The shock wave of the war in Ukraine is spreading to the far side of the North Pole

Kyiv may be twice as far away as the North Pole, but the war in Ukraine is provoking unrest in Barentsburg, a quaint Arctic community where Russian and Ukrainian miners mine coal side by side within the decades.

Bust of Lenin, sculpture expressing in red Cyrillic letters “our goal – communism” … Everything reminds us that Russia’s presence in this village in the southwest of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is not new .

After counting up to 1,500 souls at the end of the Cold War, Barentsburg saw its population decline after the explosion of the USSR.

But 370 people still live today in this former Soviet showcase: two-thirds of them are Ukrainians, mostly from the Russian-speaking Donbass region, and Russians for the rest.

“Of course, there are tensions and discussions on social networks such as (internal community groups on) Facebook and Telegram, but there are no visible signs of conflict on the surface”, assures Russia’s local consul Sergey Guchtchin.

Protected by high gates and surveillance cameras, the consulate richly decorated with a marble entrance, winter garden and custom-made wall tapestry, dominate the village.

Proof, perhaps, that anger is boiling over all the same, 45 people have left Barentsburg “since the operation began”, Mr. Gouchtchine admits, using the terminology used by Moscow about the invasion of Ukraine being launched on February 24.

Leaving, however, is not easy: Western sanctions imposed on Russian banks not only prevent minors from sending money to their families, but also complicate the purchase of tickets to plane.

The only airport departing the area is located in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, 35 kilometers away, where Visa or Mastercard are mostly essential.

– “Polarized” opinions –

At the entrance to Barentsburg, the coal-fired power plant emits black fumet, which adds to the ambient greyness.

The international treaty that placed the Svalbard archipelago under Norwegian sovereignty in 1920 guaranteed the citizens of the signatory states equal access to its natural resources.

It is in this capacity that the Russian state company Arktikugol Trust has exploited the Barentsburg coal seam, on the shores of the Isfjorden fjord, since 1932.

Between the pastel -colored buildings, some residents rush to escape the freezing cold that still reigns this May.

Decision making is important, especially when working for a state -owned company.

Russia punishes heavy fines or imprisonment anyone found guilty of “destroying” the military or spreading “false information” about it.

“Yes, opinions are completely polarized,” said Russian guide and historian Natalia Maksimichina. But, when we talk about politics, “we know where to stop”.

Tongues are easier to loosen in Longyearbyen which, due to the lack of roads, can only be reached by helicopter or on a snowmobile in winter and by boat in summer.

According to Julia Lytvynova, a 32-year-old Ukrainian seamstress living in Barentsburg, the Arktikugol Trust holds a different perspective there.

As a result, “people are quiet, working and living as if nothing is happening,” he laments.

If he hadn’t set foot in Barentsburg since the start of the war, he had a poster hung there by a friend at the gates of the Russian consulate.

A message on a blue and yellow background, the colors of Ukraine: “Russian military ship, fuck you!”, A reference to the legendary response of the Ukrainian border guards to the crew of a Russian cruiser who said goodbye to them to go.

The sign was removed in less than five minutes, he said.

– “Tensions” –

After 22 years spent in Svalbard, the -Norwegian- mayor of Longyearbyen, Arild Olsen, said that “he has never seen such a level of conflict” in his town where about 2,500 people of fifty others live ‘ t other nationalities, including one hundred Russian and Ukrainian. .

“There are tensions in the air,” he said.

In response to the aggression, most tour operators in Longyearbyen stopped bringing tourists to Barentsburg, depriving Russia’s most powerful state company of a windfall that has become important along with coal.

Julia Lytvynova welcomes this boycott.

“Because this money supports the Russian invasion,” he explains. By turning off this tap, “they don’t help kill my Ukrainian people”.

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