Russians are flooding into Longyearbyen in force under very strange circumstances indeed.
The bus with the “Barentsburg” decal keeps going back and forth through town all day. The helicopter belonging to the state-owned company Trust Arktikugol is making multiple flights. A ship with passengers atypical of the cruisers typically arriving this time of year. An “interesting passenger” arriving at the airport.
All this after struggling to meet some people in Barentsburg a couple of weeks ago because nobody was “available” between then and now.
What’s going on? Surely this is something other than a bunch of tourists.
Putting all pieces together – and rather by chance because the “secret” was well-kept – I finally got it: Aug. 3 is the celebration of the 85th anniversary of the company that oversees the Russian settlement. That’s tomorrow!
I hastily book and jump onto a boat to see how Russians celebrate such event.
The reception area of the settlement’s only hotel is crowded with VIPs, a trio of employees working meet their expectations. The restaurant is elaborately decorated, the staff almost doubled and all are wearing suits.
Even though officials got a hasty warning about my arrival as I was jumping on the boat, meeting the top leaders of the settlement’s overseers is a challenge.
“You see this man who grabbed the first one? He is our big big top boss – don’t talk to him!” one of the tourism employees whispers, pointing at Alexander Petrovich Veselov, whose common clothes and pullover offer no indication he’s the head of Trust Arktikugol.
This is definitely not the formally-dressed protocol of my homeland of France.
Since nobody in charge is answering me and I have no interest in turning a celebration into a diplomatic incident that starts a war in Spitsbergen, I find and talk with a guide – a former miner – who’s between two guided tours for the passengers arriving on the boat.
“Today, only the first shift is working, but the second and third shifts are having a rest to give the opportunity to all people to take part in the concert and big party at the sport hall,” says Konstantin Chukulaev, referring to the evening bash that highlights the celebration.
When I ask what the inhabitants are expecting from this celebration, entertainment is mentioned first.
“It is a big holiday – 85 years are so many years!” he says. “Especially people who spend a lot of time here, 10 years or even 20 years. For them, it is very big entertainment.”
“I came here in 2009. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to see how people celebrated 80 years, so now I’m glad to see it.”
“A lot of people came here in the last six months. For these people, it is only a holiday. They know nothing about here or about Svalbard.”
That prompts a second, more substantial, train of thought.
“We are waiting for 65 persons: the formal director of coal mine, famous people who worked here and some people from the government,” Konstantin says. “Maybe these people coming today will make decisions in the future for our settlement.”
With that, he rushes off to the next group of awaiting visitors. Nobody else nearby is available. So I try the only people who always live on a different schedule: researchers.
The same answer: a day of entertainment. After all, there’s aren’t a lot of day-to-day events in Barentsburg.
When asked about Konstantin’s hope, the two researchers who saw the 80th anniversary call it “a deep hope.”
“My first visit was five years ago and Barentsburg was very different from now,” says Vasily Shishkov, a PhD student at the Geography Institute. “They made a new road, they painted buildings, built new ones. But the life of people here didn’t really change.”
The buzz about the anniversary started a week ago (perhaps further back among those participating in it) as preparations for the celebration began. Everybody is now working hard and the welcoming repetition lasts the entire afternoon in the concert hall under the direction of Ekaterina Shabratchkaya.
When asked about the other work (roads, parkings and so on), the workers say there was no pressure on them and it was independent of the celebration. Again, it’s different mentality than in France where the “look” of things would be quickly fixed before an event (hey, you don’t want these VIP’s to walk on half-repaired streets). Afterward, nothing else would be done to finish the repairs and/or make it part of another infrastructure project.
Waiting for the concert, Trust Arktikugol’s guests split into different activity groups. Fishing, trekking up the hills, enjoying the view at the radar station, simply talking about old memories. I join two of them visiting the Pomor Museum.
Nikolaï Ivanovich Lavrinenko says he “worked here for five years, in Barentsburg and in Pyramiden, and fell in love with the Arctic.” He keeps returning, and by now knows all fjords and bays as he describes some of his memories about them in front of the map of Spitsbergen.
I make plans to meet him and his companion, Elena Vladimirovna Tsikolenko, the next day for a trip to Pyramiden.
The concert starts right on time at 6 p.m.. Everything is under control, including the roughly 50 people on stage, Ekaterina Shabratchkaya announces each part of it. The 90-minute show is well-paced, alternating performances by Barentsburg’s students and theater troupe, pictures and videos reliving the full history of Trust Arktikugol’s activity at Grumant, Barentsburg and Pyramiden, and presentations from various people in charge and the Russian emissary from The Governor of Svalbard.
The shows celebrates the Russian Federation and the brotherhood of people. Pupils recite poems about love in the family of miners. There a clear sense of belonging among the 400 people on stage and in the audience. When four men and two women are decorated for their lengthy and positive achievements here, the entire crowd showers them with applause sharing their intense pride.
After the concert, residents enter the sports hall for a meal and a party, while guests go to the special VIP dinner at the restaurant. Starting at 8 p.m., the merriment lasts until 4 a.m.
Again, in the eyes of a French transplant, the impression is of everyone recognizing their place – a cog, but a necessary one, in the big picture – each as useful as the other and recognized as such.
They celebrated their successes, their solidarity in times of struggle, paid tribute to their past and cast an optimistic eye on the future. As for those hopes about the future, Daria Soldatova – in charge of culture projects – had plenty t say about the settlement’s plans, but that’s a story for another time…