🇷🇺 Russia wants you to rent one of its Svalbard flats

February 23, 2023

Dreaming of living in the Arctic? The Russian state-owned enterprise that operates its settlement in Svalbard has an offer for you

Home sweet Svalbard. The sign reads “Our goal is communism” (📸: Thomas Nielsen / Barents Obsever)

By Thomas Nielsen, Barents Observer

THE PROMOTION OFFER from Arktikugol, the Russian state-owned enterprise that operates its Barentsburg settlement in Svalbard, is as straightforward as it apparently is alluring: “We invite you to move to Barentsburg.”

“We receive requests daily,” Daria Iakoleva told the Barents Observer. She works with Grumant, the travel subsidiary of Trust Arktikugol.

Moscow wants to keep Barentsburg as its stronghold in Svalbard, the Norwegian Arctic archipelago where other signatory countries to the unique treaty have commercial and residence rights.

Traditional coal mining is no longer seen as sustainable to maintain the population, which has seen a sharp decline in recent years.

Europe’s ban on Russian coal hit Barentsburg hard, as the United Kingdom bought most of what it produced, and alternative markets in Asia bring added transport costs.

Attempts to boost explorer tourism have partly failed as Longyearbyen-based Visit Svalbard last autumn blacklisted Grumant in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine. With tourism in slow-motion and a declining population, flats and rooms stand empty.

Come for the housing; stay for the vokda: Barentsburg and Russia’s Pyramiden settlement each have their own brands (📸: Thomas Nielsen / Barents Obsever)

This February, the advert inviting people from around the globe to move north began appearing on-line.

“Friends! We have great news for everyone who has always dreamed of living in the Arctic. If you work remotely, are creative, and are ready for a new experience, we invite you … to move to Barentsburg,” it states.

According to Ms Iakovleva, new residents can choose between either a room or a fully equipped flat. “We plan to expand the range in the nearest future,” she says.

Although Svalbard is part of Norway, foreigners do not need a visa or work and residence permits from Norwegian authorities to travel there. That said, someone from outside the Schengen-area must have a visa to travel to Svalbard, as the only flights are from Tromsø and Oslo on the mainland.

Sysselmesteren, Svalbard’s Norwegian administrator, does have the right to deny entry to anyone deemed unable to support themselves financially, and as most housing is employer-owned, it can be hard to stay for an extended period if you do not have a job.

Russia’s offer, however, makes that a lot easier. Ms Iakoleva quotes rates for twin rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens are available of 4,200 kroner (€385) per month. A two-room flat can be rented for 6,000 kroner per month. “Then you get a view of the bay,” she says.

In comparison, Airbnb rentals in Longyearbyen are at least ten times more expensive — and that’s if you can find something for rent for an extended period.

According to Svalbardposten, the Longyearbyen-based local news outlet that was the first to report about the rental options in Barentsburg, Longyearbyen is seriously short of housing, both for seasonal workers and permanent residents.

According to Ms Iakoleva, most requests for long-term renting “come from Russian-speaking people”.

Andreas Østhagen, a senior researcher with the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, a Norwegian think-tank, reckons that, for Russia, maintaining a presence on Svalbard is primarily  a strategic consideration.

No place for Nimbys (📸: Thomas Nielsen / Barents Obsever)

Svalbard’s position in the Barents Sea and its proximity to the Northern Fleet are aspects that have motivated Russia, and the Soviet Union before that, to have presence there,” Mr Østhagen explains.

He elaborates: “Having a settlement on Svalbard is part of the Russian narrative that they hold a special position when it comes to the archipelago. Although there might be individuals seeking to make a profit, the Russian state does not subsidise Arktikugol for that purpose. Still, we have seen for decades that Moscow is interested in finding new ways of maintaining a settlement without relying on relatively costly and ineffective coal mining.”

There are about 400 residents in Barentsburg, mostly Russians and Ukrainians. The town is some 55 kilometers from Longyearbyen, but the is no road connecting the two. People travel by snowmobile in winter and boat in the summer. Arktikugol operates a Mi-8 helicopter, mainly for transportation of staff between Longyearbyen airport and the heliport at Cap Heer, near Barentsburg.

Located in Kirkenes, Norway, just a few kilometres from the borders to Russia and Finland, the Barents Observer is dedicated to cross-border journalism in Scandinavia, Russia and the wider Arctic. As a non-profit stock company that is fully own by its reporters, its editoral decisions are free of regional, national or private-sector influence. It has been a partner to ABJ and its predecessors since 2016.

This article has been fact-checked by Arctic Business Journal and Polar Research and Policy Initiative, with the support of the EMIF managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Disclaimer: The sole responsibility for any content supported by the European Media and Information Fund lies with the author(s) and it may not necessarily reflect the positions of the EMIF and the Fund Partners, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the European University Institute.