On the icy Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard lies the quiet northernmost reminder of the Soviet Union. With its welcoming slogan, “Peace to the world!” ubiquitous, the sentiment of the abandoned Soviet coal mining settlement, Pyramiden, which translates to quite literally, ‘The Pyramid’, could not cut a more different image than that of the inhospitable surroundings and the one that discourse often paints of the political system it belonged to.
The hardy remnants of Pyramiden live on as a reminder of the positive elements of communism and just how open to outsiders the town once was. When operational, Pyramiden was communism’s most positive configuration, it wanted the system to succeed for the good of everyone. There was no corruption here, just hard work and will for each resident to achieve happiness.
The settlement was founded by Sweden in 1910 but was purchased by the Soviet Union in 1927, giving it the identity it has today. It lies at the foot of the Billefjorden on the island of Spitsbergen, and it takes its name from the imposing mountain of the same name that overlooks the town. Given the geographical location of Pyramiden, local settlements are few and far between, with Svalbard’s capital Longyearbyen 50 kilometres to the south, the almost entirely Russian-speaking Barentsburg 100 kilometres to the southwest and Ny-Ålesund 100 kilometres to the west.
When Pyramiden was run by the Soviet Union, the population was made up of mostly Ukrainians, with experienced miners moving from the Donbas region and other staff coming from the Volyn region. The settlement was overseen by the Russian mining company Arktikugol Trust, which was owned by the Soviet state, which also owned Barentsburg.
At its peak, Pydramiden housed over 1,000 people and was a bustling town. There were many services on offer, as was the case with the Soviet Union, including a cultural centre that housed a theatre, art and music studios, a library and a 24 hours canteen. Interestingly, the settlement is the home of the northernmost monument to Vladimir Lennin and a swimming pool, and the bust of Lenin defiantly resists the elements year after year, a reminder that so too do his ideas.
Unfortunately, as seems to be the case with many of the old coal mining communities, Pyramiden’s time as a functioning settlement was finite. Coal was mined for the last time on March 31st, 1998, and closed later that year, with the final resident leaving for good on October 10th.
Pyramiden’s time as a ghost town has now ended. In 2012 Aleksandr Romanovsky became the first person to live in the settlement since its abandonment and has been its caretaker ever since. Now, more people have moved in, and in summer, the site’s population comes to a grand total of six. Pyramiden is trapped in a state of inertia, with all the former buildings left untouched being remarkably preserved by the cold weather.
What’s even more surprising is that there are no restrictions placed on visiting Pyramiden; aside from that tourists cannot enter any buildings without permission, regardless of whether they’re open or not. Shockingly, even though most of the buildings are locked, the town has experienced significant vandalism and theft of Soviet-era antiques, which has been named one of the site’s main threats.
The upkeep of Pyramiden is assumed by The Arctic Travel Compay Grumant, a division of Arktikugol. Tours through the buildings need to be booked upon request in the Pyramiden Hotel, which was reopened in 2013, so visitors can stay overnight. The Hotel also houses the Museum, Post Office and Souvenir Shop. In addition to this, the cinema has been restored in recent years and movies can now be booked on request. Their extensive archive houses over 1000 Soviet films, which are preserved in storerooms on site.
Pyramiden is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting places on Earth. Once a frozen paradise, now trapped in time, it’s a place that everyone should visit when given the chance, as it offers a different image of the Soviet Union that we all know so well from our history lessons. Its slogan, “Peace to the world!” still courses through the air, and you can imagine that one day, as people gradually return to the area, it might just be a Utopia once again.
Watch a film with one of the residents of Pyramiden – and a series of images – below.