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How I became an explorer: One 14-year-old girl’s long voyage from the Ukraine to a new life with her family in Barentsburg

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(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series by Anna Demkovich, 14, who agreed to share some of her writings about growing up in Barentsburg. This part details how her father found work in the Russian settlement and her journey from her Ukrainian hometown to the far north. A Ukrainian version of this article has been published by her homeland magazine Пульса (“Pulse”).)

It all started with the usual advertisement.

I am the daughter of miners. There are four of us in the family: I, Mom, Dad and my younger sister Dasha. I never stood out among my peers and my life was no different from that of other Krivorozhan children. But I always had a feeling that something special would happen, which doesn’t happen to everyone, and that my world would radically change. But, this “something” did not happen and did not happen. But then…

Kryvyj Rih › South: Obiizna St

A year in Anna’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih as seen from a web camera.

It was August, the end of summer 2015. I was thinking about the upcoming new school year. Dad was sitting at the computer. There is always a lot of advertising on websites – many of us do not even notice it – but for our family it was one of them that became fateful.

It was a small advertisement of an enterprise called “Arktikugol” in a small Norwegian miner’s settlement called Barentsburg that needed workers. It was unclear where and why, but papa sent resumes there – his and mother’s.

A week later a letter arrived. It was an invitation to work. Papa’s resume was approved. It was necessary to leave in two weeks.

Miners in and near Anna’s hometown have gone on strike repeatedly in recent years because of fears for their jobs due to the separatist conflict.

That started a panic in our family. Now what? Is papa going away? And what about us? There were many questions and tears as well. Mom did not want to let papa go, she was afraid for him. How will he be alone in an unknown place? But papa started to collect things. During a family discussion it was decided that the money earned by him would not be insignificant and that in time we would also join papa there.

Two weeks lingered on like an eternity. Mom then cried and asked papa to stay, then let him go, saying that it would be better for the family. And my father calmed my mother and simultaneously collected the necessary documents, left his job, and passed the medical examination. My sister and I watched silently, trying to understand what was going on. Then it dawned on me: Dad would go, far away and it was not known when I would see him again. I felt sad, but I did not cry. What’s the point of this? Anyway, he already decided everything.

And then it came on Aug. 26, it was time to say goodbye. My sister Dasha stayed with my grandmother and I went with my parents to the place where my father had to pick up a minibus. My parents went to the store to get something for the road, and I was standing near my father’s suitcase and could not hold back tears. It was melancholy from the thought that papa was leaving.
Returning, papa embraced me and I did not want to let him go. I just could not. But it was necessary.
The bus arrived. Mom again cried, kissed her father and said something to him. He got on the bus and waved goodbye to us. He left, and we stood still and watched for a long time.


Anna Demkovich with her parents.

Seventh-grade class was difficult – all my thoughts were only about the north and I wanted to quickly leave to be with my father. My mother cried every day during a conversation with him on Skype, told us how things were with us and how much we miss him. I did not cry any more, considering that it was not right because we let him go. It was bad enough for him without us, I did not want to upset him, I wanted to show myself grown up. As for how Dasha felt, I do not remember – in my opinion, she somehow did not care, she was doing well in the kindergarten, she was preparing for school. I even envied her a little: no worries, problems, sit and immersing herself playing in toys.

Four months passed. Papa did not say when exactly we can come to him. Either in six months or in a year, but in December my mother’s resume was approved. Papa sent a notice in the mail.

Two weeks before the flight to Longyearbyen! Here the madness began: passport, power of attorney, documents from the school. I don’t know how, but my mother collected all this in a week and a half. First we had to get to Moscow, there to find the hotel “Orekhovo,” where we were to meet the organizers of the trip, go with them to the airport and be put on the plane.

While packing things I found myself thinking that I was not going to the North, but for a week at sea. I could not believe that I would not see my friends, relatives, I would not wake up in my bed and walk my dog. But there was no turning back, things were collected, tomorrow a train to Moscow, from where we were due to fly to Norway.

At 6 a.m. on Feb. 23, the day of our departure mom prepares breakfast. I was very surprised by her calmness. We ate, dressed, set upon our on the path.

In the courtyard we met my grandmother with our dog. We said goodbye to her for a short time and a taxi came for us. I was glad as we faced a long road ahead of us. The very adventures that I so much wanted.

At the station my second grandmother accompanied us with her grandfather. For half an hour we waited for the train. My grandfather helped us with the bags, taking them to the car. Dasha and I waved our grandparents out the window. The train started moving.

On the train

We arrived in Moscow without any special adventures. Most of the way I looked out the window and dreamed of an imminent meeting with my dad, about mountains, deer and a lot of snow. Sometimes I flipped through a magazine.

Anna with her sister Dasha in their new Arctic hometown.

