Diana Kurtyak, 8, has been living in Barentsburg since about the time her hometown in the Ukraine was overrun by rebels three years ago. But while she says she enjoys being with friends at her tiny school and misses relatives back home, the strangest part about her new life has to do with birds.
“It’s very strange I’ve seen some sparrows flying here because it’s very cold and it’s strange they’re flying here,” she said via an interpreter.
Kurtyak is a lot like any other kid growing up in a small town, except in this remote Russian-controlled mining settlement in Svalbard the concepts of ordinary and extraordinary are often at odds with the outside world. Evidence of that was abundant when she and about 30 of her peers took part in an annual afternoon cruise Sunday aboard the Polargirl sightseeing boat in the bay overlooking their away-from-home hometown.
They ate frozen popsicles in near-zero weather on the deck, took turns wearing the captain’s hat on the bridge and bumped into things trying to navigate past obstacles while looking through binoculars. They racked up new achievements and took selfies on phones while waiting for the afternoon’s activities to begin. They went home carrying grocery bags containing bread, milk and fruit.
For many, the groceries contained rarely consumed fresh foods. Some participating in their first cruise had never seen their Arctic hometown from the water. And during the minutes they boarded and departed the boat there were mutual exchanges of curiosity between the kids and the tourists spending a couple of hours in the settlement while the boat cruised around the bay.
Vladislav Zavarzin, 15, a youth from the Ukrainian city of Donetsk embarking on his second cruise, said the visitors and hosts on the boat are one of the best aspects of the annual trips.
“(It’s a chance) to talk to the Norwegian people. Someone who doesn’t live in Barentsburg,” he said. Another highlight is “to learn about the technology on the boat.”
Tourists are a rapidly growing presence in Barentsburg, a settlement of about 400 residents who – like their neighbors in Longyearbyen – are witnessing a period of drastic transformation due to a decline of coal mining (although most youths interviewed said at least one parent still worked in a job related to the industry) and escalation of issues such as economic and environmental stability.
Russia has also been aggressively investing in the Arctic to beef up its northern presence and Danil Syomin, 14, another Donetsk transplant who’s lived in Barentsburg for eight years, said he’s seem noticeable changes during that time.
“It’s been better in the school,” he said. “More teachers are coming. Some buildings were demolished, some were renovated.”
But coming from a big city school means making some adjustments when it comes to their new classrooms.
“The biggest difference is they have very few people in classes,” said Sofia Ivannikova, 12, a native of the Ukrainian town of Makeevka near Donetsk, who moved to Barentsburg a year-and-a-half ago. She was sitting among a group of five youths ages 10 to 15, three of who were the only students in their grade level.
While none of the youths interviewed said they missed any of the common hangouts in the big city, many said they’d like more bicycles, cars “and maybe some busses” in Barentsburg so it’s easier to get around a small town where some buildings are long distances apart.
Unsurprisingly, youths here quickly embrace the possibilities offered by the Arctic nature.
“I like it because where it snows I can make snowballs and throw them,” said Daria Kashirina, 5, yet another Donetsk native.
The trade-off, of course, is lots of snow means lots of cold – which by generally agreement was one of the least-liked aspects of life in the Russian mining settlement. And some missed natural features like trees and/or found familiar sights from their former home odd here.
“It’s strange the mushrooms have not grown up (enough),” Kashirina said.
“It’s strange all the sounds the birds make,” said Polina Chumak, 6, one of many youths from the Ukrainian town of Luhansk where rebel hostilities are ongoing.
While some youths – especially the older ones – say they’re paying attention to developments in their homeland (although what they’re hearing beyond what comes from friends and family is mostly Russian news sources), most of the time they’re simply content living a peaceful yet active existence in their new community.
“There are many more people on the mainland. its better here,” Ivannikova said. “It’s quieter and people know each other.”