Bust of Lenin, sculpture proclaiming in red Cyrillic letters “our goal – communism”… Everything reminds us that the Russian presence in this village in the south-west of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is not new.

After having counted up to 1,500 souls at the end of the Cold War, Barentsburg saw its population decline after the implosion of the USSR.

But 370 people still cohabit today in this former Soviet showcase: two-thirds of them are Ukrainians, most from the Russian-speaking region of Donbass, and Russians for the rest.

“There are of course tensions and discussions on social networks such as (the community’s internal groups on) Facebook and Telegram, but there are no visible signs of conflict on the surface”, assures the Russian consul local, Sergey Guchtchin.

Protected by high gates and surveillance cameras, the richly decorated consulate with marble entrance, winter garden and custom-made wall tapestry, dominates the village.

Proof, perhaps, that anger is simmering all the same, 45 people have left Barentsburg “since the start of the operation”, admits Mr. Gouchtchine, using the terminology used by Moscow about the invasion of Ukraine launched on February 24.

Leaving, however, is not easy: Western sanctions imposed on Russian banks not only prevent minors from sending money to their families, but also complicate the purchase of plane tickets.

The only airport to leave the place is located in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, 35 kilometers away, where the Visa or Mastercard is almost essential.

– “Polarized” opinions –

At the entrance to Barentsburg, the coal-fired power plant spits out a black fumet, adding to the ambient greyness.

The international treaty that placed the Svalbard archipelago under Norwegian sovereignty in 1920 guarantees nationals of signatory states equal access to its natural resources.

It is in this capacity that the Russian state company Arktikugol Trust has been exploiting the Barentsburg coal seam, on the shores of the Isfjorden fjord, since 1932.

Between the pastel-coloured buildings, a few inhabitants hurry to escape the freezing cold that still reigns in this month of May.

Discretion is essential, especially when working for a state company.

Russia punishes with heavy fines or prison terms anyone found guilty of “discrediting” the military or spreading “false information” about it.

“Yes, opinions are absolutely polarized,” says Russian guide and historian Natalia Maksimichina. But, when we talk about politics, “we know where to stop”.

Tongues are loosened more easily in Longyearbyen which, for lack of a road, can only be reached by helicopter or on a snowmobile in winter and by boat in summer.

According to Julia Lytvynova, a 32-year-old Ukrainian seamstress who has lived in Barentsburg, Arktikugol Trust muzzles divergent views there.

As a result, “people are silent, work and live their lives as if nothing is happening,” she laments.

If she has not set foot in Barentsburg since the beginning of the war, she had a poster hung there by a friend on the gates of the Russian consulate.

A message on a blue and yellow background, the colors of Ukraine: “Russian military ship, fuck you!”, a reference to the legendary reply of Ukrainian border guards to the crew of a Russian cruiser who intimated to them to go.

The sign was taken down in less than five minutes, she says.

– “Tensions” – 

After 22 years spent in Svalbard, the -Norwegian- mayor of Longyearbyen, Arild Olsen, says he has “never seen such a level of discord” in his town where some 2,500 people of fifty different nationalities live, including a hundred of Russians and Ukrainians.

“There are tensions in the air,” he says.

In response to the invasion, most tour operators in Longyearbyen stopped taking tourists to Barentsburg, depriving Russia’s all-powerful state company of a windfall that has become important alongside coal.

Julia Lytvynova welcomes this boycott.

“Because this money supports Russia’s aggression,” she explains. By turning off this tap, “they are not helping to kill my Ukrainian people”.