Marcela Cardenas

Barentsburg is a Soviet outpost with a complex history

A community of 350 people, owned by Russians and populated by Ukrainians, lies beside the Grønfjord on Svalbard. Visit this reminder of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

Lenin looks out over the Grønfjord from the centre of Barentsburg. Although he’s been pulled down from most of the plinths he stood on, he’s allowed to stay here — perhaps unsurprising, since Barentsburg’s golden era was under the Soviet state. Now, there’s an air of abandonment over this community.

Barentsburg architechture is a mix-match of styles and design

Architecturally, Barentsburg is a piece of Russia in the Arctic. Although a few buildings survived World War II, and many wooden houses—now dilapidated—were built after the war, it is the Soviet concrete architecture of the 1970s and 1980s that dominates, making Barentsburg very unlike its neighbour Longyearbyen. Recent restoration work has brought the 21st century to Barentsburg, and schoolchildren have decorated many surfaces with murals to have something colourful to look at during the snowy months.

Practical information about Barentsburg

The settlement is located to the west of Longyearbyen, the main Norwegian settlement, within Grønfjorden. In order to visit you will need to either take a boat or take snowmobile during the winter months. Never make the journey alone without proper rifle training and/ or a trained guide.

Visit Svalbard has all the information you could possible need about the archipelago including Barentsburg and the abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden.

The community all live together in one building

Barentsburg’s 350 inhabitants live in one communal apartment block. The 20 children attend one school. There is also a sports complex, complete with salt-water pool. On the edge of town is the small, octagonal, Russian-style Orthodox church. There is also a bar and a dining hall in the recently renovated Barentsburg Hotel, where all the inhabitants eat together.

The settlement was only briefly out of Russian hands

Barentsburg was established by the Russian Empire in 1916. In 1920, the installation was sold to a Dutch company, who called the settlement Barentsburg. The Dutch invested heavily in the installation, but stopped operations in 1926 due to a lack of funds. In 1932, Barentsburg was bought by the Soviet company Arktigugol, who still run the site today.

The Tirpitz ravaged the settlement during World War Two

In 1941, during World War II, the Soviet inhabitants were evacuated to Arkhangelsk, and in 1943, all of the buildings caught fire during the German battleship Tirpitz’s raid on Svalbard. After the war, Barentsburg was rebuilt as a model Soviet outpost, and the community was operating again from the early 1950s.

Soviet power brought prosperity to Barentsburg

People were clamouring to come here on a two-year contract, so only model Soviet workers were lucky enough to be sent. It became a family community, unlike the all-male enclave of Longyearbyen. The community of over 1000 people produced their own milk, eggs and vegetables. In the 1970s and 1980s, most of the buildings were renovated and two-storey wooden houses were replaced by concrete architecture. The Soviet presence was due more to geopolitical interests than a need for coal.

Colour in the bleak midwinter © Marcela Cadernas

Following prosperity came decline and tragedy as the Soviet system collapsed

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia reduced its presence on the archipelago dramatically. Pyramiden, the largest settlement, was completely shut down. In Barentsburg, the population shrank from over 1000 to 350. In 1996, a Russian plane with 141 people on board crashed into the Operafjell mountain when landing at the airport in Longyearbyen. There were no survivors. A year later, 23 workers died in an explosion in the coal mine.

Getting to Barentsberg

Since Barentsburg has no roads or airport, the only realistic way to get there is on an organised trip. In the summer, various boat trips from Longyearbyen can take you there across the Isfjord. You then climb 140 steps from the harbour up to the little main street. Many snowmobile trips visit the town in winter. Trips usually include a guided tour by local guides, lunch and time to wander round on your own and pop into the souvenir shop. There is also a small museum with exhibitions about geology and about the long Russian presence on the archipelago.