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This Arctic Soviet Ghost Town Was Abandoned Decades Ago. Now It Lies Hauntingly Frozen In Time

Image: Bjoertvedt
Image: Wikimedia/Bjoertvedt
Buried in snow at the top of the world, a town lies in a deep slumber. In an abandoned building, musical instruments sit waiting to be played. In another, photographs of smiling faces still hang on the walls. Yet the only footsteps heard in these ice-covered streets belong to Arctic foxes and polar bears.
Image: Bjoertvedt
Image: Wikimedia/Bjoertvedt
The history of this haunting ghost town can be traced back to 1910, when it was founded by Sweden. Pyramiden is located on Spitsbergen, a small island in the Svalbard archipelago between Norway and the North Pole. Located slap bang in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, this island settlement was once one of the most northerly settlements on earth.
Image: Vladimir Prokofiev via The Siberian Times
Image: Vladimir Prokofiev via The Siberian Times
In 1927 the Soviet Union bought Pyramiden from Sweden and added it to their growing empire. There were coalfields located beneath the ice, which made the location particularly attractive. And in 1936 the Soviets were granted permission to start mining.
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Until World War II, however, Pyramiden remained a largely forgotten outpost in the middle of a bleak, frozen wilderness. But once the war was over, Soviet authorities began pouring money into the town through a state-run coal company called Trust Arktikugol. The town’s golden age was about to begin.
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Over the next few years, Pyramiden was transformed into a model Soviet town – a communist utopia amidst the Arctic Circle. Workers could claim free meals in the huge communal cafeteria. Their families were catered for in modernist schools and hospitals. Meanwhile, a grandiose “cultural center” hosted movies and theater performances to raise the spirits on bitterly cold evenings.
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Among the marvels installed in the town was the world’s northernmost grand piano – a Red Oktober – and a swimming pool of such quality that children actually traveled all the way from Longyearbyen to use it. A main square was also constructed, complete with a statue of Lenin – again the most northerly landmark of its kind on Earth.
Image: Vladimir Prokofiev via The Siberian Times
Image: Vladimir Prokofiev via The Siberian Times
By the 1980s, Pyramiden was at its peak, with around 1,000 people living and working in the town. A series of residential halls constructed in typical Soviet style provided homes for miners and their families, each with their own defined purpose.
Image: alvaroprieto
Image: Flickr/alvaroprieto
Single men were housed in the hall nicknamed London, while single women were accommodated in Paris, which also boasted a bar for socializing on the ground floor. Families were assigned to a hall known affectionately as the Crazy House, while short-term workers were put up in Gostinka, which means “hotel” in Russian.
Image: Vladimir Prokofiev via The Siberian Times
Image: Vladimir Prokofiev via The Siberian Times
Because it was located in the west and was accessible to foreigners, Pyramiden was also conceived as a showcase for the values of the Soviet Union. The quality of life was far better than in many mainland settlements, and workers assigned there were considered privileged.
Image: Vladimir Prokofiev via The Siberian Times
Image: Vladimir Prokofiev via The Siberian Times
Here, sporting and cultural activities were encouraged with top-of-the-line equipment and facilities. Mountains and glaciers formed the ultimate picturesque backdrop, while soil was heaved in to counteract the harsh realities of the Arctic conditions.
Image: Bente Nordhagen
Image: Flickr/Bente Nordhagen
And with this imported soil, the community were able to maintain lush green gardens in a region notoriously ill-equipped to support plant life. Flowers and vegetables thrived in greenhouses, while residents raised swine and cattle for food.
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Sadly, however, Pyramiden’s glory days did not last. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, funding for Arktikugol’s coal mining operations began to dry up. Salaries plummeted, and the quality of life that had made the town so appealing began to lose its shine.
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Then, in 1996, a plane chartered by Arktikugol crashed in the region, killing all 141 passengers on board. Many of the victims were relatives of those working in the mines, which had devastating consequences on the morale of the town.
Image: Bjoertvedt
Image: Wikimedia/Bjoertvedt
Faced with such low spirits and unable to fund further excavations in the mines, Arktikugol made the decision to close the town for good. On March 31, 1998, the mine shut its doors and the last workers left for Barentsburg or Russia. By October, the town was completely deserted.
Image: Prillen
Image: Wikimedia/Prillen
Because the residents of the town vacated so quickly, they left behind an eerie monument to their past lives. The hotel bar was still stocked with glasses, and library books gathered dust on the shelves. It was as if Pyramiden had simply been abandoned overnight. And it’s remained that way ever since.
Image: Hylgeriak
Image: Wikimedia/Hylgeriak
Moreover, because of the cold, sterile Arctic environment, Pyramiden’s fate has been different to that of other ghost towns around the world. The rate of decay is far slower here, and nature has yet to reclaim the buildings and the streets. In fact, some experts believe that much of the town will still be standing in another 500 years.
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
But over the years, wild animals have begun to reclaim the streets of Pyramiden. Aside from the occasional parties of workers sent to scavenge equipment from the mines, polar bears, seals and reindeer were the only signs of life here for many years.
Image: Vladimir Prokofiev via The Siberian Times
Image: Vladimir Prokofiev via The Siberian Times
Then, in the 21st century, tourists began to discover the haunting beauty of the abandoned Arctic town. Arriving by boat or snowmobile from Longyearbyen, they roamed freely around the site, often leaving vandalism and destruction in their wake.
Image: Zairon
Image: Wikimedia/Zairon
In 2008 Professor Vadim Prudnikov from the University of Ufa, Russia, became one of the first residents of Pyramiden in over a decade. His job was to take visitors around the town. And indeed, Pyramiden has slowly become a popular destination for those seeking a rare, intimate glimpse into Soviet life.
Image: Zairon
Image: Wikimedia/Zairon
Five years later, in 2013, the town’s Tulip Hotel opened its doors once more. Once again, visitors had the chance to spend the night in Pyramiden. But although the streets are busier now than they have been in years, the chances of the town returning to its former glory are slim. “Pyramiden has a particular spirit,” Prudnikov told Smithsonian. “I don’t think it will ever be restored, and neither should it be.”
 

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