A small taste of Russia

By |Published On: August 8, 2023|Categories: Europe, Svalbard|1543 words|2 Comments|

Having done all we needed to do in Longyearbyen, it was time to start heading south to get into position for the jump back to the mainland. First up though we wanted to stop in at Barentsburg, a Russian coal mining town in Grønfjorden that we hadn’t been able to stop at on our way into Longyearbyen the first time. We headed out of Adventfjorden and made west into Isjforden towards Grønfjorden. Ahead of us was SY Snow Bear and soon SY Saraban’de came along a few miles astern.

View north from Barentsburg across Grønfjorden and Isfjorden.


Barentsburg was established and named by the Dutch Spitsbergen Company, which owned the coal mine and the settlement from 1920 to 1932. The Dutch subsequently sold both to the Soviet Union and it is still owned by Russians today, who mine coal for the Russian market but also for Barentsburg’s own power generator. This is similar to the Norwegians at Longyearbyen, where coal is still being mined to provide the town with electricity.

These mining operations on Svalbard by Norway and Russia are maintained under the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 (originally the Spitsbergen Treaty). This treaty gave citizens of signatory countries (including the Netherlands and Australia – go figure!) equal rights to exploit natural resources among other things (including to live, work and run businesses there). While the Dutch had some mining presence in Svalbard during the 1920s, as far as we can tell the Australians never made it this far north with their mining gear.

Old buildings along the foreshore, with coal power generator in the background (bottom photo). Most of the town is now higher up the slopes.

Like most settlements on Svalbard, the original Barentsburg was mostly destroyed during the 2nd World War. Apparently first by the allies who evacuated Svalbard’s inhabitants in 1941, and destroyed the coal mining and other infrastructure to prevent the Germans from using it (Operation Gauntlet). Then during a German raid in 1943 when, whatever remained of the town (and of Longyearbyen just up the coast), was shelled by the battleship Tripitz (Operation Zitronella). Apparently this was done to secure the strategic value of Svalbard, to get access to the Norwegian and Russian coal mines, and to establish weather stations, the latter being vital for the war efforts in central Europe and attacking allied convoys to Murmansk. After the war the Soviets rebuilt the town and reopened the mine.

Soviet residential buildings, with inspiring slogans such as ‘Our goal is Communism!’.

These days, the town is built on the steep slopes of the eastern side of the Grønfjorden and rises in what are more or less terraces. The first terrace is the port and associated workshops and loading facilities. The second terrace is comprised of old wooden buildings from the post-war period and in varying states of decay and restoration. Above these, a wide terrace with many of the community and coal processing facilities and finally the residential buildings, the Russian consulate, the hotel, a museum and a brewery. These are all quite colourful but somehow still drawn from a clearly soviet style.

Google translate doesn’t make sense of this mining mural, but with words like ‘peace’, ‘ worker’, ‘warmth’ and ‘light’, it no doubt is rousing stuff that glorifies a coal miner’s life!

Many of the walls are decorated with murals, polar bears and arctic themes, coal miners, Russian heroes, and exhortations to work for the greater good. Inspiring stuff if you are in a revolutionary frame of mind, I guess.


With the yacht pontoon at Barentsburg only having two berths and these both being occupied when we arrived, we rafted up inside alongside SY Snow Bear at their invitation. This was a nice outcome as we’d bumped into Snow Bear a number of times since Norway but had never had a chance to talk much. Snuggly rafted up, we joined them and SY Saraban’de for the walk up to Restaurant Rijpsburg in the Barentsburg Hotel for dinner.

Dinner with crew from SYs Saraban’de and Snow Bear (photo courtesy of SY Saraban’de).

Everyone we bumped into along the way was very friendly. Few spoke English but almost all of them smiled and acknowledged us. This is more than you get in Longyearbyen. After good solid meals (D: delicious traditional Russian fish soup and what the waiter described as a ‘perfect’ hamburger; F: can’t remember, so can’t have been too good) with a tasty Russian beer, we headed back to the boat in soft drizzle and fog and climbed into bed.

