Tensions over the Ukrainian war have deepened the chill near the North Pole

BARENTSBURG, Norway – At first glance, Sergey Gushchin, 50, may not be the man who would have been the main Russian consul in the world’s northern diplomatic mission: a horse-tail, bluejeans, a punk band bassist.

However, in a Norwegian archipelago located between Svalbard, mainland Norway and the North Pole, it has long been a point of pride to separate people from governments. Russians, Ukrainians, and Norwegians have lived side by side for decades in this isolated, extreme desert known for polar bears and its rapidly warming climate, not divisive policies.

There is a saying in the High Arctic that if your snowmobile breaks down, no one will ask for your nationality before you help fix it. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resonated at the top of the world, threatening long-standing personal and professional relationships, cultural interactions, and even friendly sports competitions.

The Svalbard Tourism Commission has called for a boycott of Russian state-owned coal mining colonies in Barentsburg. Mr Gushchin, who has so far been considered an inclusive and moderating figure, has surprised and angered many with his comments on the Russian invasion and accused the Norwegian news media of mostly giving “fake news”.

Timofey Rogozhin, Russia’s former chief tourist officer in Barentsburg, left his job last year and now spends a lot of time in the Telegram, dealing with Russian propaganda about the invasion. Calling himself a dissident, the atrocities committed in the Ukrainian villages were “not mistakes, but crimes.”

“Svalbard is a place where people from different countries have been able to settle peacefully,” said Elizabeth Bourne, an American director of the Spitsbergen Artists Center in Longyearbyen, Norway’s main transportation, trade, research and university hub in Svalbard. “This situation is in danger of ending. I think that would be a tragedy. ”

Longyearbyen is located 30 kilometers northeast of Barentsburg and is home to about 2,500 people from 50 nations. From the Soviet era to cultural exchanges between Barentsburg and Longyearbyen, and sports exchanges with games like chess and basketball.

Their duration is even more pronounced in the absence of roads between towns. The trip must be made by snowmobile, boat or helicopter.

“People in Longyearb may not like to see me, but they like to see people in Barentsburg,” Mr. Gushchin said.

A treaty of 1920 gave Norway sovereignty over Svalbard. But other signatories to the treaty, including the Soviet Union / Russia, have had equal rights to trade activities such as mining, scientific research, and tourism.

The Russian consulate in Barentsburg overlooks the Green Fjord and a sort of museum outside the Soviet past: a bust of Lenin, a Cyrillic poster proclaiming “Communism is our goal,” renovated Stalinist apartment blocks, and burning queens throwing coal in its power. planting.

Once upon a time, more than 1,000 people lived here. There are now only about 370 of them, two-thirds of whom are Ukrainians, Gushkin said. Most of the miners are from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has close ties to Russia. This is an area where fighting broke out between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in 2014. Others in the region work in tourism and other services.

Many Russians and Ukrainians approached by a New York Times journalist on Wednesday declined to discuss the policy. But Russian travel guide Natalia Maksimishina criticized Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, referring to war crimes committed by Russian forces and saying, “I look forward to seeing you in The Hague next.”

Barentsburg is basically managed by Trust Arktikugol, a Russian state-owned mining company. The boycott called by the Svalbard Tourist Board recommends that you do not spend time at the town hotel, the Red Bear bar and the brewery, restaurants or souvenir shop.

Barentsburg appeared to be mostly empty on Wednesday, except for tourists arriving in a small boat. Before the pandemic, tourism brought in more money than coal, Mr Gushchin said. Now, he added, the Arctic Trust is losing “big money” every week. Many of the tourists who visit bring their own food and leave quickly, he said.

Critics of the boycott say more harm is done to the Russian government than most of the people of Barentsburg, most of them Ukrainians. Credit cards issued by Russian banks do not work in the Norwegian financial system amid international sanctions. It is difficult to arrange flights.

At a clear moment in an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Gushchin lamented the departure of his band’s solo guitarist. “When you only have a bass player and a drummer, it’s more like punk, not like rock,” he said.

At a more serious moment, Mr. Gushchin placed the trunks in the reception area of ​​the consulate, but did not try to defrost the sudden chill among many in Svalbard.

He maintained his statements in English in early April in Nettavis, the Norwegian online newspaper. At the store, he said that the buildings in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol were not destroyed by Russian projectiles, but by a Nazi-sympathetic Ukrainian battalion. And a pregnant woman who was photographed outside a besieged hospital was not a patient.

Asked if Nettavisen felt compelled to make such remarks in his official position, Mr Gushchin said they also reflected his views. Otherwise, he said he would have to resign immediately. On Wednesday, Mr Gushchin said: “I saw that it really touched the feelings of many Norwegians, but I told them what I think.”

His remarks to Nettavis were astonishing to many, as they were 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 Longyearb, a parish church in Norway. Siv Limstrand, a Lutheran pastor of the Svalbard church, said earlier that he believed Mr Gushchin was “very friendly, friendly, non-formal, spreading communication and cooperation”.

“People are disappointed, but he’s a state official,” Ms. Limstrand said. “We can’t expect anything else from him. But a little more diplomacy, I think, could be available. “

Arriving in Barentsburg in November 2018, Mr. Gushchin is waiting for his successor, saying that he and his wife are eager to return to Moscow to see their 22-year-old daughter and 82-year-old mother. Perhaps many who know him in Svalbard say so in a private way, which is why he does not dare to oppose Mr. Putin.

Clearly, Mr. Gushchin is sensitive to optics. On Wednesday, he refused to be photographed standing next to a white bear with a taxidermy at the consulate, saying it would indicate a misleading symbol of the Russian attack.

He said he would not attend a cultural exchange in Longyearbyen on May 21, “so as not to provoke anyone.”

“There are a lot of Russian and Ukrainian compatriots and Norwegians will not be very happy if I take part,” Mr Gushchin said.

When he took over the publication in Svalbard, Mr Gushchin said he considered it a “dream spear”, which had been “a great adventure”. But he also said he was ready to return to Russia.

With a sigh, then laughing, he said he hoped the invasion of Ukraine would not become “something more ugly and global.” If World War III breaks out, “and we’re stuck here,” he said, “it’s going to be hard to get home.”

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