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Svalbard: Russian Mona Lisa

I have to get this down as quickly as possible so I don’t forget things. I might do some editing but if it gets choppy or disconnected just know it was a burst of creativity.

We are in Barentsburg right now. It’s a Russian Territory, yet we are on a Norwegian Island chain. I don’t quite understand how that can happen, but it’s happening here. This place is one of just a few remaining coal mining operations left in Svalbard, most of the others either caught fire (one has been burning for over 40 years) or were closed because they are not economically viable any longer.

Today we had a special arrangement to go tour the small town, the museum, and even got to take a look at the mine itself. This place is as close as I’ve ever come to actually stepping foot in Russian and our guests have been pointing out all sorts of things that they say are so indicative of Soviet Russia. There’s even a statue of Lenin in the central square with a sign behind it in red cyrillic stating “We want to be Communist!”. It’s really weird. This place has been settled since at least the 70s and almost all the buildings remain, even if they are totally dilapidated and falling over. Virtually everything was made from lumber. You can imagine that there are no trees here, so that would be quite the undertaking.

We finally reached the mine building, which has a facade of red and black, a pretty decent looking building for being in the Arctic. It almost looks modern with a Scandinavian touch of design. Yet, as soon as we stepped inside it was 100% Soviet Russia. Uniform corridors, bleak color schemes, huge stairwells, etc. It’s as though the entire place was designed with incredible amounts of traffic in mind, able to facilitate lots of people moving around, yet it’s totally empty. It’s a ghost building. There are signs that the place has been heavily used: the interlocking design on the laminate floor has a well-worn path down the middle, only the closest bits near the wall show the lattice pattern which gave the corridor a slight bit of personality to an otherwise dreary hallway. Everything was uniform.

We walked through a few floors, weaving a really unusual route through the big building from one stairwell to another, uniform floor after uniform floor all the while never seeing another person. It’s clear there was a lot of activity here at one point, but now this building was dead. We eventually reached the guts of the place. The demarkation between the administration floors and the operations part of the building was drastic as we stepped into a corridor with crumbling stucco, dust, streaks of rust coming from who knows where, and the smell of stale, ancient cigarette smoke in the air. This is certainly where the miners have been coming and going for a long time. You couldn’t have created a better set for a movie about coal miners. To the left there were some old pieces of well-polished steel up against the wall folded into right angles. There were about the length of a person. There was a small wad of fabric at one end. Were these rest stations? Gurneys? I have no idea what they were. Behind us was a big sign in cyrillic: “Not following the rules does not work in Barentsburg Mine”.

Directly adjacent to the weird tables was a semi modern coffee station installed into the wall and a very formidable door beside it. To its immediate left a corridor with crumbling walls, hanging wires, and a darkness that seemed to have been around for a long, long time.

We were all ushered into a room and the effect of it could not have been more shocking. In the grimy corridor the lights where incandescent with some natural light diffusing in through the warped lead window, yet in the new room the light was almost aggressive. Fluorescent. Vibrating. Almost painfully bright. This was the staging room.

A safety briefing was given in Russian and translated for my benefit. “This is your escape device. Open the top. Breathe out then breathe in. You have 15 minutes of breathing before you die. Got it?” Thanks. We were each given head lamps with massive battery packs and each one was electronically checked in and out of the staging room as an accountability measure.

The most striking thing in this whole scene was the adjoining room where the head lamps were stored. Row upon row of head lamps in charging racks with the cables neatly coiled and the voltage blinking bright red. There were hundreds of lamps in the racks but very few empty slots. How many people are actually working here? It’s Saturday, but aren’t most mines 24/7? Weird.

The charging room was like something out of a movie. Forest green walls with white trim around the windows. Neat. Old cream curtains blocking out most of the natural light leaving us bathed in in the hum of fluorescent bulbs. On top of the charging racks were as many house plants as you could fit on the narrow ledge. This was the first room since stepping off the ship (and this includes the museum and the theater) that has had people in it. When I first stepped into the room I actually said out loud “oh shit, there’s a person in here” when I saw the brown hair of a lady sticking out over the top of a very tall service counter. Everything felt so artificial that seeing a person caught me off guard.

