CULTURAL SHAREITAGE: Norway and Russia may be in a new Cold War, but in Svalbard embracing differences take center stage

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Before the show there’s the trip to the grocery store. And it says a bellyful about the performances to come when the two neighboring communities visit each other.

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Members of various music groups in Longyearbyen gather on stage for the finale of this year’s annual cultural exchange variety show in Barentsburg. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

For Norwegians visiting the tiny grocery in Barentsburg the goods (largely basic staples unchanged from Soviet-era times) are stacked beyond reach on a few tiny shelves and the guests join a long single line of locals (other visitors are virtually non-existent on these occasions) to ask (and often point out, due to language differences) the long clerk to pick selections out so the lone cashier can ring them up.

“I really like their sardines,” said Olaf Storø, a Longyearbyen artist and member of a choir performing that evening, while in line for that and other goods even though a highly reputable Norwegian version of the canned fish is easily available at home (full disclose: the writer of this article did the same).

For Russians and Ukrainians visiting the modern supermarket in Longyearbyen there are vast shelves of food (including vegan and gluten-free fare), electronics, perfume, alcohol and more, all of which can be handled before reaching the checkout lines often packed with tourists where security cameras and radar scanners detect thieves.

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A mix of Norwegian, Russian and Ukrainian shoppers line up at the grocery store in Barentsburg to buy staple and souvenir food items before Longyearbyen residents perform their cultural exchange show in the Russian settlement. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“Vodka’s pretty much the only thing they purchase,” said an employee at the liquor store within the supermarket, discarding the notion Barentsburg’s artistic talents might opt for other forms of alcohol even though the famous firewater from their homeland is easily available in the Russian settlement (full disclosure: there’s an unofficial anonymity and “off the record” element to the exchanges’ spiritual side, so to speak, which we honor for the same reason we’re not jerks who stalk public figures with #humanfleshhunter tweets while they’re in bars on weekends).

All told, each offers a buffet of eclectic cultural and culinary indulgences in their own ways. So it is with the stage shows – and all other aspects of the visit from arrival to the late-night toasts – each community hosts on successive weekends once a year. Generally, as with this year, it’s near the end of spring just before or after residences travel between their homelands and whatever dreams they’re pursuing in Svalbard.

And those dreams – which can take many and often-shared forms – are part of a bond that as much as the wider shared appreciation between those of artistic ability outshines whatever political feuds are being fought between the two countries. Those tensions have accelerated considerably during the past decade due to incidents like Russia resuming patrols in the waters around Svalbard (causing Norway to increase its military preparations) and annexing a part of the Ukraine in 2013 (resulting in a great number of provocations between the two countries due to resulting sanctions). Norway considers Russia’s activities in Svalbard among its top national security threats and the archipelago, according to former NATO supreme allied commander Admiral James Stavridis in a recent interview, “constitutes a significant thorn in the side of Russian ambitions in the region.”

But for those living in Svalbard, it’s playful events like annual sports competitions, educational student exchanges and tragedies such as a Russian guide killed when a group of snowmobilers fell through the sea ice a couple of years that comprise the “we’re in this together” comradeship that put the political strife on ice.

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Katrin Shabratskaya, left, creates large soap bubbles and shapes during the cultural exchange show by Barentsburg residents in Longyearbyen. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“When it comes to music and dance we both speak the same language,” said Katrin Shabratskaya, overseer of the Barentsburg performers, a thought expressed in plenty of forms in three languages (Norwegian, Russian and English) during the two respective evenings.

Each community’s show shares plenty of similarities and differences, both with each other and in what’s performed from year to year. For example, this year the Russians brought bubbles and bands of novel sorts while leaving their famed (for them) “mannequin” dancers behind, while the Norwegians debuted country music cowpokes and a sword-wielding Viking while leaving behind a certain immensely popular group of condom-shooting women and nearly all the kids (hmmm…surely a link can be insinuated there).

The visit to Longyerbyen and the modernistic theater at the decade-old Kulturhuset came first, with the Russians and Ukrainians bringing a variety show of past and modern folk, romance, military and other dances and performances that’s been the hallmark of most visits. A couple of times in recent years the performance have been dominated by a feature themes – shown later during the summer – including a Russian mythological tale very loosely based on “Alice in Wonderland” and starring the settlement’s women and girls as those “mannequins” with remarkably mechanical movements.

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Women from Barentsburg perform a traditional Russian folk dance during the settlement’s cultural exchange show in Longyearbyen, the first in this year’s visits between the two communities. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

But the English-speaking emcee opened the show this year with a familiar and somewhat tongue-in-cheek narrative that set his tone for the evening, featuring 44 residents performing 26 pieces.

“Sometimes we will be a little bit cheerful and sometimes we will be a little bit sad,” he said. Also sometimes a bit patriotic, sometimes a bit laborious and sometimes a bit comedic.

Many past shows were dominated by various dances to prerecorded tracks and some resurfaced this year, with some new faces among those wearing the fancy and militaritaristic attire classically identified the motherland. Among those most popular routines are the groups of women dancers in lavish dresses of red or blue, prancing with steps thudding in unison and circling with steps so fine under the long dresses they appear to be moving on wheels.

