20 October 2010 – Barentsburg

The Russian town of Barentsburg, seemingly lost in time, though a mere 30 kilometres from Longyearbyen – we’re nearly ‘home’. A coal-mining town run for the purpose of staking a claim, by Norwegian accounts at least, it produces enough coal to generate the power to run the town and the mine, and little more. Once thriving, with a couple of thousand residents, now it’s down to a few hundred; the old buildings are sinking into the permafrost or falling apart, quietly.

We walk up a long slope covered in snow and black coal dust, and along a long dirty road past ramshackle sheds, in one of which we can hear the sound of pigs. At the end of that road and in the distance is a fire in the snow, a rubbish dump maybe, the flames shooting up golden up in the twilight. The fjord is magnificent, the mountains on the other side shining under piles of pretty cloud, and the sun glowing somewhere out in the ocean. In the centre of the town, Soviet-era buildings with muralled walls stand in yellow brick between multicoloured, old-style houses. A chapel, a sports field under snow, and a few people walking home from work in the dusk. The local bar is brightly lit and lined with warm yellow wood, the swimming centre is tiled and mosaiced and ornate, with the Olympic rings over the front doors. I baulk at our voyeurism, drawing the line at indoor spaces, the places where the locals are living their lives. But at the pool a man beckons to me as I wait in the foyer; I follow warily as he leads me through a women’s bathroom with fixed hairdryers, the kind that swing out on a long arm and cover your head; and through another room to the swimming pool. It is tiled in spectacular pictures of walruses and bears… I try to thank him but ‘Ukraine’ is the only word he says to me.

It’s getting dark when the last of us walk down to the railway line, where everything is now lit in bright tungsten, and the entrance to the coal mine is near. Everything is metal, wood and dirt, the narrow rail tracks disappearing into a black tunnel. We walk past a few guys welding something, and a few more who are smoking in the frosty air, and back to the wharf down the endless wooden steps, where the snow lies deep enough to hide the steps themselves. Down, down, down, steps and boardwalk, steps and more steps, winding down the steep hillside until we are back at the ship, berthed at the broad and windswept dock.