A Russian settlement in remote Norway has impressive roads, schools and monuments. But not a soul lives in this ice-preserved community, after its residents mysteriously left one day in 1998.
PYRAMIDEN — The Langoysund, an old fishing boat that takes people to Norway’s Svalbard fjords stops its motors on the narrow packed ice. On the right side, imposing, magnificent, and streaked with blue veins, is Nordenskiöldbreen — one of the most incredible glaciers in the Arctic.
On the left, at the foot of an imposing mountain, there’s a city that nobody expects to find in these parts, just a few hundred kilometers from the North Pole. It has impressive buildings, vast squares and roads, even large monuments. But nobody lives here.
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Photo: Kitty Terwolbeck
Pyramiden, the ghost city on the edge of the world, has been this way since 1998, when almost all of the Russian settlement’s 1,000 residents stopped doing what they were doing and suddenly all left together.
The Svalbard islands haven’t always been like this. Before the continents drifted apart, the polar circle was covered in trees, which then formed massive coal deposits. So prior to the last millennium, everyone came here to mine, and the Russians took it over three times. It was called Grumant in the times of the czars, then later Barentsburg, and finally Pyramiden under Lenin.
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During the first two settlements, there were the usual cabins for the miners, but for the third one, the Soviet Union wanted to do something bigger. Bigger, that is, to put an end to the spooky tales that often go with small cities — but not too big either so as to keep the feeling that there was still more to discover about this place.
Pyramiden owes its name to the mountain that overlooks it. Not only is it shaped like a pyramid, but its tip has been carved by snow and wind, making it resemble the Saqqara pyramid in Egypt and the Mayan step pyramids. After securing permission to extract coal in 1927, Stalin’s USSR decided to make the town an outpost of the Communist sphere.
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Buildings were constructed five or six stories high, just like in Moscow — a first in the Svalbard archipelago. In the town’s main square, a bust of Lenin still overlooks the city, staring directly at the pyramid-shaped mountain.
The thousand inhabitants had everything they could possibly need in their community: a kindergarten, a school, a hospital, an auditorium, a cinema, a library with more than 50,000 books, a basketball court and a soccer field — even a heated swimming pool.
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But not a single house featured a kitchen because food was served to everyone at a large central restaurant. Fruit and vegetables were grown in greenhouses, and chickens, pigs and cattle filled heated barns. Because the region is too arid, the soil was imported from fertile Ukraine.
In the winter, when the sun is not visible for four months, Pyramiden is inaccessible, and the only visitors are polar bears and arctic foxes.
But from June to October, travelers can get there by boat, and visiting is an experience that stays with you. Everything stayed the same, as if life there suddenly stopped.
There are basketballs lying on the courts, glasses still on bar counters. Two balalaikas lie on the floor of the auditorium, and music sheets for The Hunt for Red October sit on top of the piano.
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Photo: Kitty Terwolbeck
The pool seems in good enough condition for someone to turn on a tap so swimming could commence again. Beds are unmade in the houses, shoes left abandoned on the floors beside them. The atmosphere is suspended, like a photograph in which time has stopped.
It has never been convincingly explained exactly why Pyramiden was abandoned so quickly one day. It is said that in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s financing of the town ceased, and the mine never generated sufficient profits to keep this “icy Eden” afloat. The Langoysund crew remember it as a strange and mysterious place, in which investors came full but left empty, and as a town populated by intellectuals and scientists more than miners.
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Photo: Kitty Terwolbeck
A Hollywood screenwriter could set many movies here: a secret Soviet nuclear base evacuated after an emergency; a Cold War outpost ready to be raided by James Bond; a secret entrance to Agarthi, the underground realm imagined by novelist Willis George Emerson, surrounded by pyramids.
Who knows? Thanks to Svalbard’s frost, Pyramiden will remain intact for many centuries to come. According to scientists, it will probably be the last city on Earth to disappear, with the statue of Lenin and all its secrets still wrapped in ice.