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HomeSpits­ber­gen infor­ma­ti­onHisto­ry → Rus­si­an mining in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry

The early years of Barentsburg, Colesbukta/Grumant and Pyramiden


Barents­burg (2009). Rus­si­an com­pa­nies have been mining coal here (inclu­ding Heerodden/”Kapp Heer”) sin­ce 1932, inter­rupt­ed only from 1941 to 1946 by the war.
The his­to­ri­cal roots of Rus­si­an coal mining in Spits­ber­gen, howe­ver, go back to 1912.

Next to the Nor­we­gi­ans, the Rus­si­ans are the only ones who have been acti­ve with coal mining throug­hout most of the 20th cen­tu­ry and until today. Sur­pri­sin­gly litt­le know­ledge is publi­cal­ly available, howe­ver, about the ear­ly histo­ry of Barents­burg, Coles­buk­ta, Gru­mant­by­en and Pyra­mi­den.

On this site I want to make an attempt to sum­ma­ri­ze the begin­ning of Rus­si­an mining in Spits­ber­gen brief­ly. The­se ear­ly acti­vi­ties were the base for today’s Rus­si­an sett­le­ments, Barents­burg and Pyra­mi­den, as well as Coles­buk­ta and Gru­mant. The lat­ter two ones should be con­side­red one dou­ble sett­le­ment rather than two func­tion­al­ly inde­pen­dent ones. Coles­buk­ta and Gru­mant were aban­do­ned in the late 1960s. The­re are indi­vi­du­al pages with infor­ma­ti­on and pho­tos (most­ly pan­o­r­amic) for all of the­se places.

Mine entrance/ventilation shaft, Barentsburg

Mine ent­rance or ven­ti­la­ti­on shaft near Barents­burg.

Coal and other mine­ral occur­ren­ces of eco­no­mic­al inte­rest were found in Spits­ber­gen in the late 19th cen­tu­ry main­ly by Swe­dish geo­lo­gists. Word soon spread to Rus­sia, whe­re the demand for ener­gy for the evol­ving nor­then coast and was gro­wing. The area did not have any resour­ces in terms of pri­ma­ry ener­gy and long distance over­land trans­port was expen­si­ve and trou­ble­so­me (obvious­ly, not­hing was known about oil and gas on the Rus­si­an con­ti­nen­tal shelf in the Arc­tic back then). Ano­ther issue was the Rus­si­an navy fleet in the Bal­tic Sea, which was depen­dent on Eng­lish coal – not at all a desi­reable situa­ti­on from a Rus­si­an per­spec­ti­ve. Altog­e­ther, the­re was a solid base for the Rus­si­an inte­rest for an inde­pen­dent source for coal some­whe­re north.

Rus­a­nov and Samoi­lo­witsch

Mer­chants in Ark­han­gelsk equip­ped an expe­di­ti­on to the Arc­tic led by Vla­di­mir Alex­and­ro­vitsj Rus­a­nov in 1912. Among­st the mem­bers was a mining engi­neer named Rudolf Las­a­re­witsch Samoi­lo­witsch. Samoi­lo­witsch was later to beco­me a lea­ding arc­tic explo­rer and geo­lo­gist in Rus­si­an. His acti­vi­ties led to the foun­da­ti­on of the Arc­tic and Ant­ar­c­tic Rese­arch Insti­tu­te in St. Peters­burg in 1920. His role reminds of Adolf Hoel in Nor­we­gi­an arc­tic cir­cles at the same time.

Rudolf Lasarewitsch Samoilowitsch

Rudolf Las­a­re­witsch Samoi­lo­witsch (1883-1939?).
Unknown pho­to­grapher, com­mon licen­se. Black and white image, arti­fi­ci­al­ly colou­red.

In 1937, Samoi­lo­witsch was invol­ved in a lar­ge expe­di­ti­on with seve­ral ships in the Rus­si­an arc­tic. The ships got unex­pec­ted­ly stuck in ice and had to win­ter. This included the lar­ge ice­brea­k­ers Sad­ko, Maly­gin and Sedow as well as a num­ber of smal­ler ships. Samoi­lo­witsch got the bla­me for the unfort­u­na­te deve­lo­p­ment. Upon his return, he was arres­ted and he was mur­de­red under arrest in 1939 or 1940.

The Rus­si­an Expe­di­ti­on to Spits­ber­gen in 1912

Back to the expe­di­ti­on to Spits­ber­gen in 1912. The sci­en­tists were sup­po­sed to map coal occur­ren­ces, to secu­re pro­mi­sing coal fields and to get an over­view of alre­a­dy ongo­ing mining acti­vi­ties. Addi­tio­nal­ly, gene­ral rese­arch in clas­si­cal fields such as bota­ny, zoo­lo­gy and hydro­gra­phy was to be car­ri­ed out as much as pos­si­ble.

