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Cold Storage: Photographing the Abandoned Soviet Town Pyramiden

By Natasha Bluth

Nestled in an inlet of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, the Soviet mining town of Pyramiden lies quiet and deserted. First founded by Sweden in 1910, the Soviet Union bought Pyramiden in 1927. The state-owned mining company Arktikugol Trust acquired ownership of the town and began operations three years later. A few months after the last coal was extracted on March 31, 1998, approximately 1000 residents and miners trickled out, leaving Pyramiden abandoned and more or less frozen in time. In fact, as the History Channel’s “A Life After People” predicted, Pyramiden’s Arctic climate will preserve the now discarded buildings and belongings just as they were left for the next 500 years.

When photojournalist Christopher Michel visited the town in August 2016, he captured the leftover desks, withered houseplants, and ceramic dishes coated in dust abandoned by those who called Pyramiden home up until 19 years ago. His images give the onlooker an otherworldly sensation—Pyramiden evokes apocalypse.

At its northernmost point of the town sits a bust of Vladimir Lenin. Wrote Michel of his experience:

“It’s freezing cold and I’m standing eye to eye with Lenin. Well, not actually Lenin, but a bust of Lenin overlooking the main square of the abandoned Soviet mining town of Pyramiden in Svalbard, just 800 miles from the North Pole. On this remote site, the Soviet Union built an entire mining town for 1,000 miners and their families. The last coal was removed in 1998, and since then, the town has remained in “cold storage”—a snapshot of Soviet life left as it was during the fall of the Soviet Union. The high school has school projects on display, the desks are full of office supplies, and the movie theater still has a film on the projector. It’s also the site of the most northerly swimming pool and grand piano in the world, both eerie and wonderful.”

More than 10 years after the mines closed, tourism returned to Pyramiden in 2007. A hotel and museum open in the summer months, but visitors typically trek north from Longyearbyen, the closest town and the island’s capital, located about 30 miles to the south. Traveling to the town by boat is possible from May to October, when the route is ice-free. “If you go,” Michel writes, “be sure to bring a flashlight and nerves of steel.”

*****

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Christopher Michel is an accomplished photojournalist whose work has been featured in National Geographic, the Smithsonian, the New York Times, the BBC, and Outside Magazine, among other newspapers and magazines. His collection includes photographs from extreme locations like the North & South Poles, Everest, Papua New Guinea, DR Congo and at the edge of space (aboard a U-2 Spy Plane). Michel is also the editor at Explorers, a site dedicated to adventure travel, and the photo editor-at-large for the Bold Italic

To see more of Christopher Michel’s work, visit his website.

[Photos courtesy of Christopher Michel]

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