14 March 2017

Days and Nights in the Russian Arctic

14 March 2017 - Written by Laurence Cornet

In his latest self-published book, Leo Delafontaine depicts the brutality of polar life in the Russian enclaves of the Norwegian Arctic - one that is both isolating and fascinating.

© Leo Delafontaine, from the series Arktikugol

"In 1920, the Spitsbergen Treaty recognised the sovereignty of Norway over the Arctic under the following conditions: that it remain entirely demilitarised, exempt from taxation, environmentally intact, and open to business development from the citizens of all signatory countries." The first sentence of Leo Delafontaine's Arktikugol explains the context of the somewhat surreal photographs that precede.

The four Russian villages he visited in the Svalbard seem frozen in time and ice. Irreducible buildings from the Soviet era feature their decrepit facades, statues of Lenine pose in the middle of desolate public squares, and most gazes express a restrained boredom. Money doesn't flow, replaced instead with ration cards; alcohol is rationed; tourism is scarce and carefully disjointed from the workers' daily life. Once a source of pride, working in those enclaves took the accents of punishment. "Pay checks are so low that they are only worth the pain for workers from Donetsk, Ukraine. I was shocked to see how extremely divided the society is. You have a Russian Consul, then a Ukrainian who has an expertise, then Ouzbek and Tadjik who have precarious jobs and are treated with great contempt", he explains.

© Leo Delafontaine, from the series Arktikugol

Photos and texts depict the brutality of polar life - one that is both isolating and fascinating. In a series of testimonies from workers who spent various periods of time working in the archipelago, Serguei describes this forced isolation as a head-to-head with himself in which he slowly turns crazy. Remoteness from all forms of life, people from there say, is such that the first thing you do upon arrival to the continent is hug a tree.

Yuri is among the few who sees the opportunity to live in such extreme conditions as lucky: "Twice in my life I have experienced total silence. It's rather extraordinary. I feel fortunate. […] There was no sound at all, and I felt as though I were in another dimension, as if civilisation had fallen away", he describes.

© Leo Delafontaine, from the series Arktikugol

"Boredom or not, the system is such that if you leave before the end of your contract you lose your bonus and you have to pay for your trip back, so most people just grin and bear it", Delafontaine comments. And this, for the sake of geopolitical interest as Russia wants to ensure its presence in the strategic Arctic. "One of the conditions to stay on location is to be autonomous in terms of energy. So, even though the mine has not been rentable for years, they keep mining. Only tourism, which they have started to develop, brings in money." Those are benefits that permanent residents don’t get to enjoy though. As Natalia - a miner who performs as a Russian doll at night at the Barentsburg concert hall - puts it, "you are not supposed to talk to tourists".


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Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

3 minutes