Any rest, however, was short lived. An hour and a half later 20kt of wind and breaking waves were crashing into the harbour, tossing the boats, and most frighteningly, the pontoon around. We all dashed around trying to secure boats in a way that would limit damage. SY Saraban’de, who were on the outside rafted up against a Russian boat, were able to drop their lines and get away to the safety of Ankerhamna. However, there was no way we were going to be able to back out into the wind and waves and then turn, stern first, into the sea to get away. The tide was out and the room for manoeuvring was just too small. Our only option was to sit it out.

So passed a miserable night of being tossed around on the end of our mooring lines, constantly monitoring fenders and lines, ensuring that Yuma and Snow Bear’s rigs were well separated and nervously monitoring the position of the pontoon as it strained seemingly ever closer to the lee shore. Not fun. Not fun at all. By roughly 0700, the wind dropped and soon thereafter the waves followed suit and we were all able to crash wearily into bed.

The day after the night before: beautiful views from the Museum of Barentsburg’s balcony towards Grønfjorden and Isfjorden.


After a long sleep-in, and an hour or two of trying to wake up (during which Saraban’de returned from their more restful night at Anchorhamna), we wandered up to the Museum of Barentsburg to learn more about the Russian history and involvement in Svalbard. Despite having missed our initial 1030 appointment, our Russian guide was delighted to hang out with us for a few hours and to give us a detailed explanation of the Russian perspective on the history of Svalbard. Needless to say, the Russian perspective is somewhat different to that provided by the Norwegians in that it included Russians beyond the odd mention of Pomor hunters (what could possibly be going on there?).

Indeed, this lack of information from the Norwegian sources meant that of particular interest to us was information on the Pomors and their time in Svalbard. It turns out that they were a group of ethnic Russians that had pushed north to the shore of the White Sea during the Tartar suzerainty and the early period of Muscovy. They hunted and fished along the White Sea and its catchments, and even further east along the Russian polar coast. Consequently, they were the ideal candidates to carry out the Arctic component of Peter the Great’s empire building push.

A ‘How to’ manual for slaughtering sea mammals in Spitsbergen (then called Greneland by the English).

As part of this effort, the Pomors were encouraged to establish hunting stations on Svalbard in the early 18th century and regularly overwintered there in subsequent years. An interesting question that was raised in the museum, however, is whether the Pomors were actually already in Svalbard before Willem Barents in 1596. Entirely plausible given their settlements across the Russian Arctic coast and on Nova Zembla. This is of great interest to the Russians given their desire to remain active and settled in Svalbard. They do freely admit though that there is currently no historical or archaeological evidence to support this.

Either way, the museum was courteous enough to not mostly ignore the Dutch contributions to Spitsbergen’s history (unlike the Norwegians), this being a great balm to the national pride of Yuma’s Dutch crew member, and even exhibited ‘a fragment of W. Barents’ ship ‘Witte Swaen’, recovered from Nova Zembla. Very cool!

Willem Barents’ memorabilia in the Museum.

After bidding our excellent museum guide farewell we wandered a bit more through the town. This included a visit to the most northern Russian Orthodox church (currently without a priest unlike its Antarctic equivalent), perusal of the one and only supermarket with its remarkably severe looking but highly done up and actually very friendly female attendants, sampling Russian ice creams, and a sneak tour of the local sport centre and its extensive mosaics.

The church without a priest but, on the right, adorned with a seagull as temporary compensation.

Sadly, though the sports centre is quite large and boasts an indoor sports field, swimming pool and saunas, it had seen much better days and looked run down and in real need of a good clean and a paint job.

Shop (with icecream!), and entrance to sports complex.

Then, on the walk back to our respective boats, we were treated to a delightful little Polar fox episode. But that’s for the next blog!


  1. Caro immin September 11, 2023 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    De replica van de Witte Swaen heeft dit weekend vanuit Harlingen zijn eerste proefvaart gemaakt op de Noordzee.

    • Frederieke September 17, 2023 at 3:06 pm - Reply

      We hebben de Witte Swaen in mei in de haven van Harlingen zien liggen. Zal een mooi gezicht zijn geweest onder zeil!

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Stretching our legs
One very sneaky arctic fox