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Arctic Dreams

There is a tradition in Barentsburg. When you go to the mainland, you hug a tree because there are none here. The Russian enclave on Spitsbergen in the Arctic is so remote that you only reach it by helicopter, snowmobile, or ship. Because of the danger of polar bears, leaving the village without a rifle is forbidden. In winter, Barentsburg sinks into months of darkness; in summer the sun shines around the clock.

The population consists primarily of Ukrainian miners and young urbanites from Russia. They live in a close-knit community where everyone knows each other. Who are the people who have chosen to live in this strange place? And how do they manage to coexist peacefully in times of political tension?

The Mi-8 helicopter skims over the endless world of snow and ice. About twenty Russians are crammed in on their way back from a football game with the neighbouring Norwegian town of Longyearbyen. The showdown with the Norwegians mostly ends in defeat, but it is a long-standing tradition. Barentsburg was founded in 1932, when Stalin was pushing industrialisation, and the demand for coal was insatiable. At its peak, almost 2,400 people lived here.

The helicopter lands and the passengers get off. Some thank the pilots through the open window. Today only about 400 people live in Barentsburg. A bust of Lenin stands enthroned on the village square. Behind it is a monument inscribed with 'Our goal is communism', an ambitious goal for a settlement that only gets fresh vegetables delivered once a month. Because of the war, Norway threatened to bar ships from landing in 2022. Russia reacted furiously and referred to the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920, which allows all signatory states to live and work here. Russia is the only country to have exercised its right to do so.

Despite the difficult conditions, the spirit of communism lives on in Barentsburg. Strangers greet each other on the street, apartments in the four pre-fab buildings are identical. Small one-room flats for singles, two rooms for couples and families. In the canteen, the chefs cook simple Russian meals three times a day. The only supermarket in the village sells the same cheap groceries for everyone. Payment is made with a local credit card, or 'Spitzcoin' as locals call it.

'Barentsburg is like a spaceship: there is everything you need, but you can't escape from here,' says Vitaly, a doctor at the hospital. He only recently moved here from St. Petersburg. Beside Vitaly's supervisor from Tajikistan only a dentist and two nurses work at the hospital. It is closed on weekends. 'If you have to die, please wait until Monday' runs a popular joke. The nearest major hospital is on the Norwegian mainland, two and a half hours away by plane.

Vitaly has a contract for two years. What follows after that, he doesn't know. 'The situation at home makes it hard to think about the future.' Vitaly addresses a taboo subject in this community; here the war in Ukraine is referred to as 'the current situation.' Why is there such silence about it? 'Everybody has different roots. We have 380 views on the subject here,' Vitaly says. The Russian culture of avoiding political issues has a long tradition.

Life in Barentsburg is a like a sitcom. People often bump into each other several times a day and there are no secrets. Most people don't even lock their doors. In the evenings, people arrange to meet for sports, cinema, or sauna on a Telegram group, and at the weekend, they go hiking together.

For the miners, Barentsburg is one thing above all: lucrative; and a stable home, far from the war in eastern Ukraine that has raged for years. Alexander Yatsunenko, a 45 year old miner from Luhansk, has just finished his shift at the mine. His face is blackened by coal dust. He is clear on the conflict in his homeland: 'We are all Russians. There is nothing to separate.' Faded posters from the Soviet era hang on the wooden walls. Alexander likes living here. "'My work feels meaningful. I am doing the right thing for the right people.' His father and grandfather were miners too. His salary is up to three times higher than in Ukraine.

Ironically, coal mining in Barentsburg is completely uneconomical. Only 120,000 tonnes of coal are brought to the surface yearly. More than twice that amount is needed to make a profit. The settlement uses a quarter of the coal itself and mining in the Arctic is difficult: the deeper you dig, the colder it gets. The miners travel down to 500 meters below sea level. A trip can take up to two and a half hours.

Nevertheless, Russia is maintaining its presence in Spitsbergen. Under the metre-thick ice lie 20 to 30 per cent of the world's oil reserves and up to 47 trillion cubic metres of gas. There may also be gold and platinum. Russia wants to take advantage of the Arctic's resources and the research centre in Barentsburg monitors the impact of climate change in the region. All the coal may be gone in 20 years. What then for Barentsburg?

'Tourism will determine the future' says Ildar Neverov, the director of Arktikugol, the mine operator, and Barentsburg's de-facto mayor. For him, Barentsburg is an exciting challenge. 'Barentsburg is one of the craziest places in the world. The northernmost coal mine in the world. The northernmost harbour in the world. The world's northernmost swimming pool. There are only superlatives here!' he says. He hopes that Tom Cruise will film the new part of Mission Impossible here and make the village famous.

Since the beginning of the war, people have been advised not to visit Barentsburg from other parts of the island. This leads to absurd situations. A woman is employed to open the souvenir shop even though there are practically no tourists and if they wanted to buy something they can't use foreign credit card. While there used to be weekly charter flights from Moscow today there are only longer flights via Saint Petersburg, Estonia and Finland because of the closed airspace.

Ildar is disappointed with the coverage of Barentsburg in western media. Despite some negative reporting, however, new people have been recruited to work in tourism. Whether anyone will come is another question. 'It's not the end of Barentsburg, just a difficult period' says Ildar.

Barbara Mokstadt works at the local museum. The 30-year-old from Moscow wants to make Barentsburg a vast, walk-in museum. She's very worried about the war. 'It is unimaginable for me to live in Russia again' she says. Yet, she loves her country, the language and the people so for her, Barentsburg is an ideal compromise.

Barbara thinks people here live in a parallel world where it is even easier to ignore the war. 'All conversations here are like walks across minefields. You have to move forward very carefully and find out what the other person thinks about the war,' she says. The few people who have taken a stand against the war have long since moved away.

Young people who work in tourism usually don't stay longer than a year or two. For some, the place is a refuge and a fresh start. Mikhail lost his job a few weeks ago. Now he's a coach at the local sports complex. For him, Barentsburg is the lesser of two evils. He knows of young men in Barentsburg who have received draft notices at their home address in Russia. His contract expires in May and he's not sure what happens next.

The Day of the Defender of the Fatherland is an important holiday in Russia. It reminds people of the solidarity and cohesion of the village community. The miners organise party on the village square and serve the Tajik national dish, Plov, and vodka from Belarus. Not far from the village square, the younger people inaugurate the world's northernmost skating rink. The world keeps turning, but in Barentsburg, it turns according to different rules.
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