A sign welcoming visitors to Pyramiden looks as colorful and cheery as ever.

Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg

Explore Pyramiden: The Forgotten City at the End of the World

A photo journey through the Utopian Soviet settlement that is literally frozen in time, high above the Arctic Circle.

Nestled icily in the midst of Svalbard, a cluster of Arctic islands strung along the 79th parallel, the Soviet city of Pyramiden is one of the northernmost settlements in the world.

For centuries, the archipelago was a lawless land visited only by whalers and explorers. Then, in 1920, the Spitsbergen Treaty placed Svalbard under the sovereign rule of Norway, with commercial rights reserved for its other signatories. Although Russia lost its bid for the islands amid the civil unrest that followed World War I, its successor, the Soviet Union, was the only nation to take Norway up on an offer to exploit the land for economic gain.

In the 1930s, Soviet state-run Trust Arktikugol invested in Svalbard’s coal mining operations, and Pyramiden truly began to thrive after World War II. 

A posting at Pyramiden may seem like a punishment to the uninitiated, but it was one of the most coveted jobs on offer in the Soviet Union. As the sole settlement in the West, Pyramiden was communism’s show pony, on display for the world. As such, the Soviets made the city a perfect paradigm for its hammer-and-sickle ideology, with an exceptionally high standard of living. Only the best technicians and workers were recruited to the Arctic colony.

After decades of prosperity, Pyramiden declined, largely because of three factors. The first was the limited supply of minable coal; lodes weren’t as plentiful as expected, and drilling for deeper reserves proved costly. Many historians believe that the coal was never a profitable endeavor and that the colony’s true raison d’être was to maintain a foot in the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russia, which inherited Pyramiden, could no longer tuck its economic difficulties behind the Iron Curtain. Mainland support needed to keep Pyramiden afloat dwindled. 

A view of Pyramiden's outbuildings, from the water.
Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg

The coup de grace occurred in 1996, when a charter flight from Moscow that was carrying 141 workers and their families (about 10 percent of the city’s population) crashed on descent, killing everyone on board. The community never recovered. The decision was made not to excavate a deeper layer of coal, and the last lode was mined as winter broke in 1998. 

No one has lived in Pyramiden since. Below, take a tour of the enigmatic lost town.

When the city was a thriving hive of activity, locals dubbed Pyramiden’s main thoroughfare the “Champs Élysées.” Everything, in fact, had a nickname; the building that housed single men was known as "London," the apartment block for single women was "Paris," and families with children lived in the "Crazy House." A secret tunnel is rumored to connect London and Paris.  
Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg
Standing proudly where the Champs Élysée ends at a culture complex, a bust of Lenin—the northernmost statue of the communist revolutionary leader—reminds visitors of the Soviet presence in the West. 
Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg
The small squares in the bottom left corner of each window may look like air conditioning units, but there was no need for cooling because temperatures in Pyramiden rarely crept above 45 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. These enduring boxes are improvised refrigerators—metal protrusions to keep small perishables fresh in the bitter cold. True to communist form, meals were taken en masse at a centralized cafeteria; apartments had simple freezer boxes but lacked kitchens. 
Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg
 As the West’s only accessible window into the Soviet Union, Pyramiden’s quality of life was far greater than the grim realities that lurked in the country's recesses. State-of-the-art facilities were maintained for the local population, including an indoor gymnasium and a heated pool. 
Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg
Unlike the tenement-style structures found in Soviet states, Pyramiden’s buildings benefited from artistic flourishes that made them less dour against the gray skies and brown terrain. This intricate mosaic, which spruced up the entryway leading to the city’s communal dining hall, is an imaginative rendering of the view outside, with a larger-than-life Russki-Nordic superhero dominating the landscape.  
Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg
The arts equalled athletics in importance. Pyramiden’s dedicated Culture Palace also featured ballet studios, instrument practice rooms, and a theater equipped for live performances and film screenings. Due to the settlement’s extreme northern positioning, the cultural center claims a host of odd superlatives, including that of having the world’s northernmost piano.
Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg

 

The name Pyramiden is inspired by the shape of towering rocks that line its fjord.
Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg
Unlike other abandoned places around the world, Pyramiden’s slow rate of decay, which reflects its frigid conditions, has left the city remarkably intact. Here, petals still cling to a potted plant, as everything is preserved under a layer of permafrost in what is effectively an Arctic Pompeii. 
Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg

 

Although Pyramiden has been abandoned for 20 years, a few citizens have remained: roving polar bears. Visitors to the site are met by an armed guide who provides security lest an animal suddenly attack.
Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg

For trips to the lost city of Pyramiden, start in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main commercial center, located further down the island’s main fjord. Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA offers direct flights three times weekly from Oslo to Longyearbyen. From there, it’s a three-hour boat journey (all easily completed as a day trip) during the warmer months, when the perpetual darkness of winter has lifted and the bays are clear of packed ice—usually May to October, but trips in 2017 started as early as March. Access by Ski-Doo is also possible, but sub-glacial ice floes make this a more treacherous journey. 

Photographer: Brandon Presser/Bloomberg