There was plenty of audience appreciation for new touches such as a newly formed rock band (which debuted by playng an original followed by something from “Pirates of the Caribbean”) that backed many of the dancers and a sparkling exhibition of giant soap bubbles (some creating a cocoon of sorts around a couple of Longyearbyen children brought to the stage) by Shabratskaya.

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Diana Balkarova, “a girl at the post office” in Barentsburg, performs a solo song during the show in Longyearbyen. Photo by Mark Sabbatini.

Perhaps the most enticing was Diana Balkarova (introduced as “a girl at the post office who, when she has a break goes in back and sings, and everone runs to the door and listens to her because it’s impossible to break away from such vocals”), an operatic singer who both solo and fronting a couple of group performances earned the loudest applause.

“These people did not sleep on the eve of the departure – many worked at night and afterwards immediately went to Longyearbyen,” Shabratskaya wrote in a thank you message on her Facebook page following the show.

“A lot of people came to rehearsal instead of their break at work. Every time somebody didn’t get to rehearsal, whether it was vocals, dance or words of the leader, they were nervous and worried that it wouldn’t work out. They supported each other, listened to each other. For me, these people have turned into one big family, where they rejoice in victories and where they help when there is no more strength.”

Such was the intensity, the anxiety didn’t end when the show did, Shabratskaya wrote.

“‘When is the next rehearsal?’” participants asked, she noted. “‘What concert are we preparing for?’ And one child with scared eyes after the concert inquiring said ‘What are we going to do now? The concerts are over… how to live without rehearsals?’”

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Longyearbyen residents arrive at Barentsburg’s culture center on a rustic bus used for many years and modern one acquired due to the rapid rise of tourism in the Russian settlement. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Longyearbyen, having offered its relative wealth of shopping opportunities to their neighbors before the show, played host to end the evening with a traditional Norwegian meal in the cafe at the culture center. A bit more formal than the meal their Russian counterparts would serve a week later in that settlement’s brewpub, participants sat at long tables with name tags, but at both a loose spirit of chatter, speeches and sing-a-longs added flavor to the foodstuffs.

Departing by boat and helicopter, with many arriving in the early morning hours of the following day, it was the Barentsburg residents’ turn to await for what Longyearbyen’s artistic community had in store.

When the Norwegian residents arrived at midday the following Saturday, it was to a community of about 450 residents that in recent years has become a mixture of decades-old Soviet-style infrastructure/management and 21st century tourism. Housing and other large buildings in the main part of town show off colorful new paint jobs, although many interiors are still highly rustic. That said, large-scale renovations are continuing from both local and visitor facilities (the locally famous pool in the recreation hall, for example, was getting a complete overhaul at the time of the visit).

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J.G. Hansen, a longtime coal miner and resident of Longyearbyen, performs a solo acoustic folk song in Barentsburg. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The culture center has also undergone number upgrades, but the decades-old walls and atmosphere are still far less modern than the theater in Longyearbyen. For some of the visiting performers that’s actually part of the appeal, since they say it allows nuiances of sound that get lost in the more cavernous and amplified modern facility.

“I think that when it comes to the quality of the sounds it’s better than Kulturhuset,” said Haakon André Klungseth Sandvik, part of a group of locals who for years have staged a wide variety of conventional and satirical large-ensemble productions. “Also, it has more charm.”

That was ideally suited for performers like J.G. Hansen, a Longyearbyen resident of nearly 25 years who recently began performing solo acoustic folk, whose English-language originals (i.e. being a miner at the dying coal company as tourism replaces it) were something his Barentsburg neighbors could relate to. It also allowed Sveinung Lystrup Thesen, another longtime Store Norske employee who for many years has stood tall both literally in height and for being one of Longyearbyen’s most versatile performance artists, to resoundingly belt out a hearty jazz standard or two with the town’s big band in-between using his fluent Russian to serve as emcee.

While the performance by Barentsburg residents kept to a tradition of staging a cultural narrative of their homeland, their Norwegian neighbors put on a show typical of a multitude of variety shows in Longyearbyen each year for occasions ranging from the open-night signups for the first night of Polarjazz in early February to the Christmas holidays. But since Longyearbyen shares with Barentsburg a long history of a population that is constantly changing since many residents stay only a year or a few, the lineup differs considerably each year.

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Alexander Flygel fronts newly formed Western troupe for Longyearbyen’s cultural show in Barentsburg. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

A women’s group that a few years ago blew the mostly male audience away by tossing condoms at them after a couple of raunchy songs was absent this year, as were nearly all of the Longyearbyen youths that represented a significant percentage of last year’s entourage. In their place were performances just recently unveiled to Longyearbyen audiences, including a large group of stage regulars known for performing everything from aristocratic suites to satire, who this spring touched a bit in both areas with their first-ever country/western concert.

The speeches other expressions of thanks and appreciation for the exchanges were also much the same as their Russian/Ukrainian neighbors.

“Culture as a collective term stands strong in Longyearbyen,” wrote Roger Zahl Ødegård, the city’s cultural programs director for about two decades and a resident since 1986, in a thank you Facebook message in what will be his final cultural exchange shows since he is retiring later this year. It forms small and large communities. That’s how it is in Barentsburg.”

“These common denominators form a community between us. Often we, rightly so, talk about climate, environment and that we should hand over the Earth in good condition to our children. I believe that we should also give them a world in cultural good condition, because this forms the small and large communities crossing national borders.”