High above the Arctic Circle in Svalbard, a desolate archipelago situated midway between Norway and the North Pole, a Cold War outpost drifts further and further out of time. Free from looters and far from the vegetation and humidity that could reclaim it for nature, the Russian ghost town of Pyramiden looks much the same way that it did when it was first abandoned in 1998, during a hasty, unannounced withdrawal that still fuels rumours and legends on the island.
Callous Sky, Geometric Sea
Receding Shelf: Across Billefjorden, 4km from Pyramiden, a 750m-high ice shelf makes its slow, steady march into the sea.
Urban Planning: The design of Pyramiden feeds into twin mine galleries that crawl up a kilometre of mountain to the mouth of the mine. The town’s location at the pit of a rock valley helps it function as one big resonance chamber, with door slams and rifle shots rattling through the townsite.
Generational Planes: A 1940s-era schoolhouse lists to the side as a thicket of multistorey blocks, including its 1970s-era replacement, loom high behind it. Pyramiden was build in stages, with the modern town crawling up the valley further from the wharf. At its peak the town had 1200 residents.
Chief Architect: The bust of Bolshevik hero Vladimir Lenin keeps watch over the town’s main street, translated directly as the marble-mouthed “60th Anniversary of the October Revolution Street”.
Grazelands: A Svalbard reindeer, a boxy subspecies endemic to the archipelago, graze on an introduced grass still growing from soil brought from Ukraine to the high Arctic decades ago. Since the hardy Scandinavian icon has no natural predator here — they’re capable of outrunning a polar bear in spite of their shorter-than-usual legs — the Svalbard reindeer is as tame as cattle.
Blocks of a Feather
Fuel for the Flame
Sunlicked Boardwalk: Golden light brings a dour landscape to life. This far north, the sun doesn’t set from April through August, instead spinning around the sky in perpetual magic hour.
The Mountain and its Amenities: A cavernous leisure centre anchors the base of the pyramidal, coal-rich mountain that gives the town its name.
Waterway, Former Walkway: Ice and runoff in a makeshift river basin shifts with the seasons, taking a stretch of the town’s kilometres-long boardwalk system with it.
Old Town: Elsewhere, boardwalks lead the way to the original Pyramiden townsite, much of it demolished many years ago.
Powderkegs: Fresh snow sets into the crevasses of a nearby mountain. Known internationally since 1925 as Svalbard, Russia has retained the archipelago’s former name of Spitsbergen (“pointed mountains” in Dutch) to support claims that Russians were the first to discover the islands.
The Decaying Glacier: Flecks of paint race climate change to further differentiate a mural of nearby Nordenskiold glacier from the real thing.
Canteen Mosaic: An idyllic icescape once greeted hungry miners and their families at the entrance to the town’s canteen. With Pyramiden’s dorms lacking cooking facilities, all meals were served here.
A Tale of Backboards and Scuff Marks
Last Lap: Built on the former site of an outdoor skating rink, an elaborate leisure centre with two pools and a fitness centre was one of the town’s final buildings constructed before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Spotlight on Balalaika
библиотека: Stripped of their books, barren shelves and drawers of dewey decimal cards mark was was once the town’s library.
The Dumbwaiter’s Last Drop: An elevator shaft connects the pantries and cupboards of the town’s canteen with its kitchen level.
Convection Heating: Fans and industrial appliances in the canteen.
Solar Heating: Mottled sunlight warms a dead radiator.
Pantone Indecision: Irregular patches of peeled paint reveal the different colours the canteen’s walls have worn over the decades.
A Candle in the Window
Russia’s Norwegian Arctic: A Soviet ghost town in western Europe, Pyramiden is already a geopolitical anomaly even before considering the Svalbard archipelago’s unique status as a territory without a nation. Although administered by Norway, 42 nations (including Russia) have ratified a treaty granting the signees equal rights to engage in commercial activities on the islands.
Piñata Globe: The Bay of Bengal sinks into the earth’s core in a primary school classroom.
Can: One forgotten film reel among dozens in the projection booth.
математика: Well-worn primary school textbooks wait patiently for the next generation of pupils.
Scheduled Naps: Bedframes line the walls of a kindergarten nap room.
Malfunctioning Pause Button
The Nightmare Room
Aspirational: A bucolic diorama frames a primary school window a thousand kilometres from the nearest tree.
Gallery I: Stripped of its wood housing long ago, support beams offer little protection to the rail line that once linked mine to port.
Mountain Crawler: Here in the mine gallery, rail tracks once ferried hundreds of miners a kilometre up the side of the mountain to the start of the coal seam.