Too harsh a climate for crime.
White on white in the shallow graveyard.
It is never dark in paradise;
The font of human fractures
As we approached Barentsburg by boat, after an hour gazing awestruck at the Esmark glacier, we could see a Russian helicopter base to our left. Barentsburg is a company town, owned and operated by a Russian arctic mining company, and predominantly populated by Russians, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. There’s an FSB office and one can obtain a Russian visa free of charge from the embassy, which was closed upon inspection - perhaps unsurprisingly given we were soon to realise that there were about four people propping up every administrative position within this tiny, curious enclave.
We checked into the hotel, to find Soviet period decor still very much present. My phone charger had given out as we ate barbecued whale off the back of the boat, and if you said to me ten years ago that I’d be conversing in rudimentary Russian with Ukrainian miners in a company town in the Arctic I wouldn’t have believed you. Alas, this is what unfolded within minuted of having checked in, as I darted around attempting to find one of two shops in the entire town, hailing down sooty, Slavic monoliths in an accent best described as 'Hollywood KGB agent'. I found the grocery by mistake, receded anonymously into the vast, utilitarian apartment block which housed every single denizen of Barentsburg, and whilst time travel has long since been something I'd only conceived of as a function of cinema, the temporal dissonance that held me as I surveyed the produce within this bewildering Soviet museum piece was as jolting as it was nourishing.
By the towering bust of Lenin I ran into the young girl that had met us off of the boat, who it transpired, in addition to being the psychopomp of this Soviet Styx, also ran the post office, the hotel bar, and just about any other public-facing initiative, probably owing to her startling command of English and not-insignificant charisma. She lent me a phone charger, I think sensing the ennui projected by my every cell over the prosaic nature of this tawdry mission. I honestly hadn't anticipated that my first foray into Russian territory, after years of working towards it, would kick off with such a humdrum exploit. Saying that, such rituals of the banal can often serve to humanise an otherwise alien place, and that were certainly the case here - an icebreaker in every sense.
In Svalbard it’s customary to take off one’s shoes inside buildings, inherited from the miners’ tradition, to prevent dragging soot indoors. Yesterday my travelling companion's boots went missing. Alex fielded a call from the Longyearbyen lodge, saying they'd traced the boots' theft to the village drunk and had had them returned. Meanwhile, he zipped about in androgynous, borrowed moon boots as we said goodbye to Lenin and sank into the bar to sample the locally-brewed ales.
Every single enterprise on Barentsburg is owned by the Arctic coal mining company Arctikugol, operated out of the Russian mainland, and with that being so, every time we bought something, be it drinks, food, postcards, local crafts, hotel services, it displayed Arctikugol on the receipt. The employees, shipped out here on two years contracts, are regarded as amongst the higher-skilled of Russian coal miners – chosen for the post because of their presumed resilience and adaptability within a truly extreme and unforgiving environment. They are all paid in roubles, which of course are not legal tender, given Svalbard's Norwegian sovereignty, and so the company - whose presence here is every bit as all-encompassing and nebulously sinister as the ethically catastrophic company from Ridley Scott's Alien – takes a third of each employee's monthly pay and applies it to a bizarre plastic card, which each resident possess and uses as their tool of payment. They all eat together in the same canteen, and they all attend the rare cultural gatherings throughout the year, which seem designed to stimulate vaguely nationalist folk nostalgia for the motherland, and are always exceptionally drunk affairs.
Anna, the omnipresent and virtuosic administrator girl, turned up at The Red Bear bar, to procure some bureaucracy from the Dutch captain of a ship which had moored up at the harbour just as we arrived; his crew lilted about the premises, seeping into a soggy, klaxoning drunkenness with loose tongues and heavy, draping arms; careening about and talking to absolutely everyone, saying nothing and taking a long time to do so. Alex and I sat at the bar chatting with the handsome young barman, who hailed from St Petersburg, about life in the Arctic company town – which inevitably for him was proving a startling contrast to the cosmopolitan once-capital of the mainland.
Despite the brash and leery, capsized Dutch sailors flanking the walls and floor, The Red Bear turned out to be pretty much the best bar I've ever spent time in - and I consider myself knowledgable about such things: I'm committed to my research. It's the only bar in a Russian mining colony in the Arctic - so a difficult local - but I don’t intend that to stop me. Anna jetted off with an armful of paperwork, and I downed a home-prepared horse-radish/vodka tincture that is a traditional Russian medicinal; this one prepared a year ago.
