Sergei Chernikov, my guide, had a repeating rifle slung over his shoulder – in case we came across polar bears, he said, or in case they came across us.
We stood at the rudimentary dock in Pyramiden, a ghost town on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the high Arctic. I had heard that in 1998 the Russian government made the city’s 1,000 residents vacation on the mainland only to close the mine and forbid them to return. Rumor has it that it had since been abandoned, frozen in time at the top of the world. Was it true I asked.
Sergei shook his head before I finished my question.
Not so, said Sergei, who offered a less sinister explanation: The city was abandoned after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, mainly for economic reasons. No such tricks were used to evict the residents.
“They say we did that too,” he said, waving his hand on the prominent peak that gives this old coal town its name in a denial of the various rumors surrounding this place. With several concentric layers of rock sloping down into the cold sky, the pyramidal mountain looked rather peculiar. But almost everything else in this extreme latitude.
Norway has sovereignty over Svalbard according to the provisions of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920. Two of the archipelago’s most fascinating tourist attractions – the still functioning mining towns of Barentsburg and Pyramids, which have long been empty – are Russian settlements.
The presence of Russian settlements is due to the fact that the Svalbard Treaty granted the signatories – including Russia – rights to the natural resources of Svalbard. Eventually, Trust Arktikugol, a Russian state-owned coal company, took over both Pyramiden and Barentsburg.
Pyramiden would outlast the Soviet Union and close its doors for a number of months in 1998. In truth, the place had been in pretty steep decline for years. Accidents at the mine, financial turmoil in Russia and a 1996 charter plane crash that killed 141 people sealed their fate.
At over 78 degrees north, Pyramiden is a place of records and extremes. When the sun disappears below the horizon at the end of October each fall, it will not be seen again until mid-February of the following year. Conversely, sunlight is relentless for more than three months in summer.
And yet, as I was walking around with Sergei, I couldn’t help but sense that things had moved quickly in the end. Manuals were open, bottles of vodka remained on the window sills. There were diaries scattered around, photos of men with formidable mustaches, a typewriter – even an old basketball – that was bursting at the seams.
Perhaps most poignant were the children’s toys scattered around a former schoolhouse.
In its heyday, Pyramiden provided its 1,000 residents with urban facilities and a high standard of living. The town’s offerings included a school, library, ice hockey rink, sports hall, dance and music studios, radio station, cinema that doubled as a theater, and a cemetery for cats.
If there is anything in pyramids, it is most likely the northernmost example in the world. (The settlement is about 500 miles further north than Utqiargvik, Alaska, the northernmost parish in the United States.)
The old cultural center houses what is probably the northernmost wing and the gym. Nearby, Sergei and I were walking around in the long-drained swimming pool – once heated, and the envy of the residents of Longyearbyen, the much larger Norwegian settlement to the south.
On a pedestal outside this remarkable building stands a huge statue of Lenin, whose cold head sternly overlooks the city and is the only remaining witness of the emptying of pyramids.
There is real beauty here too: the shimmering fur of a family of arctic foxes that live under the hotel; Sapphire blues laser beam from the nearby Nordenskiold glacier; low sun catches broken windows in the canteen, kaleidoscopic light dances on the floor; Sunrise and sunset wash this extraordinary mountain peak in pink and gold.
While much of the city is now dormant and very slowly decaying, the Pyramiden Hotel – probably the northernmost in the world – and the cultural center have been revitalized in recent years.
These are the only buildings in the city that are still in regular use. While the shifting of the permafrost has warped some of the wooden buildings, their stable structures are in place.
The hotel is home to a small community of Russians and Ukrainians who welcome day-trippers and adventurous travelers who want to spend the night.
During my visit, Dina Balkarova was working at the bar. “I usually live in Barentsburg,” she said. “But in Russia I don’t work in bars – I’m really an opera singer.” She told me that if she had time to herself, she would ask one of the armed residents (nobody can be this deep in polar bear country without a gun) to accompany her to old oil drums on the dock. There she would test her voice against the rusty metal.
This was the kind of eccentricity I had hoped for when I first heard about pyramids on a cruise through Svalbard earlier this summer. If anything, the place was less strange than I imagined – the people were warm and proud of the city’s history as they could be anywhere else in the world.
The few Russians and Ukrainians who have returned in recent years do not dream of reviving Pyramiden as a functioning city. Instead, they told me, they hope to preserve his legacy, which was so nearly lost.
The buildings, they say, may be cold and lifeless, but at least they’re not entirely deserted.