BARENTSBURG, Norway — At first glance, Sergey Gushchin, 50, may not be the man you’d expect to be the Russian Consul General on the world’s northernmost diplomatic mission: ponytail, jeans, bassist in a punk band.
But on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the Arctic, distinguishing people from governments has long been a point of pride. Russians, Ukrainians and Norwegians have lived side by side for decades in this isolated and extreme wilderness best known for polar bears and a rapidly warming climate, not divisive politics.
There’s a saying in the high Arctic that if your snowmobile breaks, no one asks for your nationality until you help fix it. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has resonated at the top of the world, threatening long-lasting personal and professional relationships, cultural interactions and even friendly sports rivalries.
The Svalbard Tourist Office has called for a boycott of Russian state-owned enterprises in the Barentsburg coal mining settlement. Mr Gushchin, hitherto regarded as an all-embracing moderate figure, has surprised and angered many with comments about the Russian invasion and an accusation that Norwegian news media mainly carry “fake news”.
Timofey Rogozhin, the former top Russian tourist official in Barentsburg who left his job last year, now spends a lot of time on Telegram to counter Russian propaganda about the invasion. He calls himself a dissident and describes the atrocities committed in Ukrainian cities as “not mistakes but crimes”.
“Svalbard is a place where people from all different countries can get along peacefully,” said Elizabeth Bourne, an American who is director of the Spitsbergen Artists Center in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s primarily Norwegian transport, trade, research and university center. . “This situation threatens to put an end to that. I think that would be a tragedy.”
Longyearbyen is located about 30 miles northeast of Barentsburg and is inhabited by approximately 2,500 residents from 50 countries. Since the Soviet era, there have been cultural exchanges with song and dance and sports exchanges with games such as chess and basketball between Barentsburg and Longyearbyen.
Their longevity is made even more remarkable by the lack of a road between the cities. You must travel by snowmobile, boat or helicopter.
“Maybe the people of Longyearbyen don’t want to see me, but they still like to see people of Barentsburg,” said Mr. Gushchin.
A 1920 treaty gave Norway sovereignty over Spitsbergen. But other signatory countries, including the Soviet Union/Russia, have been given equal rights to conduct commercial activities such as mining, scientific research and tourism.
The Russian consulate in Barentsburg overlooks the Green Fjord and a sort of open-air museum of Soviet past: a bust of Lenin, a Cyrillic sign saying “Communism is our goal,” refurbished Stalinist apartment buildings and chimneys burping sulphurous coals at the local power plant.
More than 1,000 people once lived here. Now there are only about 370, two-thirds of them Ukrainian, Gushchin said. Most of the miners come from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has close ties to Russia. It is the area where fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists began in 2014. Others from the region work in tourism and other service jobs.
A number of Russians and Ukrainians approached by a DailyExpertNews reporter on Wednesday declined to discuss politics. But Natalia Maksimishina, a Russian tour guide, criticized Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, referring to possible war crimes committed by Russian troops, saying: “I hope to see him next time in The Hague.”
Barentsburg is mainly managed by Trust Arktikugol, a Russian state mining company. The boycott called for by the Svalbard tourist board recommends not spending money on the city’s hotel, Red Bear pub and brewery, restaurants or gift shops.
Barentsburg appeared largely empty on Wednesday, save for clumps of tourists arriving on a small ship. Before the pandemic, tourism brought in more money than coal, Gushchin said. Now, he added, Trust Arktikugol is losing “big money” every week. Many tourists who visit bring their own food and leave quickly, he said.
Critics of the boycott say it hurts the Russian government less than the locals in Barentsburg, most of them Ukrainian. Credit cards issued by Russian banks are not working in the Norwegian financial system amid international sanctions. Flights are difficult to schedule.
In a light moment during an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Gushchin that his band’s lead guitarist had moved. “If you only have a bassist and a drummer, it’s more like punk, not rock,” he said.
On a more serious note, Mr. Gushchin laid logs on a fire in the consulate reception area, but made no attempt to thaw the sudden chill between him and many on Spitsbergen.
He stuck to the debunked comments he made in English to Nettavisen, a Norwegian online newspaper, in early April. He told the outlet that buildings in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol had not been destroyed by Russian projectiles, but by a Ukrainian battalion with Nazi sympathies. And that a pregnant woman photographed outside a besieged hospital was not a patient.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
A blow to the Russian troops. The flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet suffered catastrophic damage that forced the crew to abandon it. Russia said a fire caused the damage, although Ukraine claimed to have hit the ship with missiles. The ship then sank while being towed to port.
When asked by Nettavisen whether he felt obliged to make such comments in his official capacity, Mr Gushchin said they also reflected his views. Otherwise, he said, he would have to resign from his position immediately. On Wednesday, Mr Gushchin said: “I saw it really affected a lot of Norwegians, but I told them what I think.”
His comments to Nettavisen were shocking to many, who found them in stark contrast to Mr. Gushchin’s position as a subdeacon in the Russian Orthodox Church. Last August, he helped conduct the liturgy at Svalbard Church in Longyearbyen, a parish of the Norwegian Church. Siv Limstrand, the Lutheran pastor of Svalbard Church, said she had previously regarded Mr Gushchin as “very friendly, easy going, non-formal, expanding communication and cooperation”.
“People get disappointed, but he’s a state official,” Ms Limstrand said. “We can’t really expect anything else from him. But I think a little more diplomacy could have been within reach.”
After arriving in Barentsburg in November 2018, Mr. Gushchin is waiting for his successor. He and his wife are eager to return to Moscow to see their 22-year-old daughter and his 82-year-old mother. Perhaps many who know him in Spitsbergen privately say that that is why he does not dare to contradict Mr Putin.
Obviously, Mr. Gushchin is sensitive to optics. On Wednesday, he refused to be photographed standing next to a stuffed polar bear in the consulate, saying it would be a misleading symbol of Russian aggression.
He also said he would not attend a planned cultural exchange in Longyearbyen on May 21 in order to “provoke no one”.
“There are many Russian and Ukrainian compatriots as well as Norwegians who will not be very happy if I join,” said Mr Gushchin.
When he took the vacancy on Spitsbergen, Mr. Gushchin, he considered it a ‘dream job’, a job that was ‘a great adventure’. But he also said he is ready to return to Russia.
With a sigh, then a laugh, he said he hoped the invasion of Ukraine would not become “something uglier and more global”. When World War III breaks out “and we’re stuck here,” he said with gallows humor, “it will be hard to go home.”