‘I will definitely return here’: Growing up in Barentsburg means students, visitors exchange fascinating life experiences

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(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles by Anna Demkovich, 14, about moving to and growing up in Barentsburg).

It’s hard to forget the landscapes of the Arctic. Especially the beautiful view that I watched every day from the window: the Sleeping Knight, the Pomor Lodge, the fjords.

What is the Sleeping Knight? It’s what the locals call one of the mountains. On a polar day, when the snow has not melted, one can see the figure of a man lying in the middle of the mountains. He is considered the guardian of the island and is ready at any moment to wake up and stand up for the protection of Spitsbergen and those who live on it.

And what is the Pomor Lodge? It is a restored wooden house, a complete copy of the houses where the first Pomors once lived. Now the doors of the house are firmly nailed up to protect it from the lovers of spoiling monuments. The only entrance inside is a small window without glass, only a child can climb into it. I’ve been in this house a couple of times.

A fjord is a bay in Norwegian. Every day my friends and I walked along the shore, throwing stones into the water, telling stories to each other, or simply breathing fresh air. In any case, it’s better than just sitting at home.

Gilles Elkaim

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Gilles Elkaim works aboard the Arktika-2 sailboat. The French explorer spent the winter of 2016-17 in Barentsburg while awaiting trial for taking the boat into prohibited areas of Svalbard. Photo by Marion Prudhon / Icepeople..

Celebrities in Barentsburg are frequent guests. But most of all I remembered Gilles Elkaim. Somehow our school visited this famous French traveler. He was in our town by way of passage. The Frenchman told the children about his childhood, how he, looking at a map of the world, dreamed of conquering the North Pole. And how when he grew up he embarked on putting those childhood dreams into practice. He moved from France to North America, closer to the Arctic Circle. There he learned to live among the indigenous population of the harsh Arctic. And then Gilles went on his first trip to the North Pole.

Our guest came not alone, but with his wife. She showed the children clothes made of deerskin, in which they travel. The most interesting thing for the children was to touch this kind of fur coat, I was even afraid that they would tear it apart, they’re children…

Gilles showed us a video of his travels. It turns out that the conquerors of the North sleep in their clothes! And all the children really liked dogs. Gilles travels by dogsledding. To my question – “Why don’t you use modern means of transportation?” – he replied “I cannot use these machines because they move very fast, so that I do not have time to enjoy the trip, look around, remember the road. And when I ride the harness I remember everything: every turn, nature, have time to enjoy the view. I’m sorry that maybe my grandchildren will not be able to see this beauty, and your children will not believe you when you tell them that here (in Barentsburg) once the reindeer walked freely around the village, the Arctic foxes came and went to the barracks…”

He showed us a video where he meets the most dangerous predator of the North – a polar bear. Gilles explained that they are not as terrible as they often tell us. In fact, these animals are very slow and hesitant and very afraid of people, but they are very curious. He also told the children that now polar bears are on the verge of extinction, that because of global warming glaciers do not freeze, and therefore polar bears cannot hunt and die of hunger.

At the end of the story, our hero gave the children cards with a picture of the North and signed each. And after that I asked him some questions:

Q: Tell me, have you fulfilled your childhood dream, and now do you have some other kind of dream?

A: I would love to go on a trip, but so that there was no one extra – just myself, my wife and my dogs – and go around the Arctic. A wonderful dream. Yes?

Q: What difficulties haunted you during your travels?

A: Most of the difficulties are related to the weather and in your village I stayed because of the strong snowstorms.

Q: Have you ever wanted to give up halfway and go home?

A: Yes, there were such moments, of course, but then I remembered the people with whom I was traveling and path we have traveled. I remember why we went on the trip and this gives me the strength to move on.

We were filmed in the cinema

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Anna Demkovich and other youths in Barentsburg visit the huskies at the dogsledding kennels. Photo by Anna Demkovich.

We had a lot of other guests. Scientists who came to Barentsburg for research often came to the school, and the schoolchildren themselves were frequent visitors to local scientific stations and laboratories. There are also a lot of documentaries about our village. In one of these I and my two friends were filmed.

