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Saturday, 2 September, 2000, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
Pulling out of Pyramiden
steam engine
Preserved mine train at Ny-Alesund, part of Svalbard's industrial past
By Environment correspondent Alex Kirby

If you want to find the abomination of desolation, I can point you to it. At least, I can head you towards the place which left me feeling more of a sense of emptiness and abandonment than almost anywhere else I can think of.

That isn't because it's a place of human savagery or wickedness, or even simple grief, though it's probably had more than its share of that. Nor is it the stark physical surroundings.

Pyramiden does not even merit a mention in The Time Atlas
What sets this place apart is that humanity is pulling out, cutting its losses, leaving behind its nightmares and its dreams.

The place is Pyramiden, one of two Russian settlements on Svalbard, and named for the strange angular mountain that looms over it.

You can't really call it a town - in its heyday Pyramiden never boasted more than 1,000 inhabitants. Now it has about 60, and soon enough they'll be gone as well.

High Arctic stain

When we stepped ashore on the quayside of rotting planks, a wild-looking working-party was loading a freighter with equipment salvaged from the coalmine that had given Pyramiden its brief span of life - transformers and other electrical gear, roof arches, indescribable bundles of rusty junk.

bust of lenin
Pyramiden: world's most Northerly Lenin bust
The entrance to the mine itself, abandoned several years ago, was on the side of the mountain overlooking Pyramiden - a livid and incongruous ulcer from the Industrial Revolution staining the high Arctic.

On an autumn day the high Arctic itself looked distinctly dour, with skeins of cloud rolling down the bare slopes, and the wind off the glacier chivvying the piles of dust.

But none of this would have mattered. Five hundred miles from the North Pole you don't expect a tropical breeze.

Fourteen gulls were found dead on the rubbish tip. They died from alcohol poisoning.

What really affected me was Pyramiden itself, a compact little place complete with a sports centre, library, hotel, school, the most northerly bust of Lenin in the world - but scarcely a soul to be seen.

The few workers we had seen spend each summer there, shipping out the salvageable stuff from the mine. There may be another five or 10 summers of work ahead.

Too expensive

After that, Pyramiden really will be abandoned - the books on the library shelves, the sports gear, the glasses in the hotel bar, will lie undisturbed for generations, preserved by the cold to excite the interest of any traveller who may ultimately stumble upon them.

Saddest of all is the reason why the Russians are leaving - they just can't afford to keep Pyramiden going.

two men talking
Sovereignty matters to Norwegians
Never mind that much of it was built within the last ten years, that the grass in its still-neat streets was imported from Siberia, that a Russian team has found oil just a few miles away and wants to explore for more.

The truth is that Pyramiden is beyond the means of modern Russia. So everything that can be carted off is going on the freighter, down the fjord to Barentsburg, the main Russian centre on Svalbard.

By all accounts, life there goes with something of a swing, and Barentsburg knows how to enjoy itself, in its own way.

For example, cats are banned on the islands, to prevent disrupting the existing wildlife. But the Norwegian official who told us of the ban added, matter-of-factly: "Of course, there are cats in Barentsburg."

And there are the 14 gulls which were found dead on the rubbish-tip there earlier this year. They were taken to Oslo for autopsy and found to have died from alcohol poisoning.

Barentsburg is somewhere the Russians will not easily give up. It is their last substantial claim to be on Svalbard at all.

Cat and mouse

They have as much right as the Norwegians, or the citizens of any other state included in the treaty, to be there for economic reasons, though Norway's sovereignty is absolute.

Svalbard living is harsh
For the years from the treaty's adoption in 1920 until the final disappearance of the Soviet Union there was good reason for both Norwegians and Russians to be on Svalbard - it was the world's most northerly Cold War frontier.

While each went through the pretence of mining the coal, they could in reality concentrate on keeping a close eye on each other. Most of that time they got on pretty well together, and they still do.

Staying put

But for all the Arctic camaraderie, neither side shows any willingness to call it a day and leave Svalbard to the reindeer and the polar bears.

I asked one Norwegian why anyone would want to stay there. "Well", he said, "If we left, the Russians would simply take over, or the French - or even you."

Sovereignty is its own reward. But Pyramiden will still be Russian long after the pull-out is complete. They're leaving the bust of Lenin where it is.

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