Svalbard, an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole, is defined by what it is not. The 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty recognised it as part of the Kingdom of Norway, but this came with conditions. There is to be no taxation on the island, and there must be no military presence.
But there is another definite presence on the island, and this is no coincidence. There are four Russian mines on the archipelago: Barentsburg, Pyramiden, Grumant and Colesbukta. However, somewhat strangely, all of these mines now operate at a loss. It wasn’t always this way. In the Soviet era, miners flocked to Svalbard; Barentsburg and Pyramiden once had full employment. Cash was outlawed, healthcare was free and plentiful food was grown on a local farm. The Soviet ideal, finally realised on a distant Norwegian island.
Photographer Leo Delafontaine travelled to Svalbard, capturing the island and its inhabitants in the pages of a photobook called Arktikugol, or “Arctic coal” in Russian. His images capture relics of the communist past: statues of Lenin and faded murals. A yellowed pin up girl winks from a grimy locker. Photographs of men at work paint them as tired and disillusioned, far from the joyous archival snapshots collected at the back of the book. Sergei, a Ukrainian miner, complains:
“It’s hard. Why should it be easy? Of course it’s hard. We’re isolated, cut off from the mainland and society, living in a closed circle. I can’t stand these faces, they’re always the same. Two years. If you tried it yourself, you wouldn’t ask a question like that. I want to be home. I want human contact, movement. Of course it’s hard. And you get used to it.”
Delafontaine manages to paint a remarkably full portrait of this island through the many faces of his subjects, interspersed with images of echoing towns and arctic landscapes. There’s a vivid beauty amongst the stark surroundings. One interviewee is Yuri, a former sailor disillusioned with communism who has found faith in Christianity. One day in 1994, he decided to climb Pyramiden Mountain, a large rock next to one of the mines. “No one would join me so I went up alone,” he remembers. “When I was halfway up, a heavy snow began to fall. There was almost no wind. Enormous snowflakes were coming down and there was absolute silence - ABSOLUTE.” For Yuri, the silence is irreplaceable.
Although this placidity is echoed throughout the book’s photographs the actual reason for Russia’s presence is less poetic, more politics. With the disappearing arctic ice levels, new trade routes are opening up for Barentsburg. The loss-making mines suddenly make sense. Perhaps Delafontaine has captured an island living that may soon catch up with the rest of the world.
Arktikugol by Leo Delafontaine is published by Editions 77, March 2017 in French and English. Embossed hard cover. 160 pages.