A pristine, yet harsh wilderness that offers intrepid explorers majestic night views of the northern lights, Svalbard is one of Europe's most remote archipelagoes, nestled deep within the arctic circle. This remote speck of land has an exceptional international status that attracted foreigners from all over the world, culminating in the establishment of Barentsburg, Norway’s Russian town. Lying 60 kilometers to the west of Svaldbard's capital, Longyearbyen, Barentsburg is owned and operated by the Russian-state mining company Trust Arktickugol. While it might seem as if the town is a desolate wasteland, there’s far more to this sleepy settlement in the middle of the Arctic than initially meets the eye.
Svalbard has a tradition of naming its settlements after pioneers and explorers who have played a significant role in its history. Barentsburg is no exception. It is named after renowned Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, who discovered Svalbard in 1596. The settlement was given its current name in 1920 by the Dutch, who purchased the mines from Russia in the same year.
But the Dutch tenure at Barentsburg was short-lived. By 1932, Russia once again took over the mines they had initially established and expanded the site to increase productivity and profit. With the outbreak of World War II in mainland Europe, Barentsburg was all but destroyed by Nazi bombers, as they sought to strike at the heart of Russian production and stall their war efforts.
photography by: Frode Bjorshol/ Flickr
Following the war, Barentsburg was rebuilt by the Russians and has remained the property of the mining giant Trust Arktikugol ever since. At its most prominent, Barentsburg was home to in excess of 1,000 Russian residents, all of whom were involved in mining at the site in some capacity. Today, the population has more than halved and sits around 455, made up almost entirely of Russians and Ukrainian citizens.
The town of Barentsburg is administered in a complex way. It is a Russian town located in the Arctic, under Norwegian sovereignty. In 1920, the Svalbard Treaty was signed, which gave the signatories, including Russia and Norway, equal rights to exploit the natural resources there.
photography by: Ulrich Waack/ Wikimedia Commons
As Svalbard is in Norway, the Russian government is represented by a consulate in Barentsburg, which is the northernmost diplomatic mission in the world. The town also has a Norwegian postcode and telephone numbers, making it a bizarre confluence between Russia and Norway.
photography by: Sigurd R/ Wikimedia Commons
Although Barentsburg is very much a mining town, there are several things that visitors can do and see in and around town.
One of the last things you would expect to see in the middle of a bleak arctic mining village is street art. Nevertheless, there are actually quaint murals on the sides of buildings throughout the town. This serves as a morale boost for locals during the depths of the dark Arctic winters and gives the town a unique charm and character.
photography by: Kitty Terwolbeck/ Flickr
Russia is home to myriads of awe-inspiring Orthodox churches decorated with colorful spires and made in various ways. While the church in Barentsburg is simple, it still retains much of the characteristics of Russian design. The church was built to honor the 141 people who lost their lives in the Vnkovo Airlines plane crash in Svalbard in 1996.
photography by: Gunvor Røkke/ Flickr
You might be surprised to know that such a small settlement even has a museum. At Pomor, you can learn about the explorers who first arrived on Svalbard and gain an insight into the Russian trappers who made a name for themselves here. More generally, it gives you an interesting insight into what life in Svalbard is like for the local people.
In the center of Barentsburg stands a bust of Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet revolutionary who served as the first founding head governor of Soviet Russia. Busts of the former Russian leader can’t be found everywhere, so it’s a unique photo opportunity that will lead your friends and family to question where on earth you’ve been.
photography by: Smtunli, Svein-Magne Tunli/ Wikimedia Commons
There is a small souvenir shop in Barentsburg called Polar Star, which offers crafts and gifts that are handmade by artisans in the town. They have a small but impressive collection of Matryoshka dolls, as you would expect from a store that sells Russian knick-knacks.
photography by: Bingar1234/ Wikimedia Commons
There are technically two main places to gorge on a hearty meal in Barentsburg when you’re in town as a visitor, providing an opportunity to experience some traditional Russian dishes.
Considered as the northernmost brewery in the world, Red Bear Pub & Brewery is famous for its craft ales and stouts that are to die for. With it being a Russian town, you can also enjoy ice-cold vodka, which locals enjoy at all times of the day. As well as serving a range of alcohol options, you can also taste some hearty fayre at the restaurant, including dishes like borsch and warming meat stews.
The décor inside is unique and somewhat mystical, and from the windows, you can gaze at the breathtaking surrounding wilderness.
If you’re planning on staying overnight in Barentsburg, you will probably check yourself into Hotel Barentsburg. The simply decorated yet comfortable hotel is renowned for its excellent service and the welcome the staff provides to visitors. Even if you don’t stay here, you can order food from the on-site restaurant for either lunch or dinner.
Like at the Red Bear Pub and Brewery, the restaurant serves a plethora of traditional Russian dishes, warming soups and stews, which are essential after spending time in the freezing Arctic outside.
photography by: ~johnny/ Wikimedia Commons
There is no road between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. During the winter, you can only travel the 60 kilometers that separate the two towns via snowmobile, which you will have to hire.
From Longyearbyen, you can arrange a guide and travel via snowmobiles through narrow valleys to get to the Russian mining town. Your guide will take you around the town and explain the origins of much of the unique Russian architecture and show you all of the town’s main sites, including the mines.
This eight-hour day trip from Longyearbyen is an excellent way to see the town of Barentsburg in a short space of time and offers you the thrill of seeing the beauty of the Arctic wilderness while you’re traveling on snowmobiles with an experienced guide. For more information about this tour, click here.
Alternatively, if you’re in Svalbard in the summer months, you can travel to Barentsburg by boat. If you’re traveling by boat, expect your journey to take anywhere from 1-3 hours. Some trips include tours of nearby glaciers and are a welcome addition to the journey. You can arrange your journey from Longyearbyen with various tour companies. This helpful resource lists the various boat excursions you can take from Svalbard.
photography by: Bernt Rostad/ Flickr