Analysis and Commentary
Andrian Vlakhov
© From the personal archive

Andrian Vlakhov: Barentsburg’s future is all about tourism

Andrian, what is the purpose of your trips to Barentsburg and your research?

I'm about to finish my PhD thesis and expect to defend it by the end of 2016. I'm a social anthropologist, which means that I'm interested above all in communities and their social interactions, and in general in how people live in the north. I have been studying communities in the European part of the Russian Arctic for some years now, as well as relations between Russian and Scandinavian countries. As for Barentsburg, I made several research trips to this town to study local communities and their social practices.

Why the Arctic? 

When it comes to research on the Arctic and northern territories, Russia has rich cultural traditions. It is in this context I operate. I have always been passionate about the north, because being there is an opportunity to try oneself out, to find oneself in an unfamiliar environment. In addition, I like to work with people living in the north, who are known for their kindness, openness, friendliness, who are always ready to help one another. I find myself in a friendly environment, and talking to these people is always interesting from an academic perspective.

So you can confirm that this description suites people in the north?

If my experience is any guide, this stereotype is generally accurate: people living in the north and the way they behave are actually different from the patterns we see, for example, in Central Russia. In the north people are more eager to help one another, are more sincere in their communications, closer to nature, and have better survival skills.

Can people acquire these qualities when they find themselves in a harsh environment?

Of course, there are people who spend their whole lives up in the north and those who get there at a certain point in their life. In any way, I strongly believe that the way you get there doesn't really matter. What matters is that the north is different. If people didn't help each other, they wouldn't be able to survive there. What I saw is that people who lack these qualities tend to leave the north pretty quickly.

How did you gather the material for your research?

Well, there are several ways in which social anthropologists gather their data. The main method is observation, which can be participant or non-participant. In the former case, the researcher lives in the community trying to become part of it to absorb its lifestyle and gain first-hand experience of how it works. If you master participant observation, it is as good as you can get as an anthropologist. There is also non-participant observation when a researcher doesn't attempt to blend into a community.

During the seven months of the expedition I tried to carry out participant observation or at least to observe the local community with maximum possible participation. I helped schoolteachers and employees of the tourist office. My observations enabled me to make generalizations. Of course, I interviewed local residents, which was another research method.

Did you mostly interact with non-native experts or long-time local residents?

The social structure of Barentsburg is rather complex. In fact, a whole section in my thesis is dedicated to this subject. There are no "permanent" residents there in the common sense of the term: to get there, you need to have an employment contract with Arcticugol. Most residents have contracts for one to three years, but some renew their contracts several times.

I tend not to use the term "rotation settlement" with respect to Barentsburg. It does not fit into the classical mold. In this case, we have something in between a rotation settlement and a single-industry town. People usually come to rotation settlements for several months, while their homes are on the mainland. They are not regarded as local residents in the tundra. People come to Barentsburg for several years, often bringing their families, and for that time the settlement becomes their home. In this sense, it is something unique for the Russian Arctic.

You have spent several months in Barentsburg. Would you like to stay there for a longer period, say three years?

I'm not sure if I want to stay there for three years, but I would surely like to live there for 12 months. It's hard to say, actually, because when I'm on a research trip, I always have a return ticket. Moving to another place for a long period is much harder.

Living in Barentsburg is hardly a joyful experience. Do you have any idea how to make it more diverse?

Having worked in a number of northern cities, I can say that in settlements of this kind options for passing time are limited. Those who come from big cities usually feel really bored in small settlements like this one. However, I can't say that there's nothing to do in Barentsburg: you can do sports and engage in cultural activities. Secondly, life in Barentsburg is about to change dramatically: high-speed Internet is finally available to everyone in the town (when I first came to Spitsbergen, the fact that you couldn't get online was striking).

I think that it would be good if Barentsburg residents strengthened human ties and felt a stronger attachment to the place where they live. There should be events or activities bringing together the whole community: educational courses, workshops, social events, tourism activities, etc. Of course, they also need to strengthen their ties with the archipelago's Norwegian community. Developing those ties would benefit both Russia and Norway despite political disagreements.

What do you think about Barentsburg's potential as a travel destination? It seems that Arcticugol intends to invest in promoting tourism.

I think that there is no alternative to developing Barentsburg's tourism potential. It is obvious that coal extraction has long been unprofitable, while Russia needs to maintain its presence on Spitsbergen (Svalbard) for political reasons. Norway has been scaling down coal production since the second half of the 20th century. It is now at its lowest. Instead, they've focused on developing tourism, as well as promoting research and educational activities. The travel industry in Longyearbyen generates millions of Norwegian kroner per year, and Spitsbergen had become a Mecca of Arctic tourism.

Russia is also moving in this direction. Since we are living in crisis times, government subsidies should be compensated, at least in part, and tourism could be an ideal solution: it remains relevant throughout the year and has little impact on the archipelago's environment. Arcticugol created a tourism unit in 2014, bringing to the archipelago the best practices of Russian tourism management. The prospects of Grumant Arctic tourism center are encouraging.

The fact that Russian tourists will finally get an opportunity to visit Spitsbergen is very important. This market used to be dominated by Norwegians, and Russian facilities were just another curiosity in the travel schedule. But now a Russian company is working just like Norwegian travel operators.

I visited Spitsbergen for the first time to take part in an academic conference, and had a chance to see Barentsburg and its Soviet heritage. This is how I fell in love with the place, which led to a thesis and more trips to the archipelago.