When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

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.

[rebelmouse-image 27088127 alt="""" original_size="1024x683" expand=1]

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.

[rebelmouse-image 27088128 alt="""" original_size="800x533" expand=1]

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.

[rebelmouse-image 27088129 alt="""" original_size="800x533" expand=1]

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.

[rebelmouse-image 27088130 alt="""" original_size="800x528" expand=1]

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.

[rebelmouse-image 27088131 alt="""" original_size="1024x683" expand=1]

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.

[rebelmouse-image 27088132 alt="""" original_size="1024x683" expand=1]

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.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Along The "New Border" Of Ukraine, Annexation Has Just Doubled The Danger

Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Ukrainian territories in a ceremony in the Kremlin. In a village just a few kilometers away from what is now the Ukraine-Russia "border" in Putin's eyes, life continues amid constant shelling and the fear of what comes next.

Ukrainian soldiers are stationed in the village of Inhulka, near Kherson.

Stefan Schocher

INHULKA — The trail leads over a gravel road, a rickety pontoon bridge past a checkpoint. Here in the remote village of Inhulka near Kherson in southern Ukraine, soldiers sit in front of the village shop. Inside, two women run back and forth behind the counter, making coffee, selling sausages, weighing tomatoes. "Natalochka, where are the cookies," calls a dark-haired lady across the room.

But Natalochka, her colleague, is about to lose her nerve. "What kind of life is that?" she says, finally reaching up to grab the cookies from the top of a shelf. What kind of life can it be, she asks, when something is constantly exploding next to you and you don't know if you'll wake up in the morning.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

Inhulka is the center of a rural community. 1,587 inhabitants, as the village chief says, one school, one kindergarten, one doctor, two stores. Since March, nothing here is as it used to be. That was when the Russian army came to the village.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