Лонгйир: здесь совсем не скучно, особенно с винтовкой на плече

Longyearbyen: You’ll never be bored here, especially if you’ve got a rifle on your shoulder

What is the best place for studying the impact of humans on Arctic nature, if not in the Arctic itself? The Svalbard (Spitsbergen) Archipelago is best suited for this purpose; and this is why Alisa Ilinskaya, a Lomonosov Moscow State University graduate, has taken up an MA program at University Center in Svalbard (UNIS). In this Arctic.ru interview, she explains the difference between life in Longyearbyen and Moscow, why one should always carry a rifle outdoors and even tells us where the local knitting club meets.

Alisa, how did you decide to leave Moscow and enroll at a university in Svalbard?

In 2018, I completed a BA program in Oceanology at Moscow State University's Faculty of Geography. I am spending the current semester in Svalbard; I study at UNIS and also select samples for my graduation paper with the support of the Svalbard Science Forum (SSF). The first time that I came here was in the summer of 2017. This place fascinated me completely, and I promised myself that I would come back and stay here a bit longer. I believe that I was extremely lucky to spend an entire semester here and to watch the polar night gradually recede and turn into a polar day.

I celebrated New Year in Moscow and flew to Longyearbyen in early January. I will go home in early June; therefore most of my journey here is over.

Could you say a few words about UNIS, please? What is the academic process like there?  

UNIS is a local education institution offering university-level courses. This is not an independent university, and it is impossible to earn a university degree here. But you can come here and study various subjects, part of the Center's curriculum, provided that your university is involved in the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). All subjects aim to study the Arctic, allowing students to use their respective skills and knowledge, including those in the area of biology, geology, any other natural sciences or applied spheres, for practical purposes.

I study environmental chemistry in Norway. The subject is called ecological chemistry in Russian; not everyone approves this translation, but the gist of this subject is more or less clear. Under my MA program, we study natural chemical processes and anthropogenic impact on the environment.

I am currently studying three subjects during my semester at UNIS. All of them are linked with anthropogenic pollution and its impact on the Arctic ecosystem. The Arctic is the best place for studying this aspect. I sit in a lecture-room, and the objects of my studies are located outside.  

How long does the MA program last?

My program lasts two years. UNIS offers consecutive six-week MA subjects, on average. One can take up to three consecutive subjects, the way I do, or stay on and study in the summer. Fieldwork, one of the most important stages, involves students using their new knowledge in real life. This stage can last one day or a week, depending on a subject's specifics, financing and weather conditions. Snowmobiles are one of the most popular vehicles here, but they impact the environment. Most often, they are the only convenient option because students have to cover long distances quickly.<.p>

©Alisa Ilyinskaya

Before studies commence, UNIS conducts a mandatory safety and survival course, which is an indispensable in severe Arctic conditions. I completed this seven-day course in January, learning how to drive a snowmobile and to fire a rifle.

Life in Longyearbyen differs completely from that in Moscow. What can you say about local residents?

Of course, Longyearbyen which has a population of 2,000-3,000 is quite different from Moscow. They say that, according to the 2008 census, the number of registered snowmobiles exceeds its population; but, maybe, this data is no longer pertinent.

Unlike tourists, local residents are allowed to travel in most areas of the archipelago. Before leaving town, one must grab a rifle, and this is what differentiates local residents from newcomers. Naturally, I was shocked at first, but I also had a chance to carry a rifle some time later.

Most town dwellers are Norwegians, but there are also some Thai nationals here. The town has a Thai merchandise store and a Thai massage parlor.

What do the locals do most of the time?

As I understand, coal mines have always served as the main employers here. The situation is now changing gradually due to a greater influx of tourists. Therefore more and more locals sign up with the service sector, working as guides, waiters and hotel employees.

How do local people spend their free time? Is life dull there?

It is hardly dull here, and people know how to keep themselves occupied. They engage in outdoor sports any time of the year, even during polar nights. By the way, I like hiking at night with a head-mounted flashlight.

©Alisa Ilyinskaya

People also use all sorts of skis, ride dog sleds, snowmobiles and boats, depending on the season. There is also a sports center with a gym, a swimming pool and a climbing wall, as well as numerous clubs and hobby groups. Less active entertainment includes a cinema, a club with a dance floor, bars, several museums and even a knitting club whose members meet at 6 pm at a local café.  

Did you see any polar bears?

Unfortunately or happily, no. Of course, it would be nice to admire the King of the Arctic, but mutual encounters also spell mutual risks. Despite strict local legislation that bans the killing of polar bears, especially premeditated killing, human lives are a top priority here. We are told before each fieldwork project that, if we see a polar bear, all works in that area will be stopped, and we will have to leave the vicinity. Each group has a gun-toting safety expert who will watch over them during the works.

If a polar bear which is a predator ventures too close or acts in a threatening manner, it is likely to get killed. Therefore I don't want to create a situation when a living creature, including humans or bears, might be hurt.

Have you been to Barentsburg? In what way does it differ from Longyearbyen?

I visited Barentsburg twice, and I will soon spend a week there. It is much smaller than Longyearbyen. The town has many wooden buildings mixed with new facilities, plus a bust of Lenin and the slogan Our Goal is Communism. I liked Barentsburg because it is cozy and has a temper of its own. And, of course, it is nice talking to the locals in Russian. For some reason, they are always surprised but start smiling right away. All my foreign friends want to share their impressions of the town with me. Some like it, but others remain unimpressed. However, everyone notices its unique nature.  Longyearbyen is more universal and cosmopolitan, so to say.

©Alisa Ilyinskaya

Local residents joke that one can tell both towns from each other by the color of the smoke billowing from their chimneys. Longyearbyen is famous for its white smoke, and Barentsburg boasts black smoke.

What advice can you offer to tourists wishing to visit Svalbard? And what should they avoid doing?

Everything depends on the season, one's desires and financial means. Safety comes first, and I don't advise newcomers to take their chances. It is absolutely normal, especially if they have never been in such situations before. Experienced guides are available to take them anywhere they want. But even these professionals realize that it is better to stay home in case of foul weather, even if people want to engage in fun and games. Therefore one should act simple and be prepared that even the most finely drawn plans might change at the last moment.

Unfortunately, local pollution levels tend to increase because many tourists visit Svalbard each year. It is easy to explain the archipelago's popularity, but the more people come here the more carefully we need to treat this place. It is possible to ride snowmobiles here in winter. One can also sail boats in summer and go for a walk all year round. And I urge you not to shy away from hiking and skiing. This will benefit you and this place more than anything else. There are many mountains, hills and glaciers here. It is possible to climb them on foot using the necessary equipment and with the help of seasoned guides. And one can always ride from hilltops in sleds.

Alisa also keeps a blog in Instagram