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History of Spitsbergen

Rus­si­an »Lod­je« as drawn by Ger­rits de Veer report from Barent­sz’ expe­di­ti­on 1596

Russian »Lodje« as drawn by de Veers report from Barentsz' expedition 1596

Ortho­dox cross (repro­duc­tion) at Rus­se­kei­la, Isfjord. The hut in the back­ground was built by Polish sci­en­tists in 1978 as kind of a kit­chen.

Orthodox cross (reproduction), Isfjord

The Pomors were peo­p­le who lived in the north of Rus­sia, at the coast of the White Sea. They were hun­ters and fishers and had a long tra­di­ti­on of hun­ting in the arc­tic. Wit­hout any doubt, they were acti­ve in most parts of Sval­bard for cen­tu­ries. The timing of their arri­val is, howe­ver, uncer­tain. A ques­ti­ons which has been dis­cus­sed for a long time – and has not been ans­we­red yet – is to whe­ther the Pomors came ear­lier than 1596, the year of the offi­ci­al dis­co­very of Spits­ber­gen by the Dutch­man Wil­lem Barent­sz. This is a hypo­the­sis which archeo­lo­gists espe­ci­al­ly from the Sov­jet Uni­on tried to pro­ve during the cold war.

Remains of Pomor hun­ting sta­ti­on with bricks.
Rus­se­kei­la, Isfjord

Remains of Pomor hunting station with bricks, Isfjord

Neither his­to­ri­cal nor archeo­lo­gi­cal evi­dence is real­ly clear, but it is at least pos­si­ble that the Pomors had seve­ral hun­ting sta­ti­ons in Spits­ber­gen during the 16th cen­tu­ry, deca­des befo­re Barent­sz. About half a dozen sites with remains of such sta­ti­ons from tho­se years have been found on the west coast of Spits­ber­gen; the pro­blem is, that dating by means of den­dro­chro­no­lo­gy (tree rings) refers to the age of the wood – the year when the tree was cut – and not to the the year the hut was built, which could also have been moved from Rus­sia to the Arc­tic. Any­way, until now the Pomors are the ones who can cla­im the lon­gest histo­ry of more or less con­ti­nuous acti­vi­ties and sett­ling in Sval­bard: the last sta­ti­ons were final­ly aban­do­ned in the 19th cen­tu­ry.

Ortho­dox cross (recon­s­truc­tion) at Rus­se­kei­la in Isfjord.

Orthodox cross, Russekeila, Isfjord

They came to hunt arc­tic wild­life and for this pur­po­se they built hun­ting sta­ti­ons of quite some size; not only a small hut as did Nor­we­gi­an trap­pers of the late 19th and 20th cen­tu­ry, but almost small sett­le­ments with main buil­ding, for­ge, sto­rage buil­dings, sau­na etc. Up to 20 peo­p­le may have win­tered the­re tog­e­ther, and games such as chess boards have been found. But their stay in the Arc­tic was almost always tem­po­ra­ry, as their fami­lies lived on the main­land, to which they retur­ned after a year. Sval­bard pro­vi­ded hun­ting grounds, but not a real home. The­re are excep­ti­ons such as the famous patri­arch Ivan Sta­ros­tin (or Starats­hin, dif­fe­rent spel­lings exist) who is said to have lived 32 years at Rus­se­kei­la in Isfjord, inclu­ding at least 15 years wit­hout retur­ning to Rus­sia, until he final­ly died in 1826 at Rus­se­kei­la. His gra­ve is sup­po­sed to be at Kapp Sta­ros­tin, clo­se to Rus­se­kei­la.

One of very few ori­gi­nal ortho­dox cros­ses from the Pomors’ days that are still stan­ding.
Murch­ison­fjord, Nord­aus­t­land.

Orthodox cross from the Pomors' days. Murchisonfjord, Nordaustland

Remains of hun­ting sta­ti­ons can be seen at the coast in most parts of Sval­bard. Lar­ge, woo­den ortho­dox cros­ses were com­mon­ly put up for reli­gious pur­po­ses and to make ori­en­ta­ti­on easier, but most of tho­se fell vic­tim to the wea­ther and to later visi­tors in need of fire­wood. The­re are some remains of ortho­dox cros­ses lying on the ground, but stan­ding ori­gi­nal cros­ses are very rare. The­re are actual­ly only two left, both on small islands in Murch­ison­fjord on Nord­aus­t­land.

Remains of Pomor hun­ting sta­ti­on on Edgeøya

Remains of Pomor hunting station on Edgeøya

A cha­rac­te­ristic of Pomor sett­le­ments are remains of bricks which were used to build the oven (Nor­we­gi­an trap­pers brought metal ovens with them).

Pomor gra­ve in Bell­sund

Pomor grave in Bellsund



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last modification: 2020-01-03 · copyright: Rolf Stange