Arctic oddity: Reviving a Soviet-era ghost town

  • AFP, Norway
  • Updated: Aug 13, 2015 09:43 IST
Pyramiden, a Soviet-era ghost town. (Shutterstock photo)

A man in a chapka hat and black coat, rifle slung over a shoulder, idles on the pontoon as a group of tourists sail in to visit the Arctic oddity, Pyramiden, a Soviet-era ghost town.

Alexander Romanovskiy, better known as Sasha, is the guardian of the mining town. Abandoned in 1998, the place is still owned by a Russian firm called Arktikugol, though it is located on a fjord on Norway's Spitzbergen, in the heart of the Svalbard islands, halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole.

Norwegian town of Longyearbyen, some 50km away from Pyramiden . (Shutterstock photo)

"The Svalbard is Norwegian, but had a special status enabling other people to live or work there," says tour guide Kristin Jæger Wexsahl, who sailed from the Norwegian town of Longyearbyen, some 50km away.

Sasha, who is working his fourth season here, hundreds of kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, says the residents thrived in the '70s and the '80s, before the USSR began to unravel.

Some 1,200 Russians then lived in Pyramiden, which boasted several four-storey buildings, a hospital, schools, a football ground, and even a farm with cows and chickens. Giving a glimpse of life as it typically was in the Soviet Union is a bust of Lenin placed outside the sports and cultural centre.

Abandoned mining village of Pyramiden. (Shutterstock photo)

There, black-and-white photos of football and hockey matches and chess tournaments hang in the entrance hall, taking visitors back in time. The 300-seat cinema almost looks as if it were used yesterday, as does the basketball court, still clearly outlined. Upstairs, a few children's books have been left in the library, while in another smaller room a piano, drum-kit and accordion are accumulating dust.

Norwegian town of Longyearbyen. (Shutterstock photo)

But the '90s were killer years for Pyramiden, with the Soviet Union starting to come apart at the seams, the mines becoming less profitable, and Moscow being unable to pay the wages.

In 2007, one of the empty buildings was reconverted into a hotel, featuring 24 rooms, lots of woodwork, and vodka. This summer, eight Russians were employed at Pyramiden to look after the hotel, the electric generator and the coal-fired water system, Two guides were hired too.

Pavel Arkharov, the 26-year-old student, who helps Sasha welcome the tourists when they disembark, says he doesn't find the deserted town depressing. "It's a very peaceful, harmonious place," he says.

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