The expe­di­ti­on had 14 mem­bers. They left Alex­and­rovsk on the Kola Pen­in­su­la on 26 June 1912 on the engi­ne-dri­ven cut­ter Her­ku­les. During the next weeks, the north side of Van Mijenfjord was inves­ti­ga­ted. Rus­a­nov and two sai­lers made an over­land expe­di­ti­on from the­re to the coast of Storfjord on the east side of Spits­ber­gen to inves­ti­ga­te this area. Then, the expe­di­ti­on went to seve­ral are­as in Isfjord, inclu­ding Green Har­bour (Grønfjord), Advent­fjord, Skans­buk­ta and Coles­buk­ta. Claims were made on a nar­row, north-south tren­ding stri­pe of land bet­ween Coles­buk­ta and Van Mijenfjord, and later, an area in Trygg­ham­na and fur­ther west as well as the west side of Bore­buk­ta fol­lo­wed. Then, the expe­di­ti­on went on to do some work on Prins Karls For­land, in Kongsfjord and in Kross­fjord.

The expe­di­ti­on finis­hed field work in Spits­ber­gen on 18 August. Samoi­lo­witsch and two other mem­bers retur­ned to Nor­way on a Nor­we­gi­an steam­er. Rus­a­nov and the others went on with the Her­ku­les to con­ti­nue in the nor­the­ast pas­sa­ge. The­re, the who­le expe­di­ti­on dis­ap­peared. Rus­a­nov, ten more men and the ship – all gone, never to be seen again, and with them, all results of their work in Spits­ber­gen other than tho­se that Samoi­lo­witsch had taken with him.

Vla­di­mir Rus­a­nov (1875-1913?).
Unknown pho­to­grapher, com­mon licen­se. Black and white image, arti­fi­ci­al­ly colou­red.

Vladimir Rusanov

Samoi­lo­witsch saw coal mining poten­ti­al in four dif­fe­rent are­as and made claims to all of them: the north side of Van Mijenfjord, Spitsbergen’s east coast bet­ween Kval­vå­gen and Agardhbuk­ta, the Isfjord coast bet­ween Coles­buk­ta and Advent­fjord and Bore­buk­ta on the north side of Isfjord. Fur­ther claims were made in Engelskbuk­ta, Skans­buk­ta and Rin­ders­buk­ta ange­mel­det.

Russian claim post, Bohemanflya

“Modern” (from 1970) sign­post mar­king Rus­si­an claims on Bohem­an­flya.

On 16 March 1913, the Ark­han­gels mer­chants behind the 1912 expe­di­ti­on foun­ded the com­pa­ny Gru­mant – A.g. Aga­fel­off & Co, to which the claims in Spits­ber­gen were assi­gned.

The second expe­di­ti­on (1913)

Pre­pa­ra­ti­ons for coal mining began in 1913 with an expe­di­ti­on with 25 men on two ships led by Samoi­lo­witsch. The ships were the Maria (600 tons, Ark­han­gelsk) and the smal­ler Nor­we­gi­an cut­ter Gru­mant. Samoi­lo­witsch deci­ded to estab­lish a base on the east side of Coles­buk­ta, whe­re workers went ashore to start pre­pa­ra­ti­ons for mining. Two hou­ses were built, one for accom­mo­da­ti­on and one for sto­rage, inclu­ding the hut at Rus­a­no­vod­den.


Coles­buk­ta, whe­re the Rus­si­an expe­di­ti­ons until 1915 had their base.

It tur­ned out that the coal seam that had attrac­ted the atten­ti­on of Samoi­lo­witsch was below sea level in Coles­buk­ta, but ano­ther seam was found 60 m abo­ve the sea in “the second litt­le val­ley east of Coles­buk­ta”, name­ly Gru­mant­da­len. Inves­ti­ga­ti­ons were made the­re, during which 4 tons of coal samples were extra­c­ted.

While the­se works were going on, a rather unfri­end­ly mee­ting took place bet­ween the Rus­si­ans and the Ame­ri­cans from the Arc­tic Coal Com­pa­ny (ACC) in Lon­gyear City (today Lon­gye­ar­by­en). John Mun­ro Lon­gyear hims­elf and his depu­ty Scott Tur­ner, a per­son not known to be afraid of ente­ring con­flicts, cal­led Samoi­lo­witsch a liar and laid down pro­test ver­bal­ly and in wri­ting as they con­side­red the Rus­si­an acti­vi­ties an inf­rin­ge­ment of their own rights. In the end, the ame­ri­can pro­tests got bog­ged down in inter­na­tio­nal diplo­ma­cy and they final­ly came to not­hing.


Gru­mant (today known as Gru­mant­by­en).
Here, the Rus­si­an expe­di­ti­on of 1912 found pro­mi­sing coal occur­ren­ces.

