We found a time machine here. It had been left like a cherished but now abandoned hobby project up on a promenade built, with similar optimism, to give the miners and their wives a summer Sunday view of the Barents Sea. Here was a large minimalist rectangle of yellowing arctic grasses set among big squares of concrete. And a wooden hut that might have sold Soviet lollies. And waste bins of cracked mosaic. Nearby was a football pitch that seemed to have sunk into a dark depression, its bent goals registering the endless nil-nil of the arctic match.
But the time machine was the best thing. Fashioned from spare parts –the engine and propeller of a crashed helicopter, and the parts of a sixties wannabe Buick whose basic genes had been engineered to evolve into the aquatic fins and flaps of an underwater speedboat – it was painted pink and green. It had gull wing doors. The dials were not registering and the windscreen was missing. But it was still a thing of beauty, of heroically-failed transcendence, fashioned perhaps tongue-in-cheek out of a fantasy of a Great Escape from this place, from this time; Back to the Future, out across the ice-plains of eternity, heading for a better version of the world where everything worked out, Industry and Beauty joined hands, Truth didn’t turn into propaganda, and Justice lived up to its name.
But here it is, stuck in the wrong time and left to rust away like an old joke on the edge of town, gazing out across the empty sea that should have been its race-ground. And so seems Barentsburg itself now, on first view. From the dock the impression was of abject post-industrial dereliction; a settlement stuck in the unnaturally shiny mud of its own making. We walked up the wooden steps towards the centre of town. On the way: abandoned housing blocks, once painted in optimistic colours, greens and blues; useless signs advertising non-existent bar and café. There was an imposing and uplifting mural of transvestite polar explorer, with white beard and full ruby lips and the glittering eyes of a mermaid, and an accompanying poem about the enduring beauties of the arctic. And another, the size of a huge billboard, containing in its red frame an idyllic hand-painted scene of birch woods in spring. Regularly enough, dirty diesel vehicles trundled past, in no hurry. A spiral of black smoke coiled thinly into the grey sky. On the hill, picked out in large white Cyrillic letters, “Peace on Earth.” Atop a steel tower shone a single electric star.
We entered a tiny, beautiful, octagonal wooden Orthodox church – a place of striking beauty. There were icons, and a small desk with slips of paper with names on them, and biros, prayer books and plastic flowers. It made you think again; about why religion meant so much in a modern-medieval world of labour, faith and endurance. The tall windows framed views of the town in a better way, with icons propped against the cold, clean glass. But only later did I understand this was a shrine built out of devastating tragedy; at Christmas time a plane full of the miners’ wives and children was returning in bad winter weather, and crashed on approach. Everyone on board was killed. Ten percent of the residents of the town perished, and no one can have been left untouched by the tragedy. Perhaps the evident demise of the town dates from then, as much as from the sheer economic irrelevance of the mine in more recent times.
There was a proud column in the centre of the town, bearing a bust of Lenin, strong, bold, staring endlessly at the inconsolable vision of the Barents sea. Behind him a building surrounded by a high-security barbed wire fence, and electric lights blaring from its small windows. We speculated this was the command centre from which the Russians listen out for arctic submarine activity. Somewhere on the coast of Scotland there must be a similar installation, listening to them, listening to us… apparently, the official explanation is that this is the Mayor’s office. Yeah, right.
There’s almost no one outside; we notice a young woman in a metallic rose coloured housecoat and red headscarf, bent at the waist, apparently sweeping coal into a galvanized bucket; but she also might be sweeping a path through the low-level detritus outside her apartment. A man in black, downcast, one plastic shopping bag barely swinging at his side, appears in the distance, and as we pass, in the strange Doppler effect of silence created by outsiders, Deborah says Hello very clearly, and we think for a moment he’s not going to register this; but he does, and returns the greeting, without changing direction or pace, and when we turn back he’s carrying on up the slope between the housing blocks, as if this might be what he does all day.
We each buy a ticket for 25 Nor Krone, from a girl with a long black ponytail, who points up to the town museum on the top floor; the middle floor’s a slice of lost communist era time; unnecessary, empty public spaces occupied by marooned pot plants and decorated with nylon curtains and scrolls of names and the odd photograph; a girl at a desk in an illuminated corner of a large committee room, where the chairs have been stacked up, and a large flat screen TV was blasting Russian news.
The town museum’s a beautiful memorial to the human and animal remains it contains. There were wooden cases, containing the possessions deemed representative of those remembered; spectacles, pipe, cigarette case, blue plastic comb carrying the memory of Brillcreamed waves, cufflinks, small black and white photos of babies being held up to the window of time by proud parents. Elsewhere photos of miners at work receiving folkloric ladies in full costume; and accounts of the two town doctors, husband and wife, dedicated to returning the town to health after the war, and how the wife operated on the husband “under his instructions.” Elsewhere, the commentary admitted he died – the implication is, on the operating table.
There was a chess set, fashioned from a paddle of driftwood, the black squares marked by crosses, the pieces whittled by hand, almost unrecognizable; the game left in an unreadable state of stalemate, like the town. As Deb said, the set Miranda and Sebastian would need for the Tempest. And the Pomor whalers’ objects were wonderful; the home-made basic necessities of a tough human life of survival; spoons, mittens, woven belts and scarves, hooks, gun-making pliers, harpoons, lathes, cooking pots.
We walked up to the Post Office, thinking living here now would be like working on an oil-rig; miserable no doubt, but good money. We noticed the apartment block windows, and their touches of living detail – large hi-fi speakers, and pot plants, and net curtains. We passed a hut painted for play with a child’s sun and flowers, and a sum: 2-1=?
The post office was in a building that also contained the bar, the telephone, and the administrative offices. There we met Dimitri, a young guy who seemed to be the local tourist guide, happily posed under the corridor strip lights for a photograph, choosing a stylish posture, like someone just out of a changing room, trying on his black drainpipes, and combat t-shirt, and black tank top, and a cheerful smile.
The post office was closed, but upon request to a passing official lady, almost enameled in make-up, a young man in a thick sweater kindly opened it up for us. He was fourteen months into a three-year contract. It was like visiting a set for a post office – everything was perfect, as if rarely used – a far cry from the shambolic queues in Whitechapel Post Office. I bought a single stamp and sent a card to my partner Edward. From Barentsberg, with love. Wish you were here.BACK TO TOP