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Last Updated: Monday, 25 December 2006, 09:54 GMT
Cold War haunts Arctic outpost
By Ben Tobias

Barentsburg street
Barentsburg remains a bleak outpost - and needs new income
Nowhere was the Cold War chillier than in Barentsburg, a Russian coal-mining community deep inside the Arctic Circle.

The settlement is on the island of Spitsbergen, in Norway's Svalbard archipelago.

Walking through the endless passageways of Barentsburg's coal mine, it is easy to imagine that not much has changed here since the Soviet Union collapsed 15 years ago.

I am dressed in ragged old overalls and kitted out with a safety ventilator and head torch that were probably first used some time during the Brezhnev era.

But above ground things are very different.

These days, the Russian and Norwegian populations on the island live in relative harmony. The residents of the two settlements are free to visit each other's homes and they can talk openly about their very separate lives.


That was not always the case. Spitsbergen was the northern front of the Cold War, and relations between the Russians and Norwegians on the island were chilly. Official "exchanges" took place every few months, but never without surveillance.

Svalbard map
"We could only go to [the Norwegian town of] Longyearbyen if we were accompanied by a KGB agent," says Boris Ocherednyuk, who has lived in Barentsburg for 24 years.

"In Longyearbyen, we were forbidden from going into the church. We weren't allowed to look at a bible. We certainly weren't allowed to look at the fashion magazines they had, with beautiful clothes and people in them. If they found out we'd got one of those, we were severely punished," he says.

Svalbard Treaty

The Soviets were able to settle on the island because of the unique Svalbard Treaty.

The treaty, written in 1920, gave sovereignty of the Svalbard archipelago to Norway, but all the treaty's signatories were given an equal right to commercial activities on the island.

Russia and Norway are the only nations with significant settlements on Spitsbergen, but people of many nationalities now live and work on the island, including Poles, Thais and Iranians.

Spitsbergen is cold, dark and isolated. During the winter the temperature can drop to minus 40C and from November until February it is dark all the time.

But for many miners in the Soviet Union, a trip to Barentsburg was a great opportunity. Wages were relatively high and were paid on time.

"When I first came here, I was able to save money for my children and for my future. I was able to finance my daughter's wedding and help my son while he was in the army. Unfortunately with all the changes that happened to my country, the money I saved got devalued and because of that I'm still here today," says Boris Ocherednyuk.

Tourism hopes

These days the mine is running at a loss. The coal reserves are shrinking, and so is the population. In 1991 there were more than 2,000 Russians on Spitsbergen - twice the size of the Norwegian population.

View of Longyearbyen
Longyearbyen is a shiny example of Norwegian prosperity
Now just over 400 Russians are left on the island, compared to about 1,500 Norwegians.

However, there are plans to find new ways of bringing money and people back to Barentsburg. Boris Nagayuk is director of the mine:

"We plan to create our own tourism firm here, like the Norwegians have done. So far tourists have come here only with Norwegian tour firms, but we want to run our own company," says Mr Nagayuk.

Norway's main settlement on Spitsbergen, Longyearbyen, has developed rapidly over the last 10 years, largely thanks to the growing number of tourists. All sorts of activities are on offer, from snowmobile safaris to Arctic barbecues.

The extra money has turned Longyearbyen into a thriving, modern town, which in many ways feels like an Alpine ski resort. For Boris Ocherednyuk, the contrast with the stark environment of Barentsburg is impossible to ignore.

"I've been to Longyearbyen a number of times. Of course in some ways we are jealous of them. Life there has moved forward a long way, to a point we can only aspire to. But at least now I feel free."

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