It was a holiday. We ran around the village trying to take away each other’s hats. Our attention was drawn to a man who was lying on the ground and gazing intently into the camera. We watched him and his companion for a long time while continuing to play. Later it turned out that this woman is Alexandra Govorchenko, the presenter of the program “Aggressive Environment.” She invited us to pose for the camera, to which we gave our consent. We ran a little and I gave a short interview. But the program with our participation we saw with my friends only after a year and a half. I watched TV very rarely, spending most of my time with my friends on the street, so I did not know that we were being shown. Sometimes I watched cartoons with my sister, we had Russian TV.

There is a lot of entertainment

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Barentsburg youths accompanied by an armed guide rest on the beach during a hike near the Russian settlement. Photo by Anna Demkovich.

For adults and for children in the settlement there is entertainment – a lot of it. There is a library, yoga, skiing, and training in football, basketball and tennis. There are also gyms. And even a bathhouse. In the Culture House on Sundays there are cartoons and then movies.

And you can go and help Sasha on the husky farm. He organized treks with dogs outside the village. This is when you wear a special belt and to it you attach a leash, at the end of which there is a big, shaggy dog that can run you into the ground. But Sasha trains them well, these treks teach dogs discipline so that in the future they become sleddogs and can carry not only a man, but also a load on a sleigh since in winter, when snowdrifts are almost three meters deep, not every car, even the best SUV, can pass.

But as for reindeer, nobody in the village rides them, they need to lure them. No, they are not aggressive, but it is better not to go to them, especially in the summer when they have horns. In the spring they are not timid, they are very eager to approach people, they sometimes wait outside the store and try to take away food, so very hungry. But by the summer they cease to trust people since they already have food (sorrel, moss and grass). You cannot kill reindeer; the Norwegians count them. But still they sometimes disappear before the holidays. Tajiks in the area cook a reindeer stew in large boilers. And no one asks them anything.

As children never sat in one place. Often we went on hikes outside the village, accompanied by necessity by a man with a gun. In case we meet the bear.

My last hike with my friends was a trip to Cape Finneset. It was in the summer. The weather for walking was just perfect. The only hindrance was dirt and many were sorry they didn’t wear different shoes. Our guide was Sergei Chernikov and I, as a true inquisitor, tortured him with my questions. But he said that the guide should be patient and a little bit a psychologist, and told me that he once wanted to be an astronaut.

Sergei told us about the whalers – the discoverers of Spitsbergen and a former whaler who had once been close to the place where we had made a halt. About how they caught whales and why. It was very entertaining and a bit creepy. Poor animals.

We went home at half past six in the evening. On the way, we successfully met the bus that drove to the village, which brought us there. On this trip for the students there were a lot of vivid impressions which will be remembered for a long time.

Local attractions

In our village there has always been a lot of tourists. Each day they come on boats, on which are 200 to 1,000 people, and even more. Many times they stopped me and friends and asked about life. We talked to them in terrible English, but they understood us. We liked it because we could skip half the lesson, dealing with tourists, and this was a good reason because some of them are very bothersome and the teachers knew it. Once, when we walked from the sports complex, where we had physical education, the Japanese caught us during school. We answered their questions for a long time and then we blabbed that it was one girl’s birthday. They immediately began to sing “Happy Birthday” with the whole group (about half a dozen people).

Stray animals, such as dogs and cats, are forbidden in the village. Once upon a time, even under control of the USSR, there were a lot of cats. There was a terrible smell and muck in the barracks, so the authorities suggested that the locals catch them for a reward, then the poor animals were killed. Now in the village there lives a red cat – it is something like a local landmark. He is about 15 years old and has many names. For some he is Tim, for others he is Ryzhik and so on. His ears are torn from an unequal battle with an albatross for food. But what is interesting is that he himself is authorized to live in Barentsburg. The cat knows everything, he is not afraid of anyone.

His fame came to the Japanese as well. They are a very kind people to animals. So kind that one day a whole crew arrived in Barentsburg and ran for a week around the village to make a film and he was happy. According to eyewitnesses, the cat constantly posed and did not even try to escape from them – on the contrary, he ran after them.

•••••

We lived for two years in Norway. But the time came when I needed to go to the ninth grade and, therefore, to pass the exam to be able to enter a journalism school after the 11th grade. And my sisters and my mother returned to Kryvyi Rih this summer. Dad stayed in Barentsburg to work. But I will definitely return here.

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