The absolute centerpiece, the Mona Lisa of the Arctic also was in this room.

I’m not a people person. I very rarely take photos of people without being asked to. It’s just not my thing, but the second I saw the lady working on the other end of the charging room I knew I wanted to photograph her. In the forest green room with house plants and rows of charging head lamps, she wore a teal Soviet-Era work apron, leopard print top underneath, black slacks and smart shoes. Her hair was impeccably styled, fully blonde with loose curls at the end. She was older, maybe 55 but was in good shape, thoughtfully dressed, and very petite. She was politely talking with our Russian family but I could see there was some sadness in her too. The color scheme, the contrast between the dreary mines and this lovely woman were just screaming to be documented. Of course, that’s not what I was there for so I didn’t push the idea further.

We kept getting our kit together and eventually went into the mine. It was a ramshackle mess of cables, wires, tracks, and junk. The consensus amongst us is that there’s something else going on in this mine that they cannot and would not tell us. It was my first time in a mine but the others have lots of experience with them and they saw enough to agree on this manner. Coal is probably not their first priority here. Since it’s mostly ex-cons working the mines, there aren’t a whole lot of trustworthy sources to be tapped for information. To my untrained eye it seemed highly dangerous, very downtrodden, and not being used that frequently these days.

With the tour over, we headed back and doffed our gear back at the staging room. We returned our barely-used headlamps and checked back in with the machine to ensure that we were really alive and well. The lady with the leopard print sleeves showing through her apron opened her heavy teal door and said hello from her forest green room. She chatted with our guests in Russian all the time I was lingering, hoping for a chance to ask for a photo but that moment never came.

We headed out the way we came, past the crumbling corridor and to one of the uniform, wide stairwells when I commented about how much I would like to take that woman’s portrait. This is when her story was relayed to me:

She is from Eunakvoya (sp?) which is a steel producing town in the Ukraine. It’s in the Donetsk region. They have experienced more bloodshed and more war than any other part of the country the last few years when Putin decided to flex his muscle. It’s a heartbreaking situation and, oddly enough, one that I had been following quite closely last year while it was happening (for once an American actually knew about foreign affairs, imagine that) She has a daughter who is 18 and moved to Crimea, which is now part of Russia, not Ukraine. This woman at the charging station is a doctor. She has the Russian equivalent of a PhD, yet she could not find work because of the war. She and her husband decided to move to Barentsburg, at the ends of the Earth, because it was the only place they could find work. They left everything and still have almost nothing.

This only made me want to photograph her more but I knew in my heart it was mostly hopeless. I still decided to try so I left the group with on the stairwell and headed back a few yards to the buzzing light of the green room. My translator explained that I was a photographer and would like to take her portrait. She seemed mostly embarrassed and shy about it and I could tell that my translator was not pushing the subject hard at all, which was the right call.

I don’t really know what I could or would have done with her photo. I feel like maybe one day I would have had an outlet to share her story with a wider audience. Maybe more people would have cared about her and so many others from that part of the world. All of it is conjecture but just know that my desire to capture her was honest. I certainly wasn’t looking to make any money, I just knew it was a scene that was worth sharing with a larger audience. I really am going to regret not being able to take that photo, but in reality the best photos are the ones that you have to work for. If she had said yes, she probably would have stood in front of those unused head lamps, their voltage blinking, framed by house plants and Soviet design, and she would have smiled a big bright, smile and given me the peace sign. And that would have been fake. The fact that she said “no” means I had the right instinct. It could take a day, a week, or longer to build a rapport with her but it would be worth it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the opportunity to visit this place again so until that time, I’ll regret not being able to make that image.

As we quickly tried to make it back to the group we couldn’t remember how many flights of stairs we had descended. It doesn’t help that all the floors look almost exactly the same. Did we go down 2 floors or three? The group was too far ahead to tell and everything was featureless and uniform. Thanks Soviet design. We second-guessed ourselves a few times but then we saw that worn-out lattice design and made a gut decision. We took the path a thousand others have taken and wore out just a little more of that old floor to meet up with the group. No one really seemed to notice we were gone. I bet that’s what the people of Barentsburg feel like.

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