Barentsburg (Svalbard) (AFP) – War may be a long way off, but tensions over the Ukraine conflict are causing an unprecedented chill in a remote Arctic town where Russian and Ukrainian coal miners have worked side by side for decades.
In Barentsburg, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, remnants of a bygone era – a bust of Lenin, a sculpture in Cyrillic script declaring “Our goal – communism” – testify to Russia’s long-standing presence.
The city’s population peaked at around 1,500 in the 1980s, but declined after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, some 370 people live here, two-thirds of whom are Ukrainians – mostly from the Russian-speaking region of eastern Donbass – and the rest Russians.
The atmosphere on the archipelago changed after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February, officials and residents told AFP.
“Opinions are absolutely polarized,” admits Russian tour guide and historian Natalia Maksimishina.
But, she says, “what our long and difficult history in the Soviet Union has taught us is that people here know when to stop talking politics.”
Some Ukrainians accuse the Russian state company Arktikugol Trust, which operates the Barentsburg coal mine, of muzzling dissent.
But Russian Consul Sergey Guschin says there were ‘no visible signs of conflict on the surface’, although he admits ‘there is of course tension and discussion on social media ” like Facebook and Telegram.
The consulate is protected by tall iron bars and security cameras, and richly decorated with a marble entrance, a winter garden and custom-made tapestries.
Its splendor stands out in the otherwise drab city.
In what could be another sign that anger is simmering below the surface, around 45 people have left Barentsburg “since the operation began,” Guschin acknowledges, using Moscow terminology for the invasion of Ukraine.
There were no further details about the individuals.
The departures say a lot, because leaving Barentsburg is not an easy task.
Western sanctions imposed on Russian banks have not only prevented minors from sending money to their families, but have also made it difficult for them to buy plane tickets.
The only airport is in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main town 35 kilometers (22 miles) away where it’s hard to get by without a Visa or Mastercard, which Russians can’t use due to sanctions.
At the entrance to Barentsburg, the coal-fired power plant spits out black smoke, adding to the gloomy atmosphere of the city.
A 1920 treaty that gave Norway sovereignty over Svalbard guarantees citizens of signatory nations equal access to its natural resources.
Russian company Arktikugol Trust has operated the Barentsburg mine on the shores of the Isfjorden fjord since 1932.
A few locals huddle between the town’s pastel-colored buildings, seeking shelter from the freezing cold that prevails even in May.
The inhabitants are more discreet today, especially since they work for the state company which manages the whole city, from the mine to the shops and restaurants.
Russia imposes heavy fines and even prison sentences on anyone found guilty of “discrediting” its army or publishing “false information” about it.
“People are silent”
Longyearbyen is inhabited mainly by Norwegians but has a large Russian and Ukrainian community.
It is only accessible by helicopter or snowmobile in the winter and by boat in the summer due to the lack of roads from Barentsburg.
Julia Lytvynova, a 32-year-old Ukrainian seamstress who lived in Barentsburg, accuses Arktikugol Trust of suppressing dissent.
As a result, “people shut up, work and live their lives as if nothing had happened”.
She has not returned to Barentsburg since the beginning of the war, but she asked a friend to put up an anti-war poster for her on the doors of the Russian consulate.
Its sign, written on a blue and yellow background, featured a now-famous expletive-laden line used by Ukrainian border guards after they rejected a Russian warship’s demand for surrender.
Her poster was taken down in less than five minutes, she said.
The mayor of Longyearbyen, who has lived in Svalbard for 22 years, says he has “never experienced the kind of discord” that we now see among the 2,500 inhabitants of 50 nationalities, including around 100 Russians and Ukrainians.
“There are tensions in the air,” admits Arild Olsen.
In response to the invasion, most tour operators in Longyearbyen stopped taking tourists to Barentsburg, depriving the state-owned company of a lucrative cash cow.
Lytvynova supports this decision “because this money supports Russian aggression”.
By ending this source of income, “they are not helping to kill my Ukrainian people”.
© 2022 AFP