The Rus­si­an expe­di­ti­on left Spits­ber­gen in ear­ly Sep­tem­ber. Two men stay­ed behind to guard the Rus­si­an pro­per­ty in Coles­buk­ta (Rus­a­no­vod­den) during the win­ter. The win­tering did, howe­ver, not go well: one of the men got scur­vy. Far too late, they went to Lon­gyear City for help. Despi­te medi­cal tre­at­ment, the sick man died one day after their arri­val, and the other one lost seve­ral toes and fin­gers due to hea­vy frost­bi­te. He stay­ed with the Ame­ri­cans for seve­ral months.

The expe­di­ti­ons in 1914 and 1915

Inves­ti­ga­ti­ons were con­tin­ued in Coles­buk­ta and Gru­mant in 1914 and 1915, but no fur­ther details are known about the­se expe­di­ti­ons. It seems that the work was done by two men led by Samoi­lo­witsch. The­se expe­di­ti­ons were the last ones from Rus­sia for a while, becau­se the first world war star­ted in 1914 and the 1917 revo­lu­ti­on in Rus­sia.

The deve­lo­p­ment after the first world war until 1932

The first world war did not touch Spits­ber­gen direct­ly. But it did have impli­ca­ti­ons of local importance, as seve­ral com­pa­nies inclu­ding the Rus­si­an Gru­mant – A.g. Aga­fel­off & Co with­draw from Spits­ber­gen. After the war, the pri­ce increase for coal on the world mar­ket led to a pha­se of rene­wed acti­vi­ty in coal mining also in Spits­ber­gen in the ear­ly 1920s.

Stolleneingang, Bohemanflya

Old mine ent­rance on Bohem­an­flya.

But not much hap­pen­ed on the Rus­si­an side for a while. Green Harbour/Barentsburg and Rijps­burg (Bohemanneset/Bohemanflya) were foun­ded and deve­lo­ped by the Dutch NeSpi­Co (Neder­land­sche Spits­ber­gen Com­pa­gnie). In Gru­mant, the Ang­lo Rus­si­an Gru­mant (ARG) estab­lished mining acti­vi­ties and a Swe­dish com­pa­ny star­ted in Pyra­mi­den.

The­re are indi­vi­du­al pages dedi­ca­ted to each of the­se places:

In 1931, the Rus­si­an mining instal­la­ti­ons and claims were taken over by the sta­te-owned Trust Ark­ti­ku­gol. Brief­ly, a com­pa­ny named Sojusljes­prom sur­faced as a tem­po­ra­ry owner, but this com­pa­ny does not appeared to have been a real play­er in this con­text. From 1932 and until today, the Trust Ark­ti­ku­gol owns and ope­ra­tes the Rus­si­an sett­le­ments and pro­per­ties in Spits­ber­gen. Refer to the pages lin­ked abo­ve for the fur­ther histo­ry of the invi­du­al places.


Good sources for the Rus­si­an sett­le­ments and asso­cia­ted mining and other histo­ry in Spits­ber­gen is scar­ce, to put it mild­ly. Once I was plea­sed to final­ly find a new­ly published book about the Rus­si­an histo­ry of Spits­ber­gen – just to rea­li­se quick­ly that it was a Rus­si­an trans­la­ti­on of the Nor­we­gi­an stan­dard book Sval­bards His­to­rie by Thor Bjørn Arl­ov. This is a modern stan­dard text­book, but one of its short­co­mings is exact­ly the focus on the Nor­we­gi­an per­spec­ti­ve and a lack of mate­ri­al on the Rus­si­an side (of cour­se the­re is some infor­ma­ti­on about the Rus­si­ans included, but it lea­ves a lot to be desi­red in this respect).

It is ama­zing that a Nor­we­gi­an book was trans­la­ted into Rus­si­an ins­tead of the publi­ca­ti­on of an ori­gi­nal Rus­si­an work. It is hard to belie­ve the­re the­re is no dedi­ca­ted his­to­ri­an in Rus­si­an arc­tic cir­cles, which are strong and acti­ve, both capa­ble of and moti­va­ted and in a posi­ti­on to com­pi­le a histo­ry of Spits­ber­gen (Gru­mant) from a Rus­si­an per­spec­ti­ve. This would be the Spits­ber­gen book that is still miss­ing, and I still hope that it will be writ­ten and published one day. This would be some­thing for a his­to­ri­an with good lan­guage skills, good cont­acts in poli­ti­cal, sci­en­ti­fic and mining cir­cles and access to rele­vant archi­ves. Or is that asking for too much?

As long as such a book does not exist, we will have to make do with Adolf Hoel’s Sval­bards his­to­rie 1596-1965. Which is an ama­zing pie­ce of work with a gre­at wealth of infor­ma­ti­on, so we should be glad to have it, but – plea­se, anyo­ne with rele­vant skills and abili­ties, just go ahead … 🙂



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last modification: 2020-12-20 · copyright: Rolf Stange