Dasha, in turn, did not let mom rest, constantly asked to be put on the upper shelf and five minutes later asking to be lowered down. When my mother and I bought Dasha a bunch of coloring books and pencils in Kryvyi Rih we they hoped that they would entertain her all the way but, no, my little sister did not even look at them. When she was completely bored she began to talk our neighbor in the compartment which made my mom blush, but no matter how much she asked Dasha to shut up she did not stop.

Later my mother got to talking with this woman. She told her that we do not know the city to which we are going. Mom was very nervous, it seemed to me that she was about to panic, she was very afraid that we would be lost in an unfamiliar city. And I kept telling her that we would not leave her in Moscow.

Our fellow traveler turned out to be very kind and understanding. She told us a story about how she herself once, like us, went alone to Moscow to be with her husband. Just as we did, she did not know the city and the road, but good people helped her. And she will help us so that we will not get lost.

Big city

The next day we were in Moscow. We got off the train. Our fellow traveler met her husband and she told him about us. He turned out to be a well-known psychologist and took my mother aside. They did not talk for long, but after that she became noticeably calmer. We descended into the subway.

The Moscow metro is something unusual, more like a big store or an entertainment complex. There are kiosks with food everywhere and shops. The biggest delight with my sister was a glass elevator, we rode in it for probably twenty minutes.

While I was riding with Dasha my psychologist “uncle” went with my mother to the store to buy her a mobile operator’s card – “MegaFon” – and his wife looked after the bags. After that he called us a taxi, put us in it and wished him luck.

Mom gave the taxi driver the address of the hotel. I looked out of the window at Moscow, as on another planet: everything is so unfamiliar, beautiful, new. Dasha slept all the way.

An hour later the taxi driver brought us to some strange place, claiming that this is the address we need, but there was not a hint of the hotel around. Mom argued for a long time with the taxi driver, he for a long time was clapping something on the navigator. We finally reached the hotel “Orekhovo” an hour and a half later.

There we registered very quickly and without problems. We had two rooms – one for me with my sister and the second for my mother.

After a little rest, my mother went to the store and bought lard and black bread for my dad, which he very much wanted us to bring. She said she saw a large kiosk with sweets. There we bought a lot of different yummies. On my request to go to Red Square, my mother responded with a strict refusal.
While my sister and I were resting in the room, my mother left for a general gathering of those who were going to Barentsburg. She came back late and immediately told us to go to bed – the bus to Domodedovo was set at two o’clock in the morning and the check-in at the airport at four.

After midnight we quickly washed, dressed, took our bags and went to the street, where we and other polar explorers had to take the bus. In the courtyard I realized that yesterday my mother had made many new acquaintances. They were the same mothers with children and just those who went to their husbands.

Hello, papa!

The bus to the airport drove for a long time, or so it seemed to me. After numerous checks of documents and baggage we could finally rest. Mom with Dasha and a woman she met at the hotel went to the store; they left me with bags.

We were very nervous before the flight. Going to the plane I reassured my mother, who was terrified of heights.

Near the plane we suddenly found that the youngest is not around! We began to panic, we called and looked for her, but not for long. One of my mother’s new acquaintances showed us one of the windows of the plane from where we … saw Dasha waving.

The plane took off. A beautiful flight attendant handed out sweets and drinks to everyone. I read with interest the brochure “what to do during a plane crash” and my sister was already sleeping peacefully.
Behind me sat a girl. I thought she was older than me. She also looked at me…she had a chicken leg in her mouth, she smeared her face with it. I felt strongly embarrassed her, so we both did not dare to get acquainted. But in the future we will be inseparable.

I fell asleep and slept until the very landing.

We were taken to the airport in Longyearbyen. Most of all we had happiness at the sight of a large amount of snow – this is not our Ukrainian little snowy winter. We got into the helicopter. My mother was horrified, she was holding our hands all the time, and she was muttering something to herself – as she later told me, she prayed.

As soon as we landed we were immediately transferred to the bus. We drove for 15 minutes. It was very dark outside (at this time of year here is the polar night), it was cold and snowing. The bus stopped near the apartments. In the dark I did not immediately notice my father, who met us.

“Hello, papa,” my sister and I shouted and rushed to him.

Mother kissed her father and we hugged them both. Then papa took us to the apartments to show our new house.

Continued in the next issue

About Post Author

Mark Sabbatini

I'm a professional transient living on a tiny Norwegian island next door to the North Pole, where once a week (or thereabouts) I pollute our extreme and pristine environment with paper fishwrappers decorated with seemingly random letters that would cause a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters to die of humiliation. Such is the wisdom one acquires after more than 25 years in the world's second-least-respected occupation, much of it roaming the seven continents in search of jazz, unrecognizable street food and escorts I f****d with by insisting they give me the platonic tours of their cities promised in their ads. But it turns out this tiny group of islands known as Svalbard is my True Love and, generous contributions from you willing, I'll keep littering until they dig my body out when my climate-change-deformed apartment collapses or they exile my penniless ass because I'm not even worthy of washing your dirty dishes.
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