Pyramiden, a Russian settlement and coal-mining community on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, was founded by Sweden in 1910 and sold to to the Soviet Union in 1927. It was effectively abandoned in 1998, a couple of years after the crash of a charter flight from Longyearben that was taking 130 workers and their families to the mining town. In the last ten years there’s been a very small permanent population of up to 30 people, supporting a niche (and seemingly growing) tourism industry. We’re doing a day-trip to Pyramiden by boat from Longyearben during our week in Svalbard, travelling on the MS Billefjord with Henningsen Transport & Guiding- with some glacier and polar-bear spotting en-route!
After disembarking at Pyramiden, we’re welcomed by Sasha, our multi-lingual, friendly and very entertaining Russian guide for the next couple of hours. Sasha explains there are currently three staff working in Pyramiden, and a couple of hotel guests.
While it’s illegal to enter buildings unaccompanied and Trust Arcticugol (the current owner) is supporting the development of tourism, the town feels neglected and the interior of many buildings is run-down. Conversely, the exterior of most buildings is well-preserved, with a prediction that the very low rate of decay due to the frigid climate means that most buildings will still be standing in 500 years (Source: A Soviet Ghost Town in the Arctic Circle, Pyramiden Stands Alone in Smithsonian magazine).
The backdrop to Pyramiden is one of the old mines; by the time the mine was closed, there were 32 openings and 60km of mine tunnels. Despite the extensive mining operations, the remoteness of the site and difficult access (with ice blocking the fjord for six months of the year by boat) meant that the mine was never actually profitable.
One of the first building we stop at is the barn or “animal farm”: Pyramiden’s agriculture was based on the Soviet collective farming principle, and included a vegetable greenhouse and an animal farm. The animal farm held dairy cattle, pigs, hens and a single horse – for many years a production surplus meant that eggs were exported to Longyearbyen (in 1975 110,000 eggs were produced!).
The hospital building is well-preserved (it had 20 beds and a pharmacy), and many of the buildings around the “main square” at the top of the town are in good condition. Many new buildings were constructed in the late 1940s, including the hospital, a large recreation centre and large cafeteria. These are largely designed in a “Soviet block-style fashion”, with rounded edges to deflect the winter winds.
At the top, or far end, of Pyramiden is a statue of Lenin – the world’s northernmost statue of the communist revolutionary— that looks down on Pyramiden’s main square. The main square is grassed, which is not what you’d expect in the middle of the Arctic… as the natural soil isn’t capable of supporting much vegetation, the Soviets imported Ukrainian soil. The result is a massive artificial lawn, which would also be the northernmost lawn in the world!
Behind Lenin is the Cultural Palace, which we’re able to explore the inside of. It’s an impressive building – and a little eerie to wander around in, since there’s no power to light the interior rooms and corridors. The centre included a library, a weight-lifting room, auditorium/move theatre and basketball court; most of the rooms are still furnished. and feel as if the occupants stepped outside for a moment – and never returned.
The large auditorium has the northernmost grand piano on the stage (a Red Oktober). In the projector room above, alongside the two old projectors, hundreds of old film reels lie strewn across the floor.
On the the other side of the town square is the swimming pool, named after Yuri Gagarin (the first man to orbit the Earth). Pyramiden’s heated indoor pool was the best in Svalbard: “The kids from Longyearbyen used to go there to use the swimming pool. It was quite impressive in its day.” [Smithsonian magazine]
Our next (and nearly last) stop is the canteen and dining hall, near the centre of town. An enormous and intact mosaic forms the backdrop to the large dining room on the second story, where everyone ate.
On the bottom floor, the industrial cooking equipment capable of meeting the needs of up to 900 people, lies abandoned.
Nearby is the “Madhouse” or The Crazy House, where families were accommodated. (Sasha explains there separate buildings depending on marital status, with “London” for the single men and “Paris” for any unmarried women who lived in Pyramiden). It’s now home to thousands of seagulls which nest in the windows, their young having been born a few months earlier. The boxes that sit in each window are refrigerators – square, tin boxes that keep food cold.
Next to the abandoned apartment block is a playground, looking rather incongruous in the desolate landscape.
The last stop is the former Tulip (or Tulpan) Hotel, which housed short-term workers. It’s now operating as a hotel in the summer months, with a bar, post office, souvenir shop and a small museum.
We only had two hours in the town, but I could have spent many more hours wandering around… although if you’re staying overnight it’s not possible to go anywhere without a rifle (or a guide armed with a rifle) due to the risk of polar bears. For an insights into how people lived and coped in this marginal town, read the book Persistent Memories: Pyramiden – a Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic.
Getting to Pyramiden
Half the fun is getting to Pyramiden… in winter (Feb/March-May) you travel by snowmobile from Longyearbyen, which takes 7-8 hours to cover the 220km return trip. In summer and early spring (June-October) you go by boat, which is about four hours each way.
It’s possible to book one-way tickets to Barentsburg or Pyramiden if you want to stay overnight or spend several days at these settlements. In winter, many tour operators offer 2-3 day snowmobiling trips which include a night in the Pyramiden Hotel.