has coo­led down, and tou­rism in the Rus­si­an sett­le­ments has lar­ge­ly col­lap­sed.



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last modification: 2023-11-17 · copyright: Rolf Stange