The phrase “Russian Mining Colony” doesn’t exactly conjure up a particularly positive set of images. If you add in “Arctic” it’s very easy to find words like “bleak” and “isolated” coming to mind too.
But for much of the 1970s and 1980s the Russian Mining Colony at Pyramiden on Svalbard was one of the most sought after postings in the former Soviet Union. The 1200 people (miners and their families) were well paid and very well looked after. They had access to state of the art medical facilities (and not just measured by Soviet standards), to excellent cultural facilities (including the worlds most northerly grand piano), to fabulous sports facilities (including the worlds most northerly swimming pool) and to plentiful meat and diary (including an indoor farm which produced so many eggs that they were exported to other parts of Svalbard). They also had access to a (near) 24 hour-a-day dining room and to the most northerly bust of Lenin and their very own KGB station. All this was provided to encourage miners to come and dig coal from the high-level seams within Pyramid Mountain.
All this came to an end in 1998 when the people were repatriated and the buildings and mining facilities were abandoned. Over recent years one of the accommodation buildings has operated as a small hotel and there are a few permanent residents who look after the buildings and on occasion provide guided tours.
Pyramiden lies on one of the northern fingers of Svalbard’s Isfjorden (ice fjord), and as the name would suggest access is dependent on the state of the ice in the fjord. During the winter it is possible (subject to the weather) to get to Pyramiden by snowmobile, but in the spring this becomes too dangerous and would-be tourists need to wait until the ice is clear enough for tour boats to negotiate the water. The date when the first boat of the season is able to get through is a very moveable feast, but fortunately for me this year it was 1st June (and I was onboard).
When I’d booked the trip I’d been told categorically that we wouldn’t get to Pyramiden and even once we were onboard the guide was extremely reticent to say anything to revise that view. However on chatting with the crew I was told that over the previous few days the boat (a mini-icebreaker) had been trying to break through the ice and on the previous day had got to within 150 metres of the dock before having to give up. On our day, I learnt later, two other boats had a look at the ice and decided it still wasn’t navigable, our boat however was able to keep crunching away at the ice until we got alongside the dock.
From the dock we were bussed the short distance to the edge of town and then guided around the town before being given the chance to explore inside a few of the communal buildings.
|Welcome to Pyramiden|
|Downtown Pyramiden from the Isfjord|
|Accommodation blocks and Pyramid Mountain|
|Some pre-war buildings still exist|
|Hero Wall - Employee of the Month pictures were once posted here!|
|Under the boards, heat pipes from the central boiler house|
|Northern-most Lenin, outside the Cultural Centre|
|79 Degrees North (and yes polar bears do still occasionally wander into town)|
|Heated (salt-water) swimming pool|
|Dining Hall decoration (just in case you forget what it's like outside)|
|Couldn't find the northern-most grand piano, this upright could have done with a visit from a northern piano tuner.|