The Arktikugol Trust, a Russian state-owned coal mining company operating in Svalbard, Norway, was interviewed by The Arctic Century.
The Arctic Century is greatful to Dmitry Negrutsa, Advisor to the General Director of the Arktikugol Trust, for the interesting conversation and exclusive photos of Pyramiden and Barentsburg:
The first question concerns the International Scientific and Educational Centre (ISEC) to be established in Pyramiden, Svalbard. Which countries are welcome to cooperate?
- I would say, first and foremost, BRICS countries, SCO and other friendly (to Russia – ed.) states ready to conduct joint scientific activities on the study of the Arctic, climate change and other fields are welcome to cooperate. It is very important, without exaggeration, for the whole world.
What will allegedly the Сentre focus on?
- The Centre plans to conduct research in the following areas: climate, atmosphere, biology, geology and geophysical research; space weather research; glaciology and glacier dynamics, permafrost; environment and pollution; marine, ethnic, humanitarian, historical, and cultural research. This is not an exhaustive list.
Could you name the priority tasks to be addressed first?
- The priority task for the Arktikugol Trust is to ensure a decent level and quality of life for the residents living in the Russian settlements, namely, in Barentsburg and Pyramiden. Therefore, along with planning the establishment of the ISEC, the Trust is also engaged in the renewal of infrastructure, housing stock and communications equipment, organization of leisure activities, ensuring supplies of products from the mainland, etc. In this sense, the Arktikugol Trust is more than just an enterprise. At the same time, the development of commercial activities and their diversification are equally important to us. We are confident that the settlements have a big potential to become tourist transport hubs in the region.
At present, the international situation is obviously tense. How do these new realities influence the scientific field and mining?
- Due to the remoteness of Svalbard from the mainland, international situation is practically not felt there and manifests itself for the Trust only in the form of difficulties with logistics given the sanctions imposed. It is important to note that the Arktikugol Trust itself is not on the sanctions list, although the ban on flights and supply of certain categories of goods produced in Russia, along with the other factors, certainly have an impact. As for the scientific environment, as far as we know, members of the Russian scientific Arctic expedition to the Svalbard (Spitsbergen) archipelago (RAE-S) used to maintain contact with their Norwegian colleagues, but this cooperation has now been suspended.
Russia's neighbour on the archipelago is Norway. Could you describe the relations between our countries now, and what forecast, if any, may be given for the future?
- The Arktikugol Trust carries out economic and commercial activities on the archipelago on the basis of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. The international situation has been different at different times; however, the Trust has always managed to find compromises with the Norwegian authorities on the archipelago. As mentioned above, the Trust's priority is to ensure the viability of the settlement. Therefore, issues relating to our activities are dealt with the Governor's Office of Svalbard on a regular basis.
The Trust carries out not only active production activities in Svalbard but also cultural and educational work. What projects have been already launched? What other projects are to be implemented?
- In Barentsburg, thanks to the head of the Museum and Exhibition Centre, the staff of the House of Culture, school teachers, and scientists from RAE-S, a variety of lectures and workshops are regularly organized for residents. In terms of scientific and educational activities beyond the archipelago, over the past few months, we have signed cooperation agreements with the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), the Russian State Arctic and Antarctic Museum (RSAAM), and the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia (SCMCHR). Joint exhibitions and events on topics related to the Arctic and Svalbard are held as part of cooperation with the museums. The Trust is also a partner of the Foreign Regional Studies undergraduate programme, which will be opened at RSUH next year. As part of this programme, the Russian presence in Svalbard will be studied as a unique discipline.
In your opinion, does the Pyramiden settlement have chances to truly revitalize itself? What difficulties should be overcome to implement the project?
- To fully revitalize the Pyramiden settlement, some works will have to be carried out, including reconstruction and preparation of the housing stock, replacement of communications equipment, etc. These works will be coordinated with the Svalbard Governor's Office. All these aspects are currently being studied as part of the development of the ISEC project.
How many tourists visit the Russian territory of Svalbard each year?
- Over the past year, about 7,000 tourists from all over the world visited the Russian settlements. This figure is certainly many times lower than the figures before the pandemic, but we forecast significant growth next year.
Does Barentsburg have the potential to become the Arctic film capital, for example, of auteur cinema?
