All news

Soviet movies on Spitsbergen. How Siberian cameraman reopened northernmost cinema

One of the extreme tourists visiting the settlement came forward with a plan to reopen the local cinema that stood idle since 1991, TASS learnt from Stanislav Shubert, a documentary cameraman and director

MOSCOW, August 10. /TASS/. Stanislav Shubert is a documentary cameraman and director. In the past he traveled a lot: to the Far East, the Russian south and, of course, to Siberia. Until a year ago, he had never been to the North, though he heard stories, which many colleagues shared with enthusiasm about the Arctic.

Stanislav was late for the meeting with us, and apologized saying he could barely get used to living in a big city. In the Earth’s northernmost civil settlement, Pyramiden (pyramid), life is different. Even if you wanted, you would not be late: it takes just ten minutes to cross the settlement.

Soviet heritage

The mining settlement on West Spitsbergen Island is the Earth’s northernmost inhabited locality. The nearest populated area is Norway’s Longyearbyen, which is 50km away. Russia’s Barentsburg is 120km away, and the distance to the North Pole is 1,200km. The settlement is next to a coal mine, overlooking the huge Nordenskiold glacier.

In the early 20th century, Sweden founded the settlement near the mine, and in the middle of the 20th century Russia bought it. Back in the Soviet times, the small settlement was thriving. Stanislav told us that back then the population jumped to 1,000 and planes and helicopters made flights a few times a month and vessels arrived very often. The settlement had a heat power plant, a culture club and even a sports complex with a swimming pool with sea water.

"People here lived like anywhere else: they grew vegetables in greenhouses, brought cattle and went to the cinema regularly," he said. "Science was strong, as this place is just a dream for scientists. In Pyramiden alone the population was bigger than in all Norwegian settlements combined."

However, in 1998, the mine was closed, and the settlement came to a standstill. People fled, leaving the infrastructure behind.

"The settlement repeated the fate of Prypyat (a town near Chernobyl), turning into an abandoned open-air museum, and the Soviet heritage, once so remarkable, is now in a rather poor, sorrowful condition," Stanislav regretted.

Tourist attraction

The nature has remained unaffected. On Spitsbergen, you feel like on a different planet: beautiful and bright stars, the northern lights and unusually bright sun due to the thin ozone layer.

"No trees, only ice and rocks. As if you see a picture, not real nature. The air is so clear that the glacier seems very close, although it is ten kilometers away," Stanislav admired.

Today’s population of Pyramiden is about 50 people - mostly children and grandchildren of the miners, who worked there decades ago. The only business is tourism. Stanislav told us that a few thousand extreme travelers visited the settlement in 2019. They were mostly Europeans. Getting to Spitsbergen is possible only from Norway, thus traveling there is not so easy for Russians.

"Tourists are taken up the mountains, they take sea tours, see the glaciers and icebergs," Stanislav said, adding that the settlement still has a restaurant and a hotel, where a few rooms are designed in the Soviet style.

Give it another chance

One of the extreme tourists visiting the settlement, Alexander, who had graduated from the same university as Stanislav in Novosibirsk, was the initiator of a plan to reopen the local cinema. He spoke to local authorities, and was assured the local budget would support the plan.

Alexander lives in Moscow, works there, and thus he could not take up the project. Knowing that Stanislav is fond of movies, he told him about the plan.

The movie director at that time did not have any big plans and agreed to spend the polar summer - from May to November - on Spitsbergen.

"I can’t say I was welcomed there immediately. They thought: 'this guy from Novosibirsk is gonna tell us stories that we shall all see movies here'," Stanislav remembers with warmth. "No wonder. People live there in a secluded way, all the 50 people know each other, like on a sub."

Place of power and freedom

Stanislav got used to Spitsbergen’s severe climate rather quickly. "I’ve seen bigger frosts in Siberia," he laughed.

A problem was to get used to the polar day. The locals have their own rhythm, and when the cinema was reopened, some of them came asking to delay films to late at night.

