PYRAMIDEN (AFP).- A man in a chapka hat and black coat, rifle slung over a shoulder, idles on the pontoon as a group of tourists sail in to visit Arctic oddity, Pyramiden, a Soviet-era ghost town.
Alexander Romanovskiy, better known as Sasha, is the guardian of the mining town abandoned in 1998 but still owned by a Russian firm, Arktikugol, though it is located on a fjord on Norway's Spitzberg island in the heart of the Svalbard -- islands halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole.
"The Svalbard is Norwegian but had a special status enabling other people to live or work there," tour guide Kristin Jaeger-Wexsahl tells the group of several dozen who sailed from the Norwegian town of Longyearbyen, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) away.
But as they step off to visit the former coal centre named after a pyramid-shaped mountain in the background, Sasha takes over.
Why is he armed? In case of polar bears, until recently the town's only inhabitants, he tells the group. "We haven't seen one since May but you never know," says the 33-year-old.
The Soviets bought the then-small coalmine in 1927 from Swedes, says the guardian whose hammer-and-sickle engraved chapka smacks of the now defunct Communist-era USSR.
"The first settlers came in 1936 but were evacuated by British forces at the beginning of the Second World War ... so mining really began in earnest in 1956," in the Cold War years when Nikita Khrushchev ran the Soviet empire, he added.
The rails used by the funicular to ferry miners up to the entrance on the mountain face, and by trailers to haul the coal down, are still visible, while the wharf remains littered with ageing piles of bricks, gravel and rusted metal parts.
Frozen in time
Sasha, working his fourth season here hundreds of kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, says the residents thrived in the 70s and 80s before the USSR began to unravel.
Some 1,200 Russians then lived in Pyramiden, which boasted several four-storey buildings, a hospital, schools, a football ground, and even a farm with cows and chickens.
Giving a glimpse of life as it typically was in the Soviet Union is a bust of Lenin placed outside the sports and cultural centre.
Black-and-white photos of football and hockey matches and chess tournaments hang in the entrance hall, taking visitors back in time. The 300-seat cinema almost looks as if it were used yesterday, as does the basketball court, still clearly outlined.
Upstairs a few children's books have been left in the library while in another smaller room a piano, drum-kit and accordion are accumulating dust.
But the 90s were killer years for Pyramiden with the Soviet Union starting to come apart at the seams, the mine becoming less profitable and Moscow unable at times to pay the wages.
In 1998, the company announced its closure and the city was abandoned by its residents.
Now in the harsh winter months when the sun fails to rise, even Sasha leaves.
But in March he happily returns. With more and more tourists visiting Spitzberg over the last few years, time-warped Pyramiden has become a popular curiosity in the Arctic Circle world of mountains, fjords and glaciers.
In 2007, one of the empty buildings was reconverted into a hotel featuring 24 rooms and lots of woodwork and vodka.
This summer eight Russians were employed at Pyramiden to look after the hotel, the electric generator and the coal-fired water system, as well as two guides.
Pavel Arkharov, the 26-year-old photography student who helps Sasha welcome the tourists when they disembark, says he doesn't find the deserted town depressing. "It's a very peaceful, harmonious place," he says.
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