In the Far North, the Russian colony of Barentsburg overtaken by the war in Ukraine


On the heights of the hill overlooking Barentsburg, wooden planks placed on the ground form a message visible in the distance on this autumn morning: ” Peace in the world “. In a few days, the first snows will cover these Cyrillic words, before the polar night plunges the Russian-speaking colony and its hope for peace into darkness for several months. “When we can no longer distinguish the message, we know that we have entered the Arctic winter,” describes Elena Konevskikh, a tour guide.

At first glance, nothing seems to disturb the peace of the community. It must be said that the small mining town of Barentsburg is not overpopulated: nearly 500 inhabitants in summer, but only 350 in the heart of the Arctic winter, when the thermometer regularly hovers around -30°C. We are here in Norwegian territory, on the edge of a narrow fjord of the Svalbard archipelago, an unusual part of the world occupied above all by Slavs, Russian or Ukrainian miners who coexist smoothly and meet up every end of the year. week at L’Ours rouge, the only bar in the area, a long wooden building with a view of the bay.

The port of Barentsburg, in the Svalbard archipelago (Norway), September 11, 2023.

Since its discovery at the end of the 16the century by the Dutch explorer Willem Barents (1550-1597), this archipelago whose main island, Spitzbergen, which means “pointed mountain” – the “mountains” in question designating the glaciers, imposing at this very northern latitude –, arouses the desires of whalers, trappers, then mining companies boosted by the industrial revolution. In 1920, as part of the agreements sealing the end of the First World War, the Treaty of Spitsbergen entrusted full sovereignty of the archipelago to Norway. Svalbard thus becomes a demilitarized zone within which the signatory states of the treaty (around forty to date) enjoy the right to exploit natural resources.

Fraternity of Minors

Near the old coal storage basin which scars the port of Barentsburg with its long blackened vats, four wooden houses with decaying facades bear witness to the short period, between 1920 and 1932, when a Dutch company exploited this coal deposit. Excellent quality, because it is rich in carbon. In 1932, the concession ped into the hands of Arktikugol, a trust created by the Soviet state.

To find labor, those responsible then turned to Ukraine, a land with a strong mining tradition. Men arrive from the west, the center, and especially from Donb. “The Barentsburg mine is quite similar to those found in the Donb, it was logical to recruit in this basin, justifies Konstantin Turinskii, the current director of the site. Even today, 60% of the workforce is Ukrainian, the remaining 40% are Russian. But whatever our origins or backgrounds, our relationships are good. We make sure not to talk politics in the workplace. »

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