Pyramiden is a utopian coal-mining town, a landscape-scale “museum” of soviet-style industrial heritage that shows the fragmented remains of a communist dream. It is a unique village, a real-life time machine that illustrates all that remains of a forgotten and failed utopia. Pyramiden is located in Svalbard, in the Arctic Norwegian territory.
The settlement was founded by Norway in 1910 and bought by the Soviet Union in 1927. The mine closed down in 1998 as it was financially unsustainable. With it, its grandioseness and highly qualified workers vanished, leaving what had been the perfect example of a communist utopian town behind. Over 1000 inhabitants lived there, but after the mine closed down, the town was left almost deserted.
Only 13 workers live there temporarily. They are sent from Russia for a few months every year. Their job is to both, guide a few tourists through Soviet history, and dismantle the machinery and infrastructure which is still in place. It has been predicted that due to the low rate of decay in such a cold climate, the abandoned town’s major buildings will still be visible 500 years from now.
To explore Pyramiden is to step back in time. Soviet politics, architecture, and culture penetrate the place. Being offered the possibility to work there was, for the Soviets, something of an honor and privilege. Unlike in other places of the USSR, in Pyramiden, quality of life mattered. The best workers from the mainland were promoted and moved to the Arctic town. The Cultural Palace had a library, a gymnastics room, a basketball court, three heated swimming pools, and a large auditorium with red seats, where performances took place and movies were screened.
Aesthetics mattered in Pyramiden and helped display the monumentality of the Soviet’s Arctic project. The perfect example of that is the shiploads of soil and seeds that were imported from what is today Ukraine. The soil formed the groundwork for the largest beautification project likely ever to take place in the Arctic, creating a massive artificial lawn that matched the bourgeoisie colors of the buildings. It also had greenhouses. It was a nearly self-sufficient town where residents grew all sorts of vegetables and raised their own pigs, chickens, and cattle. All of it was powered with the coal that workers mined. In the context of the Cold War, Pyramiden was a sort of window display created by the Soviets to show capitalist societies how great communism was. It was a town that foreigners could visit without a visa, so it served as an exhibition of the Soviet Union’s power.