Photo by Kristin Woxholth
Nazarii Khomych says her mother is making food for Ukrainian soldiers, her father is helping protect their city, and the threat of immediate danger is also present for other family members and friends. But she says a protest march and rally during a frigid Tuesday night in the world’s northernmost city still managed to bring warmth to them from afar.
“Many of our relatives and friends in Ukraine are now watching photos and videos,” she wrote in a Facebook post that shared some of those images and sounds from the rally that culminated in Longyearbyen’s town square. “And it warms their hearts! And it was very important for the Ukrainians living here. And for all of us who live here. And Longyearbyen today, despite the frost and wind, is the warmest place! We are together with Ukraine!”
While the march was similar to the symbolic protests worldwide against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the real-world impacts and personal interactions are much greater than most places because about 500 of Svalbard’s estimated 2,900 residents are Ukrainian or Russian. They co-exist daily as co-workers and friends – indeed, their lives depend on each other in the coal mining and Arctic tourism industries nearly all are employed by – and their relationships are similarly intertwined with the Norwegian and others from about 50 countries who are fellow residents.
For the Ukrainians and Russians, that means worries beyond the immediate and always-present fears about how the accelerating week-old war might be destroying their loved ones and homes in their homelands. There’s concerns about how sanctions by the West such as banking transfer freezes and travel bans might affect those living in Svalbard, since there are two settlements essentially under Russian governance despite being vastly remote from Moscow and the Ukrainian battlegrounds.
About 100 live in Longyearbyen, the rest make up virtually the entire population of the Russian-governed settlements of Barentsburg (about 390 residents, 70 percent of whom are Ukrainian) and Pyramiden (a relative handful, mostly during the spring/summer tourism season).
So beyond the immediate and always-present worries about Russian attacks on loved ones and homes in their homeland, there’s concerns about how sanctions by the West such as banking transfer freezes and travel bans might affect those living so remotely in Svalbard.
So far the impacts are reflecting Svalbard’s unique legal status that makes it a part of Norway, while being more “open borders” than almost anywhere else on Earth due to the Svalbard Treaty. For instance, while Russian flights from outside Svalbard are banned, the Russian state-owned Trust Arktikugol is being allowed to continue helicopter flights within the archipelago that are used for mining and other essential functions.
“We cannot cut off supplies to Barentsburg. It will endanger life and health,” Svalbard Gov. Lars Fause told iTromsø, noting Norway’s Civil Aviation Authority allows exemptions from the flight ban for humanitarian, emergency and similar other purposes.
Among smaller-scale local efforts to help Ukrainians is free phone calls and messages to the country until the end of March “for all our private- and corporate customers,” according to Christian Skottun, head of Telenor Svalbard.
Legal experts quoted by Norwegian media stated they believe Russia may protest the ban on outside flights as a violation of the Svalbard Treaty, making it the latest in a very long list of such protests over decades. Russia has shown they’re willing to flaunt such rules – notably during the March/April period when Longyearbyen was used as a staging point for the ice camp they operate just south of the North Pole for expeditions and military drills – sending a banned deputy prime minister in 2015 and Chechen troops the following year among its provocations.
March/April is also peak spring tourism season in Svalbard, which for the Ukrainian/Russian/Norwegian/other residents is a far greater unifier of everyday life and purpose as they face 1) extreme environments that can quickly become life-threatening (necessitating help from neighbors with no thought of nationalities) and 2) a not-yet-quite-normal level of activity after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic decimating local tour operators.
Timofey Rogozhin, longtime director of tourism in Barentsburg before starting a tour operation last year in Longyearbyen, noted Tuesday’s rally in minus 17 degree Celsius cold and winds exceeding 40 km/h featured speakers in English and Norwegian, but they included the Russian phrase for “polar explorer” and the “Glory to Ukraine” national salute.
“Spitsbergen, probably, can be called the Place of the Future,” he wrote on Facebook. “In a place where there are no borders there is no division on nationality, but at the same time every nation, preserving their culture, acquires something from their neighbors.”
But while there seems to be few, if any, Svalbard residents openly expressing support of Russia’s invasion, there is some debate about how those oppose should react.
Vitalii Shutko, a Ukrainian working at a guest lodge in Longyearbyen, proposed a boycott of tourism activities in Svalbard’s Russian settlements, arguing it’s wrong for Trust Arktikugol – and thus the Russian state – to benefit from such income.
“When peaceful people die in Ukraine and Russian military forces destroy our cities, it is unethical and not right to support the economy of a Russian government corporation,” he wrote on a Longyearbyen communal Facebook page. “We consider it not right to bring tourists to the Russian settlements…at a minimum until the war acts on the Ukrainian territory has ended.”
That generated significant pushback, including from Svalbardposten Editor Børre Haugli who wrote an editorial stating a boycott “goes against everything that has been built up by relations between people in Svalbard.”
“Without Barentsburg and Pyramiden we take away some of the biggest attractions for tourism here, and we take away the opportunity to look into history and how life today is in Russia,” he wrote. “Everyone who lives here is part of the community in Svalbard, it does not matter where you live on the island. The good relations between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg must be there regardless of whether the Russian political regime sets Ukraine on fire. It’s not their war.”