Rendered ethereal and joyful through a cocktail of alcohol and the sheer, raw, vibrant thrill of jarringly-awesome present-tense experience, we took an epic hike out across the ice-floe-flecked delta in the snow; an omnipresent howling and barking of massed huskies in the distance, across otherwise the most pronounced and audible silence I’ve ever observed; the most unsullied, nourishing air I’ve ever lapped. Everything felt harmonized and timeless, as though with every breath I were taking in ice crystals whose divine forms unfolded in tiny, mirrored labyrinths inside the cathedral of my chest, relinquishing ancient secrets like pearls, or songs.
In the spirit of the historic appetites of the locals – or maybe I'm simply projecting, in denial as to our own long-standing and rapacious constitutions - we set our dials to 'one more drink' and found the back door of the hotel, which it was hoped would lead us to the bar. 'Closed', said the sign on the door, which we could see were still unlocked.
''Hello! Sorry - we are closed. Please come in for a drink!'' said a barmaid who'd spontaneously downloaded herself into the present reality, beckoning us warmly in and locking the door after us. As I ruminated on the Koan-like paradox of her pronouncement, drinks began to appear and disappear in vast swathes, as pumping Russian power ballads bled from the sixth-form disco speakers, a young girl dancing in the midst of the chaos – possibly holding it together – a lynchpin fairy princess, all of five years old, pressing everyone to dance with her, and chiding them if they deigned to stop.
One of the Dutch sailors manifested, peat-like, at our table, at this point so degenerate with booze that he resembled a braying pumice stone, glaucous and incoherent - a litany of clammy back-pats and seafaring hubris. He and his crew kept buying us drinks, which I accepted as just compensation for having to tolerate their steaming gibberish: tithes, gratefully received. A lone and immobile figure occupied a chair in the middle of the room, having passed out an hour earlier with alcohol poisoning. This, we were told, was the captain.
After an hour of dancing with the locals at the behest of our indefatigable five-year-old ringmistress, we sat down panting and beheld the scene: a tableau vivant of humanity at its most kind, inclusive and carefree. And in a heartbeat, this Zen moment - suspended from the anxieties of past and future tense – were ripped untimely into shards and burned in the street, as the Russian barman propelled himself over the bar with apparent intent to kill the Dutch sailor, who it had transpired, had attempted to make out with his wife.
There are few certainties in life – death, taxes, do not work with animals, children or humans – but one which rings true down time immemorial is – do not fucking make out with the wife of a virile, highly-charged young Russian man, especially when you are a) a guest in their town, b) have been drinking all day and c) the town in question is a remote, closeknit community tucked so far up in the High Arctic that it would take months for anyone to notice you were missing, by which point polar bears would have surely done away with any evidence of your mistake, which in this case, were the simple mistake of being born.
It took the entire bar to defuse the altercation and stop Pasha stamping on the Dutchman's pickled entrails, by which point I'd sloped off to our hotel room with an array of mineswept drinks so vast I could've established my own franchise, and as I sat on the bed pouring them into my organs, I could hear drifting up from downstairs the bellicose protestations of a brain-damaged adult mammal. Adopting a stance of 'not my circus', and being too drunk to do much about it even if it were, my head hit the pillow and I segued into oneiric revelries, every dream bleached into stranger shapes by the eternal sun.
I woke to find Alex cradling his abdomen and groaning. He'd drunk too much. He told me that once Pasha had been pacified, a new drama had unfolded – the governor of the town had been invoked to address the storm of expletives and flailing fists that had comprised the Dutch captain when it eventually came time to wake him from his boozy paralysis. I'd seen the governor that afternoon, giving an interview to a TV crew, and even in that friendly context he'd seemed the sort that could make a human being's heart stop with a single death-gaze if provoked, so to imagine him confronted with the hubristic screeching of a shit-faced Dutch mariner at three in the morning was enough to have me mentally writing letters to inform the sailor's family.
We took breakfast in the hotel restaurant - empty and silent aside from industrial noise accompanying a scrolling satellite view of the tundra, and a woman, constantly on her laptop, who I clocked was also at the last place we stayed in Longyearbyen. We suspected she might have been FSB, quickly reconciling that we were indeed highly surveillable types and that at least any eccentric conduct on our part would surely have been overshadowed by the appalling behaviour of the Dutch crew, many of whom we suspected at this point had been hosed down and left out to freeze to death in the tundra.
Suffice to say, I fell in love with Barentsburg. Soon, we pull into Longyearbyen harbour, Alex can recover his footwear, and I will douse my Russian hangover in the nearest available alcohol.