New East Digital Archive

Lost utopia: inside an abandoned Soviet mining town in the Norwegian Arctic

Finnish photographer Ville Lenkkeri travelled to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in search of utopia. Svalbard, which is situated in the Arctic Ocean, was once home to a Soviet mining community. In Soviet times the community operated on an entirely non-commercial basis, with free food and accommodation, like a microcosm free from capitalism. Since the collapse of communism, the coal-mining town has been largely abandoned, and as Lenkkeri found out, completely transformed. “My initial mental image of a place cut off from the rest of the world, and thus having a tightly knit community, crumbled quite quickly. This was no longer a place where people came to live and work due to force of circumstance, or where lonely people gravitated towards one another, forming a large family that makes it easier to cope with the long, dark winters or separation from loved ones”, he writes in his book The Place of No Roads. “The times of pioneering coal-mining enterprises and exclusive two-year work contracts were over for this town. People didn’t come up here any more because there was no work to be found elsewhere. They came to make good, fast money.” Although he failed to find what he was looking for, Lenkkeri fell under the spell of this distant northern land anyway. He captured perfectly the silence of the now-defunct municipal buildings, the serenity of the surrounding mountains and the dreamlike isolation of the remaining few who still live there. He proved that Svalbard was once a utopia, and, like any utopia, it ultimately failed to exist.