‘If a day passed without events, it was in vain’: A 14-year-old’s diary about growing up in Barentsburg (part two in a series)


(Editor’s note: This is the second of what was originally a two-part series by Anna Demkovich, 14, about moving to and growing up in Barentsburg. She has since agreed to provide two additional articles about her experiences that will be published in the next two issues. Her first article about moving from a war-torn town in the Ukraine to Svalbard was published in the previous issue of Icepeople.)


When you hear the word “north” you imagine that polar bears are everywhere. Sleds with reindeer and dogs replacing public transport. People dressed in a bunch of clothes so that they look like cabbages. Harsh snowstorms causing huge snowstorms. Icebergs protruding from the water. Harsh, like the Arctic winter, the polar explorers.

And it is. Almost.

It is very cold here


Anna Demkovich and a friend in Barentsburg exchange a hug during her stay there. Photo courtesy of Anna Demkovich.

Today I am often asked questions: “Is it very cold there?” Or “Did you see the bears? Were not you afraid?” Yes, it’s very cold there. There is almost no summer. During the rare “summer” days the temperature does not rise above 15 degrees, so in Svalbard all during this time of year you go about in autumn jackets. Dad said that a warm summer day happens here only four days a year.

About bears…I’m not afraid of them and I was not afraid. According to official data, there are more than 400 of these animals. They are listed in the Red Book in Norway. They are highly protected here. I will offer an example. For killing a person in Norway they give a sentence of 10 years in prison– and for a bear a lifetime sentence. Bears rarely came to our village. Although one of them once climbed into the dining room.

The director of the dining room phoned the director of the mine (in our village this is the most important person, similar to the mayor) and informed him of this. He was asked what to do. He replied: “Throw him a Tajik, no one believes they are still here.” It was a joke, of course. In Barentsburg there many are people from sunny Tajikistan.

Whole families of them come to work. Unlike Russians and Ukrainians who work in a coal mine (six-hour shifts), Tajiks perform any work for little money – 40,000-50,000 Russian rubles. They are very able-bodied. My father told me that once in three days the Tajiks took out huge piles of permafrost!
Their best memories are connected with the word “north.” Two years in harsh conditions passed very quickly. They left a mark on me that will last a lifetime. People with whom I lived there will always remain in my heart. With them I shared everything: rain, snow, polar night and fjords. Yes, all in all it was a lot; every day something happened. If a day passed without events, it was in vain.

But first things first.


Barentsburg is a small Russian-speaking and Russian-governed settlement, with an area of 1,288 square kilometers and a population of 400 to 500 people, most of whom are miners. People live in six housing buildings with all amenities. There is also a Russian-language school, a consulate, a building for the management company Trust Arktikugol and a “Hilton” in which there is a canteen. In two nearby housing buildings on the ground floor there is a grocery store and a “manufactured goods” store. Local people buy things using cards – nobody uses cash here. The products are not cheap.
There is a large cultural and sports complex, a hotel, a bar, many scientific stations (they are international), a gift shop and a crafts center.

In the village there are a lot of old buildings that were built in the postwar period. Among them are the house of Maya Plisetskaya, the old consulate, the old dining room (as they are called locally) and simple old wooden buildings once inhabited by people – they are scattered all over Barentsburg.
The house of the great ballerina is in great demand among tourists. They travel to Barentsburg from around the world. You ask, what did Maya Plisetskaya do here? She lived here with her parents, who came from Moscow when she was eight years old. Her father was a great boss here. The fact is that that a hundred years ago on this island, Norway leased to Russia. The lease remains to this day. Russians get coal here.

In the mine, mainly Ukrainians work. In recent years many immigrants from Donetsk and Lugansk regions have come here. And they as a rule were all miners who, before the war at home, also mined coal. That is, they are good specialists. Also in Barentsburg, of course, are the Russians. And recently the Tajiks. Once Armenians came to work, but they could not stand the severe climatic conditions and went instead to Moscow to work.

My new home

I lived on Starostin Street, on the edge of the village. Our two-bedroom apartment with all amenities was on the fourth floor. My little sister Dasha and I had our own room. Our parents’ room was connected to the kitchen and dining room. The bathroom was shared.