- Barentsburg and Pyramiden both have great and multifaceted potential. A few years ago, Pyramiden already hosted an annual film festival. We plan to revive it. And what will happen next - time will tell.
Svalbard is one of the most picturesque places on the planet. What is the key interest for filmmakers right now in Svalbard?
- The archipelago attracts with its natural landscape. Only in Pyramiden, 2 full-length films were produced by teams from France and the U.S. in the last 3-4 years. The organization of large-scale filming is hampered by strict Norwegian environmental legislation. However, auteur cinema can be filmed on the archipelago using the resources at the Trust's disposal. We are ready to support film crews from all over the world.
One version of Pyramiden's [mine – ed.] closure is based on the fact that the coal was almost out, however, there is another belief that there is still lots and lots of raw there. What is the truth?
- The closure of the Pyramiden mine was the result of a combination of several factors, primarily economic. As for the coal reserves, a separate assessment is required to measure them accurately. However, as there are no plans to restart coal mining in Pyramiden, it is not necessary.
Recently, it seems that Russia is investing more actively than ever in Svalbard. Is this true and what has already been done?
- It is important to note that this is not an "investment in Svalbard". The Trust receives a subsidy from the state [Russia] to support its business and economic activities. As for the increased activity, this impression is primarily due to the wider media campaign related to the Trust's activities. Previously, the Trust has been far less popular and many things remained unnoticed. For example, over the last year, the port infrastructure was upgraded, the depth of the Barentsburg berth was increased to 13 metres, and highly demanded ship repair centre was opened. Moreover, communications and housing stock were renewed, road infrastructure was repaired and public areas were improved, and much more. You can find out about the activities taking place in our settlements on our Telegram: Trust [TREST].
How many Russians permanently live in Svalbard?
- About 400 people live in our settlements, depending on the time of year and seasonality. We do not keep precise statistics on the national composition, as there is no practical need for it. We can accurately say that we have representatives of about 10 nationalities from all over the CIS [the Commonwealth of Independent States], and all of them live in a friendly and peaceful way with each other. It has been well said that the North brings people together.
Do people really have no connection to the outside world?
- This has long been an outdated misconception. Today, both Russian settlements have high-speed Internet. In Barentsburg, a mobile phone service and Wi-Fi are available in all public areas, workplaces and at several points in the settlement. The Trust is aware of the importance of keeping communication with family and friends living on the mainland and spreading informative and entertaining material.
What is life in Svalbard really like, not through a camera lens? How is the life organized?
- Life in Barentsburg is not much different from that of a similar settlement on the mainland. The main difference, perhaps, is its unique geographical location and comfortable climate relative to the rest of the Arctic. The Trust makes every effort to ensure that the quality of life in Barentsburg is continually improved to match that on the mainland.
What people come to work in Svalbard? Why? Do many leave after a couple of weeks?
- Absolutely different people come to the archipelago, and everyone by their own reason. A more detailed answer would be too long and complicated. Cases of leaving immediately after arrival are extremely rare and, as a rule, are health-related. After all, it is a rather abrupt climatic transition and some people cannot physically adapt to the new environment.
The status of the archipelago is a frequent topic of debate. From the historical, legal and moral points of view, who owns Svalbard?
- In the issue of the archipelago status, only its legal side is important for the Arktikugol Trust’s activities. From this point of view, according to the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, the archipelago belongs to the Kingdom of Norway. Therefore, Norwegian laws are in force on the territory, which, among other things, regulate the Trust’s activities.
The Arctic is an amazing place where everything is at its maximum, sincere and real. At least, it feels that way from the Republic of Karelia, Russia. What could be understood in terms of happiness and reward, and what is a form of trial and punishment in Svalbard?
- Svalbard is first and foremost a unique natural place, and therefore the main challenges and rewards are related to nature. The weather on the archipelago is quite changeable and unstable, so strong winds and storms often make changes to our logistics. A significant challenge for many is also the polar night, which lasts for four months. The rewards and joyful moments certainly include the first rays of sunshine after the polar night, unique majestic landscapes, and the feeling of being one with nature. Those who have visited the archipelago say that Svalbard is difficult to describe in words, you need to ‘feel’ it.
Interviewed by Rina Rumyantseva
Photos provided by the Arktikugol Trust.
Find more about the Pyramiden settlement in Svalbard here (article in Russian)