Once he saw a polar bear wandering the settlement but, as Stanislav explained, these beasts do not attack people. "They [people] must be not nourishing enough," he laughed.

The settlement has a small shop. Food products arrive there every few weeks. The goods are limited, and thus on delivery days all the inhabitants seem to be lining up.

"This explains the joy from getting a chocolate bar," Stanislav said. "In cities, it’s no big deal to buy one. But it won’t make you happy."

What also struck him in Pyramiden was the atmosphere of mutual support. The settlement does not have any doctors or firefighters or the police. People rely only on themselves: if you run out of food, neighbors will give you some. They will help if you need to have something repaired or made. Always eager to help, Stanislav integrated very quickly having repaired his neighbor’s walkie-talkie shortly upon arrival.

He says Pyramiden is a place of force and freedom. Until last summer, there was neither mobile communication nor the Internet nor television. The Internet became available in summer, though the traffic per every user is little.

You cannot find many leisure facilities in Pyramiden. Until recently, the locals came to a big sports hall to play football and to compete with foreign teams from neighboring settlements and research stations, Stanislav said.

Doomsday’s storage

Nowadays, the locals have a new attraction - the cinema. In the Soviet time, Pyramiden had a big cinema for 400 seats. The hall, as well as the storage of more than 650 movies, is in good condition. Another 1,500 movies have been presented by neighboring Barentsburg.

"In the past, the storage used to be updated, but the last movies there date back to 1991 - that must be the time the settlement fell into desolation. We call this library the Doomsday’s storage. Norway has storage of seeds, which mankind may use in case of post-Apocalypse, and we have movies," Stanislav said with a smile.

The films have been idle for a long time. Freezing temperatures and dry air however have let many films preserve exceptionally well.

The situation with equipment was more complicated. Stanislav realized from the very start that it would be impossible to implement the project in no time, and even began doubting it was doable at all. All the equipment was stolen, and the cinema hall needed major overhaul.

Later some equipment was found in Barentsburg. As for audio equipment, Stanislav had to wait for about a month for it to arrive from Murmansk. He used that time to learn how to operate the Soviet-time projection equipment.

"Well, I am a cameraman, but I haven’t worked with that equipment, though the Soviet-made devices were user-friendly," Stanislav said, adding with a smile "it must have been made to survive a nuclear war or the Apocalypse."

The force of movies

The locals had attempted a renovation of the cinema hall, but the process got off the ground only when Stanislav came there.

"It seems elementary: a white cloth, a projector and here you are. But there are so many aspects to address: the sound, the light, the correct lensing."

The cinema hall’s second life began on June 22, 2019 - everyone came to see Sergei Bondarchuk’s They Fought for Their Country (a war drama).

Since then, movies were on twice a week.

They "rolled the spool" for foreign tourists too - usually short films, with a translator working in the hall. Later on, Stanislav used another projector from Barentsburg to show subtitles, found on the Internet.

Movie on ice

It was painful to leave Pyramiden: Stanislav got used to the people and to life on Spitsbergen. On the other hand, staying in a small settlement, practically without conveniences, was not simple either.

"It was a great disappointment - the movie is over. But the hall is not heated: the boiler is not sufficient, and the power plant is not working at all. Only rooms with projectors can be heated," Stanislav said.

Nobody will watch movies in winter: who will maintain the communications in frosts, in the polar night, when the bay is covered with ice and tourists do not come? The locals normally spend winters in Barentsburg or at warm resorts, especially Egypt.

Stanislav hoped to return to the island in summer 2020, but it was on lockdown till mid-July due to the pandemic. And yet, movies are on. Stanislav had trained Marina Petrukhina, dubbed a Polar Girl.

Stanislav has a dream - to show a movie right on the Nordenskiold glacier.

"We shall install the projector on a boat, and the audience could be ashore or on another vessel. Just imagine - seeing Titanic on the glacier from a ship - where else could this be possible?" he exclaimed. The plan is still due.