In the apartment, given to papa as part of his work in the mine (and my mother’s work as well), was all that was needed. New furniture, large plasma TV, vacuum cleaner, dishes, etc. In my room there were two large wardrobes for clothes, a small bedside table between my bed and my sister’s bed, a desk and a lamp on it, and a mirror hung over the table. In the parents’ room was a large sofa, two sideboards and a long closet under the plasma TV. Opposite the sofa was a dining table. In the kitchen there was a sink, a kitchen wall, but there was no oven – just two electric burners. In the bathroom was all the new plumbing – and not Chinese, but very high quality European. The apartment was new, everything was intact, everything worked, I was pleasantly surprised, as I was preparing myself for the worst.

Later my father told me that for all utilities – no matter how much water, gas and light we used – he paid 11 Russian rubles a month. With the local earnings that was a very small amount.

In the first week after my arrival my sister and I did not go out. We had a sick leave to get used to the climate. But we went to the “corridor” or “nursery,” as the kids in our building called it. It was a small room on the second floor. There were several small sofas, colorful cupboards and lots of toys. Two years later, when we went back to Kryvyi Rih, everything was already destroyed in the nursery.

At the entrance it was quite warm, so you could walk onto the porch in a t-shirt and pants – even in winter.

My little sister Dasha quickly joined the others. Everyone figured out quickly the fact we were newcomers. As it turned out, there are very few children in the Barents, about 50 to 60, so everyone knew each other in person.

Alone in the seventh grade

Behind me was a little girl of about nine. She said that in the whole school I will be the only seventh-grader and that I will study with three boys from the eighth grade. It was a shock! How? One in the seventh grade! Horror! The same girl said that the boys live in our housing building. And she led me to introduce them. They told me about the school.

The first day at school was a very exciting event. First I met my class teacher. Anastasia Viktorovna was very kind to me, she showed me my locker. I shared it with Lada, the same girl I saw in the airplane with a chicken leg in her mouth. She was younger than me by three years, although she was taller.

The first time my father took me home from school, as my mother was very afraid that a bear would eat me on the way home, but I nevertheless proved to my mother that nothing like this would happen. Girls from the junior classes did not want to take me in their company, while the boys from the eighth grade, with whom I studied, my friendship also did not improve.

Sometimes it happened that I was alone in class, the teachers forgot about me. But they were very kind to me, and I fell in love even with those lessons that I could not stand in Kryvyi Rih.

It was hard to call it a school, it was more like tutoring. When you were alone with the teacher it was impossible to skip or not learn. I sharply tightened my studies, I became an excellent pupil.

I was very puzzled by gym class, it was not the lesson I was used to. The teacher was formidable – at first glance a man, but very cool. Long hair, the same long braided braid. Most often in a hat. He communicated with us, as with peers, in a clear language for us. He wanted to instill in us a love of sport. And he did it. And he also had music with us.

We need a strong friendship

I got acquainted with the other youths. My friends were girls from grades 4-6. Together with them I climbed into the underground tunnels, climbed into old abandoned buildings, tried to catch partridges.

A little more about what’s known as the KSK building. This large two-story building is divided into two parts – the House of Culture (DC) and the Sports Complex (UK). In the DK on the second floor there was a large library, in which children also took drawing lessons. In the next room there was gymnastics and yoga. The concert hall occupied a lot of space…it had a lot of soft chairs and large stage with homemade scenery.

Children always participated in festive concerts. Very often the rehearsals dragged on until night; at times the boys from the senior classes slept straight in the complex, but it was worth it. The concerts were always held at the highest level. I also participated in them. Not only local residents attended the festivities, but also guests from Longyearbyen.

In the Palace of Culture there were many things. A large swimming pool with warm sea water. A football pitch that hosted training for football, basketball, volleyball and badminton. Children were not allowed to workout. Only us (Russians and Ukrainians) played with the Tajiks. There was a gym and a small room for tennis.

In Longyearbyen we flew to a sports exchange, cultural exchange and Norway’s Constitution Day. But most of all our youths were attracted to the buffet, and, for the guests from Barentsburg, everything was free. We always returned home by helicopter with full bags of sweet and gifts.