food / travel

Pyramiden, The North Pole's Mysterious Ghost Town

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.

Rush hour at Pyramiden's main square
Rush hour at Pyramiden's main square
Vittorio Sabadin

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.

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.

Photo: Hylgeriak/GFDL

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.

Photo: Hylgeriak/GFDL

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.

Photo: Bjoertvedt

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.

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.

Why?

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.

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.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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