Windows to the past and future

“Ruins challenge us to make sense of them, as they frame emptiness and dramatize the evanescence of meaning…we need to make them speak and militate for our theories” 

Schönle, A. (2006 p. 652)

Whilst the fascination with ruins in academia and beyond can be questioned for it’s potential for nostalgic views on troubled pasts through the attractive aesthetics of urban decay, or ‘ruin porn’, there are still important stories, experiences and lessons to be learned from such sites (DeSilvey and Edensor 2013).

Pyramiden, a previous Russian coal-mining town, now one could say an ‘industrial ruin’, an abandoned ‘ghost town’, though this is not entirely true, has been a site of focused interest throughout the PhD, and it has certainly inspired many questions and meaning-making attempts (you can read more about my 2014 and 2013 visits there). Hence, I was really interested to visit another previous coal-mining site in Svalbard, Coles Bukta/ Bay. I was curious to see what it was like in comparison as, like Pyramiden, it was a Soviet mining settlement, but one with a much more concentrated life span, at least so far. So I took a 1 hour scooter ride to travel the 20 or so kilometres from Longyearbyen and had a nose around.

man on snowmobile looking out over Colesbukta

Colesbukta was developed as a port serving the coal mine at Grumant city, connected by a 6km covered railway in the early 20th century, which was rebuilt after it’s destruction in WWII. At it’s peak in the 1950s Grumant’s mine produced up to 143 tonnes of coal a year and Grumant city and Colesbukta together were the most populated settlement in Svalbard with over 1100 residents. In 1961-62 however, the Soviet firm, Trust Arktikugol halted mining work and Grumant and Colesbukta were largely abandoned. They served as a base for exploratory geology up to 1988 which discovered further promising coal reserves in the area. Now, in comparison with Pyramiden, the number of buildings which remain are much-reduced and far emptier: it is harder to imagine how the industrial and domestic life fit together here. The snow-covered winter landscape no doubts hides some clues (and see this report for a more thorough description).

Now, the future is uncertain, at the turn of the 21st century there was much talk and maneuvering to initiate a new Trust Arktikugol coal mine in the Colesbukta area, possibly to replace the difficult and dangerous Barentsburg operation further south. However, environmental restrictions from the Governor’s office prevented this and now efforts are being concentrated in developing the tourism and research sectors in Barentsburg and Pyramiden. Whilst only the buildings and remains dating from 1946 or earlier are automatically protected as cultural heritage, in effect the 100m exclusion zones around these ‘artefacts’ mean that almost all buildings are within these zones, though this is not the case in Grumant. What such protection or lack of, means in reasonably remote areas of Svalbard is something I have become interested in over the course of the project.

I’m told that the owners, Trust Arktikugol, send workers here annually to do some ‘clearing up’, perhaps maintenance on the buildings, or dealing with potential industrial contaminates. Indeed, evidence of regular works is needed to maintain mining claims, so that could be part of the motivation.  The proximity to Longyearbyen and Barentsburg could mean that further activity of some kind in this area is likely. Indeed, in the recent past the summer youth camp has used Colesbukta as their camp-base.  Rusanov’s hut adds a further attraction to the area, dating back to 1912, it now  houses a (Russian language) museum in the Russian geologist and explorer’s cabin where hikers can take shelter.

“Attitudes to ruins and ruination reveal social and cultural values and commitments that become legible through the different narratives that ruins are asked to carry”.

DeSilvey and Edensor (2013, p467)

One of the intriguing characteristics about this ‘ruin’ is that little is being ‘asked’ of it at the moment. We visit, we imagine pasts and futures. Some buildings are accessible, some are not. Present processes of decay and attempts at preservation give us glimpses into other times. I appreciate the mute walls and structures while simultaneously feeling like an intruder into memories. If they could speak, I would surely listen.

  • DeSilvey, C. & Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), pp.465–485.
  • Schönle, A. (2006) ‘Ruins and History: Observations on Russian Approaches to Destruction and Decay’, Slavic Review, 65(4), pp.649–669.

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