The Cold Rim of the World
March 19, 2015 6:17 AM   Subscribe

Pyramiden was abandoned in 1998. The town’s population, then somewhere around 300 people, was given four months to leave, and they left behind everything non-essential. Walking through those buildings, it felt as if some vague poisonous gas had swept through and killed everyone in a matter of minutes. There were signs of life everywhere—trays still on tables, rolls of film in the projection booth, musical instruments strewn about—alongside the inescapable fact of decay and abandonment. In the gymnasiums lay sports equipment that would never again be used, books that would never again be read. The world’s northernmost swimming pool is now empty; the world’s northernmost grand piano now badly out of tune. The triumphant gaze of Soviet monuments now look out over nothing but emptiness. The rise and fall of Pyramiden, a Russian mining town located in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.
posted by ellieBOA (23 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wanted to get to Pyramiden when I was in Svalbard in January, but there wasn't enough ice on the fjord to support snowmobiles and too much ice (natch) to get there on the water. A Russian snowshoeing guide I spent some time with actually lived there for a short time during its last days, and told me a little about it. I'll get there eventually, dammit. All by way of saying: thanks for this.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:34 AM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's funny how so many of these kinds of abandoned places look a lot like scenes from one of the Myst games.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:48 AM on March 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


The Crazy House is now overrun with gulls

I find this sentence inexplicably compelling.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:06 AM on March 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Sasha returned and found us in the plaza just outside the Crazy House—a space I later learned was the town’s cat graveyard—and under the wail of gulls he told us his story and the story of this place. Once a graduate student in geography, he now stayed in the hotel, on the otherwise-abandoned second floor. He loved it—in St. Petersburg he slept on the kitchen floor of his sister’s apartment, and this was the first time, he said, that he had a room to himself.

This is beginning to read like a Murakami novel. If Sasha busts out pasta or jazz, the transition will be complete.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:09 AM on March 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


No tribes of armored polar bears?
posted by CrazyJoel at 7:17 AM on March 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Well, the polar bears aren't armoured AFAIK, but they are dangerous (also: beware the safety on a Mauser rifle). Hence the rifle carried by the guide.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:21 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Pyramiden’s designers installed a series of subterranean Freon-systems around large buildings to keep the ground permanently frozen.

Good lord, that is just insanity. I mean in the small moment I'm sure it was a reasonable solution to the permafrost problem. But the expense, and the obvious wrongness of the idea in a larger sense.

I'm jealous of your trip to Svalbard, Emperor SnooKloze. The closest I've been is the Faroes. They were marvelous, but compared to Longyearbyen Tórshavn is a tropical paradise city with cultural delights to rival Casablanca.
posted by Nelson at 8:34 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Freaky & strange. I like it.
posted by tuesdayschild at 8:54 AM on March 19, 2015


everyone had to leave because someone got sick from defrosted mammoth remains
posted by rebent at 8:54 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Really neat article. Thanks!
The town’s population. . .was given four months to leave, and they left behind everything non-essential. Walking through those buildings, it felt as if some vague poisonous gas had swept through and killed everyone in a matter of minutes. There were signs of life everywhere—trays still on tables, rolls of film in the projection booth, musical instruments strewn about—alongside the inescapable fact of decay and abandonment.
I've visited around a dozen big spooky abandoned places: several ghost towns, mining operations, a large jail, and a (different) polar outpost. In every single case, there have always been a few eerie examples that make it look like life was suddenly interrupted: deployed table settings with long decayed food, unfinished sewing attached to threaded needles, typewriters loaded with incomplete forms, X-Rays sitting beside dusty light tables, chart recorders whose ink has run dry while sitting on an stopped chart.

This is true even for places that were slowly and intentionally abandoned over the course of years, including those with ongoing stewardship. I visited an abandoned mining town in Chile where you can sit at a table set with decades-old food and tableware in an abandoned home while informal caretakers play pop music and water the plants just outside the door which has fallen from its hinges.

