Visit a Soviet ghost town in Norway
Pyramiden is an abandoned Russian mining town in Svalbard, at the top of the world
“Ghost town” evokes images of the Old West towns where the gold rush came and went. Perhaps people tried to earn a living in other ways, but when they couldn’t make it, they had to abandon homes and lifestyles. That is not so very different from Pyramiden, a Soviet-era mining town in icy Svalbard.
Coal was the foundation of Pyramiden’s existence. The town was named after the coal-bearing triangular mountain that looms over it. When the Soviet Union purchased the mine and town from Sweden in 1926, imported men and women, mostly Ukrainians, went to work in Pyramiden. But this was no arctic gulag. Pyramiden (and its sister town of Barentsburg, which is still operational) was a showpiece of Soviet culture and technical advances. Because of fierce competition for jobs, a person was lucky to work in Pyramiden.
The advantages included a palatial cultural center boasting a movie theater, doubling as a concert hall (and still home to the northernmost grand piano), two music rooms, a ballet practice room, and many smaller meeting rooms for any cultural activity the citizens of Pyramiden cared to organize. Attached to the cultural center was the Gaugarin sports center that had two saltwater swimming pools (water piped in from Billefjorden) heated to a cozy 83°F. There were fields for outdoor games (both winter and summer) tennis courts, running tracks, and many other game and exercise rooms.
There was a canteen worthy of a Hollywood set with pillars painted to resemble malachite and a full-wall mosaic of the Arctic featuring the heroes of Norse legend. A curved double staircase constructed to impress visiting foreigners and dignitaries is worthy of an ice queen, with handrails painted a brilliant blue leading up to a massive ballroom for dances. Kitchens the size of a house provided food for gatherings to celebrate special days together.
At its height, 1,000 people lived in Pyramiden. They enjoyed satellite radio and phone calls home and could watch Soviet TV beamed in via Sputnik. There was a dormitory called London for single men and a similar-sized building called Paris for single women. These buildings were constructed of local brick created with ash and slag from the mines. Unused blonde bricks remain in large mounds that tourists today are forbidden to take. The buildings were constructed in the Soviet brutalist style, and are notable for both their curved corners (to soften the wind) and for the metal boxes outside the window that functioned as refrigerators. Now these boxes are home to the seabirds that live in Svalbard.
Red fourplexes and duplexes lined the center plaza, an area that people enjoyed in good weather. This was housing for families, known as the “crazy houses” after the noise and liveliness of the children. Once, there were 70 children in Pyramiden. Their school and playground remain. There was a hospital where babies were born and where people died. Burial took place outside the town in a small cemetery. Nearby is an animal cemetery for the beloved cats that people brought with them.
During the winter, Pyramiden was completely isolated. No boats or planes could enter with supplies. A farm was set up with cows, pigs, and chickens for meat, dairy, and eggs. Fish came from the fjord, and both whale and reindeer were hunted. They had greenhouses for fruits and vegetables. Since nothing can grow in permafrost, soil was shipped by boat from the Ukraine. This Arctic farm was so successful that surplus production was sold in Longyearbyen.
What happened? The truth is that the mine was part of the Soviet Union’s attempt to keep a toehold on Svalbard. It always operated at a financial loss. This wasn’t a problem when the economy was good, but in the 1990s when the economy failed, Pyramiden became unsustainable. In 1996, an Arktikugol flight carrying 141 of Pyramiden’s inhabitants crashed outside Longyearbyen, and the outrage this caused marked the end for Pyramiden. In 1998, in a matter of just a few months, the entire town was evacuated.
The farm animals were sent to Barentsburg, where descendants of Pyramiden’s chickens still provide eggs and meat. People took what they could carry, leaving behind furniture and household goods. Musical instruments in the cultural center still wait for someone to play them. Pots on windowsills are filled with dust, their living plants long since disappeared. Clothes swing untended in closets. The much-loved center plaza, with rich Ukrainian soil providing a lush green manicured lawn in summer, is now mowed by reindeer. Curious polar bears roam the streets.
In 2007, due to vandalism and theft, the Russian government decided to post a small permanent staff there. Massive generators and furnaces were fired up to provide heat and light and water for the hotel, and rooms were restored into apartments for 11 summer staff and four overwintering staff. Tours are given daily during the season, and it is possible to stay in Pyramiden at the Tulip Hotel for a night or two. Tourists aren’t allowed to wander by themselves. Polar bear danger is high, and indeed, on my visit I saw three polar bears by the Nordskjolen glacier next to Pyramiden.
To reach Pyramiden is a minimum 12-hour round-trip boat journey that also takes in views of the Nordskjolen glacier. On arrival, tourists are handed over to a Russian guide and welcomed to Russian territory. The last stop of the tour is the Tulip Hotel, still resplendent in its original scarlet and gold. There’s a bar where you can buy Russian vodka, watch Russian movies on TV, and visit a small souvenir shop. However, there’s no wifi or cellular service so you must make any purchases with Norwegian kroner. But if you ever have the possibility to visit Pyramiden, you should. Its state of decay is an amazing window into another era.
Elizabeth Philotera Bourne is an artist, photographer, and writer. Her photography has been shown nationally, and her short stories have been published in the genre magazines Fantasy and Science Fiction and Clarkesworld. She currently lives in Seattle, where trolls really do live under bridges—or at least she lives there when she’s not wandering across the Arctic. You can find her at www.philotera.com and on Instagram as @philotera.
This article originally appeared in the October 5, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.