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Barentsburg - A view from our expert author


Barentsburg Svalbard by Natalia Davidovich Shutterstock© Natalia Davidovich, Shutterstock

Probably the most atmospheric dilapidation you'll find north of the Arctic Circle, this flatlining Russian coal-mining township beckons with Soviet-era charm and camaraderie.

Since 2000, Russia has begun to remember its remote outposts in Svalbard and their strategic value. Subsidies for Trust Arcticugol increased (though efficiency didn’t), and sadly the standard of living in Barentsburg still remains lower than in Soviet times, despite considerable donations of clothes, old computers, and so on by the Norwegians. At least the kindergarten and the primary school have been reopened, though in a very improvised way.

A clear sign for renewed interest is the increase of Russian research and the first steps taken towards establishing a new mine at Colesbukta, where Russia used much of its political muscle against Norway, not only to get permission but also to minimise all claims by environmental and other laws which require detailed documentation on minimising the effects on the environment.

The new mine is intended to be connected by road to Barentsburg and to replace the current Barentsburg mine, which is limited in its reserves and geologically difficult. (The Rusanov Memorial Hut on Rusanovodden, Colesbukta, is also worthy of mention. Rusanov’s Svalbard travels, before World War I, were the precursors to Russian settlement and mining in the area. Unfortunately, written information is in Russian only.)

Changes in the restructuring of the Russian presence in Svalbard take time – not least because there are strong rivalries behind the scenes competing for funds granted by the Russian state, with many influential players on various levels wanting to have their share. In the meantime, Barentsburg and especially Pyramiden deteriorate, thus increasing the future costs. With investment in the infrastructure and an effective management, Barentsburg could have the most attractive port of Svalbard as an additional source of income, due to its proximity to the open sea and the fewest ice problems in winter of all Svalbard’s settlements, making it a suitable place for a service port for fishing and other marine activities in the area.

With the coming road to Colesbukta, a road connection also to Longyearbyen and thus to the island’s main airport would become plausible, removing yet another advantage of Longyearbyen. However, such a concept seems far away when one looks at Barentsburg today. The hotel is standing mostly empty and tourism is accepted only as long as it brings easy, quick money, relying on the Norwegian day cruises and snowmobile groups who come here on a speedy visit and pay for the use of harbour and guidance.

This requires no investment and no marketing, using the existing infrastructure and staff on the payroll of the mining company. Income achieved by this minimal strategy is estimated at somewhere under NOK1 million per year, which goes only a small way towards improving the economy of Barentsburg. Considerable potential is ignored here as it seems to be more attractive for top management and possibly also some of its allies in the Russian ministries to focus on acquisition of high state subsidies rather than trigger developments that could reduce the current overwhelming need for state funding.

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