Arc­tic Cir­cle’s Soviet-era ghost town Pyra­mi­den is now see­ing a re­vival


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 Arc­tic odd­ity, Pyra­mi­den, a Soviet-era ghost town.

Alexan­der Ro­manovskiy, bet­ter known as Sasha, is the guardian of the min­ing town aban­doned in 1998 but still owned by a Rus­sian firm, Ark­tiku­gol, though it is lo­cated on a fjord on Nor­way’s Spitzberg is­land in the heart of the Sval­bard — is­lands half­way be­tween con­ti­nen­tal Nor­way and the North Pole.

“The Sval­bard is Nor­we­gian but had a spe­cial sta­tus en­abling other peo­ple to live or work there,” tour guide Kristin Jaeger-Wexsahl tells the group of sev­eral dozen who sailed from the Nor­we­gian town of Longyear­byen, some 50 kilo­me­ters (30 miles) away.

But as they step off to visit the for­mer coal cen­ter named af­ter a pyra­mid-shaped moun­tain in the back­ground, Sasha takes over.

Why is he armed? In case of po­lar bears, un­til re­cently the town’s only in­hab­i­tants, he tells the group. “We haven’t seen one since May but you never know,” says the 33-year-old.

The Sovi­ets bought the thens­mall coalmine in 1927 from Swedes, says the guardian whose ham­mer- and- sickle en­graved chapka smacks of the now de­funct Com­mu­nist-era USSR.

“The first set­tlers came in 1936 but were evac­u­ated by Bri­tish forces at the be­gin­ning of the Sec­ond World War ... so min­ing re­ally be­gan in earnest in 1956,” in the Cold War years when Nikita Khrushchev ran the Soviet em­pire, he added.

The rails used by the fu­nic­u­lar to ferry min­ers up to the en­trance on the moun­tain face, and by trail­ers to haul the coal down, are still vis­i­ble, while the wharf re­mains lit­tered with ag­ing piles of bricks, gravel and rusted me­tal parts.

Frozen in Time

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

Some 1,200 Rus­sians then lived in Pyra­mi­den, which boasted sev­eral four-story build­ings, a hos­pi­tal, schools, a soc­cer ground, and even a farm with cows and chick­ens.

Giv­ing a glimpse of life as it typi- cally was in the Soviet Union is a bust of Lenin placed out­side the sports and cul­tural cen­ter.

Black-and-white photos of soc­cer and hockey matches and chess tour­na­ments hang in the en­trance hall, tak­ing visi­tors back in time. The 300-seat movie theater 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.

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

In 1998, the com­pany an­nounced its clo­sure and the city was aban­doned by its res­i­dents.

Now in the harsh win­ter months when the sun fails to rise, even Sasha leaves.

But in March he hap­pily re­turns. With more and more tourists vis­it­ing Spitzberg over the last few years, time-warped Pyra­mi­den has be­come a pop­u­lar cu­rios­ity in the Arc­tic Cir­cle world of moun­tains, fjords and glaciers.

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