I've always wondered why that happens. Is it intentional? When forced to abandon their home and confident that nobody else will be moving in, do people intentionally leave interrupted bits of ordinary life around to be discovered? Does one say to oneself, "well, this was our last meal here, and we can't take the plates with us. Might as well leave behind some evidence that we were here?"

Or, is it the result of packing at the last minute and simply forgetting things? (As, I'm sure, are all the random items I've found in the closets and drawers of city apartments.)
posted by eotvos at 9:09 AM on March 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Well, the polar bears aren't armoured AFAIK, but they are dangerous (also: beware the safety on a Mauser rifle). Hence the rifle carried by the guide.

Apparently anyone going to Svalbard must, by law, be armed or accompanied by someone who is, in case of polar bears. The polar bears are protected and it's illegal to shoot them unless they pose a clear and present danger. How do you know? Well, if they can see you, they do.
posted by acb at 9:09 AM on March 19, 2015


It depends on how isolated the place is, but for a lot of stuff, it's just not worthwhile to deal with the trouble of shipping, so that old, heavy sewing machine was going to be left there anyway. Also, since you're not coming back, you don't really care what the place will look like when you return.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:22 AM on March 19, 2015


> But the expense, and the obvious wrongness of the idea in a larger sense.

That goes for pretty much the entire Soviet approach to dealing with nature's difficulties; at least they never managed to put into operation the plan to make Siberia's rivers run backwards.
posted by languagehat at 11:29 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm fascinated by how Sasha got the job in the first place. I mean, as an introvert bordering on antisocial bookworm, it's pretty well my dream job (as a boy, I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper, but they're all robotic now). Where is the Help Wanted ad for "Wanted, lonely guardian of an abandoned complex. Must enjoy postapocalyptic ruination and the occasional bemused tourist. Bring a rifle."
posted by Mogur at 11:38 AM on March 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Good lord, that is just insanity. I mean in the small moment I'm sure it was a reasonable solution to the permafrost problem. But the expense, and the obvious wrongness of the idea in a larger sense.

It's actually a common technique for the foundation of large buildings and buildings that need a floor that can support a very high load on permafrost. The Norwegian settlement has a large building using the technique, and there are buildings like that in Alaska and elsewhere.

It's true, however, that by using an inflexible geometrical layout and several large buildings where many small ones would have done (e.g. for residences), and through their choice of material (heavy masonry, where lightweight wood would have been more appropriate), the Soviets probably overused the technique.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:15 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hilariously, Google Maps has street view for Pyramiden. They apparently attached a camera setup to a snowmobile...all the forward facing views are looking at two snowmobiles up ahead.
posted by Existential Dread at 12:20 PM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


I love this essay, particularly the final paragraphs. These thoughts comfort me.

"One gets a sense in Pyramiden of what the world will look like without us, a world in which humans may exist and persevere, but in which human activity is no longer differentiated from nature, where human history has once again joined the deep geologic time of the earth itself."

I'm quite pessimistic about the future of humanity, but, for me, this is balanced by the thought that the Earth will absorb what we've done to it and on it and move on.
posted by feste at 12:21 PM on March 19, 2015


at least they never managed to put into operation the plan to make Siberia's rivers run backwards.

Or, indeed, damming the Bering Strait.

I believe they did use nuclear bombs to excavate some dams in Siberia, though, and experimented with using ICBMs for long-distance mail delivery.
posted by acb at 1:14 PM on March 19, 2015




I believe they... experimented with using ICBMs for long-distance mail delivery.
posted by acb at 4:14 PM on March 19 [+] [!]


I can't speak to whether or not the USSR tried that, but the US certainly did.
posted by ZaphodB at 1:56 PM on March 19, 2015


Some friends of mine put together a book (almost all photography) on Pyramiden, there's a blog post here by them. Google books link.

See also Ocean Falls, BC (self link).
posted by Rumple at 2:13 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]




Pyramiden on Google Streetview
posted by jouke at 12:05 AM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


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