Russians, Ukrainians and Norwegians in Svalbard may be continuing their neighborly co-existence despite the invasion to the south, but the head of the Russian settlement of Barentsburg (and Russia’s top diplomat in Norway) is stirring up an outrage and calls for his expulsion after expressing his support for Russia’s “special military operation” and insisting Norwegian media reports are “fake news.”
Sergey Gouschin, the Russian consul-general in Svalbard, told Nettavisen in a story published Saturday “there are no visible signs of conflict among the people here on a daily basis” despite hardships many Barentsburg residents are suffering due to economic sanctions against Russia and the destruction in hometowns of the Ukrainians. But he said social media discussions by locals are more contentious because “people are scared.”
Gouschin insisted much of that fear – along with the anger of Norwegians and other nationalities in Svalbard – is due to false narratives of the Ukraine situation.
“In my opinion, Norwegian media mostly write ‘fake news,’” he told the newspaper. “Russian news is more genuine and truthful about what is actually happening in Ukraine. Norwegian media follow the official, Ukrainian line of this operation, like many other countries in Europe.”
The newspaper stated Gouschin similarly dismissed photos shown to him of wounded people and bombed buildings taken in Ukraine during the past month. He told the newspaper the military operation ultimately will allow Russians and Ukrainians to live together in peace.
“We are in Ukraine to end the war,” he said. “As soon as we get rid of the Nazi ideology, I sincerely hope for peace.”
About 370 people live in Barentsburg – two-thirds of them Ukrainians and the remainder Russians – with roughly 100 more Russians and Ukrainians in Longyearbyen and Pyramiden. Relations between the Norwegian and Russian settlements have historically been amicable even during peak moments of international tensions, but signs of strain have emerged during the past month through actions such as a call by some Norwegians in Svalbard to boycott Barentsburg’s tourism offerings.
Those tensions turned to outrage among some in Longyearbyen – and others commenting in Norway – as Gouschin’s comments were rapidly republished by other national and international media.
“I lived in Svalbard for 34 years and regularly visited Barentsburg – privately, but also officially as a cultural manager,” wrote Roger Zahl Ødegård, who retired as Longyearbyen’s cultural programs manager in 2020, in a discussion on a community Facebook page. “And also received delegations from Barentsburg during cultural exchanges. Among other things, there were many pleasant gatherings with the aforementioned consul general. Nice guy, but now I advocate that the Norwegian authorities expel him.”
The anger in the discussion is “a little strange” for Timofey Rogozhin, Barentsburg’s longtime tourism director until he started his own tour company in Longyearbyen last year. Rogozhin, who has been frequently and harshly critical of Russia’s actions, nonetheless noted Gouschin is merely repeating the same stances the Russian consulate has maintained throughout the invasion.
“There are relations between ordinary people, between neighbors, between Ukrainians, Norwegians, Russians, Swedes and all people of more than 40 nationalities living on Svalbard,” Rogozhin wrote. “And there is a neighborhood with state-owned companies of the aggressor country, a country with a formed fascist regime, which poses a threat not only to Ukraine, with which it is at war, but to the whole of Scandinavia, Europe, the world.”
Gouschin has been the consul-general for the past four years and before that worked at the Russian embassy in Oslo for five years. He is scheduled to depart his position and return to his family in Moscow when a successor arrives this year – who will have to be approved by Norwegian authorities.