The work of demolishing unused buildings and refurbishing and replacing facades of those that are in use continues. Whereas last year when I took the day trip I was pretty unconvinced by the guide's idea of Barentsburg being like Longyearbyen in 50 years time (only Russian rather than Norwegian of course), now there seems some real momentum and energy behind this with tourism efforts being ramped up. 50 years now seems like a feeble plan compared to the 3 years they are aiming for to make tourism profitable.
I've been following the dicussions in the local paper on the changes to the built environment in Barentsburg over the last few months. Having seen the stark contrasts between old and new last year, I could see where these debates were coming from and where the concerns and different view points on cultural heritage value, decent living conditions, and symbolic image projection met, physically on the streets of the town. I wasn't quite prepared for the level of change I saw between last year and this though. ...
There's a few factors being juggled here: the aim is to attract Russian tourists, so the extent to which they will be interested in old Soviet architecture and features is questionable, so perhaps is the modern facade design, but cultural heritage from Pomor times in Svalbard holds more promise without relying on 'vodka and balalaika' which is code in these parts for 'Russian tat for foreigners'. At the moment the value to non-Russian tourists of some Soviet iconography is recognised, the 'Our goal is communism' sign has been re-painted and stands well-placed for a photo with Lenin. Each building is being considered separately and some are being renovated in their orginal style. There is a mix of personal, social, historical and political values going on in these seemingly aesthetic choices, which will later have consequences for the cultural, social, economic and environmental value of Barentsburg.
I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to this leg of the research. Last year there were next to no English-speaking staff around and it all seemed a bit dismal from the one hour stop we had on the boat trip. There were also enough stories of people not being up for talking to the likes of me to make me consider getting straight back on the boat this time too. I'm so glad I didn't. Whilst my Russian is still what can only be called extreme beginner, it's enough to get by hap-hazardly and with help from the new tourism team who can all speak English. In combination with one of my favourite Svalbard traits - meeting random people doing interesting things who are happy for you to join in, or at least let you ask them about it, made for a really interesting time.
Barentsburg has a rich and varied history, from whaling in 1900, and the the first mining efforts by various parties in the area. A Dutch company in 1920 took over the largest of these and this was purchased by Trust Arcticugol in 1932, almost total destruction in WW2, rebuilding and booming in the 60s to 80s to depression after the fall of communism to another wave of rebuilding now. There is indeed value in reproducing and documenting this history, which is just what the film crew I met there were doing. This somehow led me to muddling through conversations to be invited to join Professor Tarasov and his PhD student for a morning of observing/ helping in his sedimentology of Gronfjord and getting another hands-on experience of the value of scientific work in Svalbard ... more on that at a later date. Suffice to say, I am thoroughly grateful to a big handful of people in Barentsburg and beyond for being very generous with their time, expertise and hospitality. I'm also convinced that 1 hour stops in a place like this are just not very much of an insight or of that much economic benefit...