February 2011

97 Minutes in Barentsburg

Bust of Lenin in Barentsburg, Svalbard

Bust of Lenin in Barentsburg, Svalbard

I am staring at a forest, a painting of a forest. A door opens in the forest, and two men climb out. They close the door, then walk away.

The forest, or rather the painting of a forest, is in the Russian coal-mining town of Barentsburg, about 1200km from the North Pole, one of three inhabited settlements in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

There are no trees in Svalbard. But there are pictures of trees, billboard size, to remind the miners of the forests back home.

My visit to Barentsburg was short, far too short. I only stayed 97 minutes. I am not proud of this. I arrived as a tourist, and didn’t want to leave. At least not soon.

I took no time to make new friends, gained no valuable insights into what it is like to live there. I didn’t hit the bar, like some of the other visitors, to sample the vodka. I didn’t even buy a Putin, Yeltsin, or Gorbachev matryoshka doll.

I did see a metal sunflower, a homemade spaceship, an awful lot of kittiwakes and two men walking out of a painting of a forest.

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