Amphibious Trilogies

Barentsburg insulated

DAY 9 on the Arctic Floating University Expedition
Sunday 30 June 2019
turbulence, visas, the King on a castle

It’s 06.25 in vessel time, 08.25 in Barentsburg. We are waiting with much anticipation for the first landing to begin. Brynjar is teaching me how to make panoramic photos on my phone. Behind us is the mountains of the Nothern Isfjorden National Park.

The main purpose of the trip is to submit new visa applications for reentry to Arkhangelsk to the Russian consulate, the northernmost diplomatic mission on the planet. An island of sorts. We will come back to Barentsburg later to collect our passports and visas, the last landing site before we set off to Arkhangelsk.

Turbulence. The sea is choppy, the winds are high. A shoddy plastic sheet is bluffing as the crew launches the first RIB into the sea. As there are only two RIBs to take the fifty seven participants to the shore, we are divided up in groups. Brynar and I are on the second group of six. I am appalled by the standard of the safety jackets, broken zips and clasps. Most of them are sized XL. I made a racket when a crew member insisted that I put on a jacket, one which surely would drown me if I fell into the sea. I seemed to be the only one to be concerned about safety on sea.

10.25 (Norwegian time) 08.25 hrs (vessel time): We land on Barentsburg as a cruise boat passes by. Walking up the steep steps from the harbour we pass by run down, rickety small wooden houses, a tiny octagonal wooden orthodox church, the old hotel and consular building, the sports complex (it was closed) the Lenin statue, and more.

What really catches my attention is the communal apartment blocks built after WWII, so surreal lying in the landscape. One of them is still home to some 350 inhabitants, mostly Russian and Ukrainian coal miners (some with their families) and a general shop. All food and other consumer items in Barentsburg are imported from Russia. Only Russian rubles are accepted. All phones have a Norwegian code. On the mountain side is a patch of melting ice. A remnant of ice ages gone by. An ancient amphibious creature from the deep.

11.00 hrs (Norwegian time) we entered the consular building. The interior design is quite unexpected. Through the entrance hall sporting a water feature, green plants surrounding, we walk up the staircase to the reception hall. The Consul General of the Russian Federation, Sergey Gushchin, invites us in. He is quite short and jolly, and with black suit and a ponytail of dark curly hair he looks like a rock star attending The Grammys. He is standing in the front of a large and intricate tapestry the dons the curved wall. You might recognise a portrait of Fridtjof Nansen, immortalised, woven into the canvas.

We gather around as he makes a part formal and informal speech, inviting us to ask questions. He tells us that he was appointed to the eight-year position in January 2019. I ask him if he had applied for the job. He says, no, it was not his decision. I ask him if he get’s lonely in this insulated community. In his daily life he is mainly surrounded by security guards and domestic workers, without even a secretary to assist him with official tasks. He misses his wife and children. They feel that Barentsburg is too isolated from the world. He hopes that they will have a change of heart and come and live with him in the future. That would make him happy.

While we await the processing of the visa application we are welcome to explore his marbled and mysterious domain. There are several paintings on the walls, mostly Russia romantic landscapes. Most of all I like the light fittings hanging on deep blue ceilings. The arctic pole. Here in Barentsburg I think about the consular building, a castle, a gated island on an island. I am thinking about a passage by Samuel Beckett;

I like to think I occupy the centre, but nothing is less certain. In a sense I would be better off at the circumference, since my eyes are always fixed in the same direction. But I am certainly not at the circumference.
The Unnamable, Beckett 1953

Students take the liberty to play on the piano. Sitting with Sergey on lush sofas in a lounge area, my visa application is signed. Unlike all others coming from Europe who don’t have to pay a fee, I, a citizen of UK, must pay NOK 1360. I hand over two one-thousand Norwegian banknotes and receive the change in Norwegian currency. It all seems absurd.

After a guided tour, a stop in the canteen and bar, a book shop and a visit to the museum (another story) we head homewards to Prof. M. On the way is a solitary reindeer, an indigenous one, munching on grass that has been planted, superficially, on Barentsburg. Waiting for the RIB I look back on the settlement and the dilapidated Norwegian post office that had greeted us when we landed.

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