BARENTSBURG, Norway — At first glance, Sergei Gushchin, 50, is perhaps not a man one would assume to be the Russian consul general at the world’s northernmost diplomatic mission: ponytail, bluejeans, bass player in a punk band.
Yet on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, it has long been a point of pride to distinguish people from governments. Russians, Ukrainians and Norwegians have lived side by side for decades in this isolated and extreme wilderness known mostly for polar bears and a rapidly warming climate, not for divisive politics.
There is a saying in the high Arctic that if your snowmobile breaks down, no one asks for your nationality before helping to repair it. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has echoed at the top of the world, threatening long-standing personal and professional relationships, cultural interactions and even friendly sports rivalries.
The Svalbard tourist board has called for a boycott of Russian state-owned businesses in the coal mining settlement of Barentsburg. Gushchin, until now considered an inclusive, moderating figure, has surprised and angered many with comments concerning the Russian invasion and an accusation that Norwegian news media provide mostly “fake news.”
Timofey Rogozhin, the former top Russian tourist official in Barentsburg, who left his job last year, spends considerable time on Telegram countering Russian propaganda about the invasion. Calling himself a dissident, he describes atrocities committed in Ukrainian towns as “not mistakes but crimes.”
“Svalbard is a place where people from all different countries have managed to get along peacefully,” said Elizabeth Bourne, an American who is director of the Spitsbergen Artists Center in Longyearbyen, the primarily Norwegian transportation, commerce, research and university hub of Svalbard. “This situation is in danger of putting an end to that. I think that would be a tragedy.”
Longyearbyen is about 30 miles northeast of Barentsburg and is inhabited by roughly 2,500 residents from 50 nations. Cultural exchanges involving singing and dancing, and sports exchanges involving games like chess and basketball have been ongoing between Barentsburg and Longyearbyen since the Soviet era.
Their longevity is made more remarkable by the lack of a road between the towns. Travel must be done by snowmobile, boat or helicopter.
“Maybe people of Longyearbyen wouldn’t like to see me, but they still like to see people of Barentsburg,” Gushchin said.
A 1920 treaty gave Norway sovereignty over Svalbard. But other nations that signed the treaty, including the Soviet Union/Russia, have been granted equal rights to conduct such commercial activities as mining, scientific research and tourism.
The Russian consulate in Barentsburg overlooks the Green Fjord and a kind of outdoor museum of the Soviet past: a bust of Lenin, a Cyrillic sign proclaiming “Communism is our goal,” refurbished Stalinist apartment blocks and smokestacks that belch sulfurous coal at the local power plant.
Once, more than 1,000 people lived here. Now there are only about 370, two-thirds of them Ukrainian, Gushchin said. Most miners are from the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which has close ties to Russia. It is the area where fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists began in 2014. Others from the region work in tourism and other service jobs.
A number of Russians and Ukrainians approached by a New York Times reporter Wednesday refused to discuss politics. But Natalia Maksimishina, a Russian tour guide, criticized President Vladimir Putin of Russia, referring to possible war crimes committed by Russian forces and saying, “I hope to see him next in The Hague.”
Barentsburg is essentially operated by Trust Arktikugol, a Russian state-run mining enterprise. The boycott called for by the Svalbard tourist board recommends that money not be spent in the town’s hotel, Red Bear pub and brewery, restaurants or souvenir shop.
Barentsburg seemed mostly empty Wednesday, except for groups of tourists arriving on a small ship. Before the pandemic, tourism brought in more money than coal, Gushchin said. Now, he added, Trust Arktikugol loses “big money” weekly. Many tourists who do visit bring their own food and leave quickly, he said.
Critics of the boycott say it hurts the Russian government less than local people in Barentsburg. Credit cards issued by Russian banks don’t work in the Norwegian financial system amid international sanctions. Flights are difficult to schedule.
In a light moment during an interview Wednesday, Gushchin lamented that his band’s solo guitarist had moved away. “When you have only a bass player and a drummer, it resembles more like punk, not rock,” he said.
In a more serious moment, Gushchin put logs on a fire in the consulate’s reception area but did not attempt to thaw the sudden chill between him and many on Svalbard.
He stood by debunked remarks he made in English this month to Nettavisen, a Norwegian online newspaper. He told the outlet that buildings in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol had been destroyed not by Russian projectiles but by a Ukrainian battalion with Nazi sympathies. And that a pregnant woman photographed outside a besieged hospital was not a patient.
Asked by Nettavisen whether he felt obliged to make such remarks in his official capacity, Gushchin said they also reflected his opinion. Otherwise, he said, he would have to resign his post immediately. On Wednesday, Gushchin said, “I saw that it really touched feelings of many Norwegians, but I told them what I think.”
His remarks to Nettavisen were jarring to many, who found them sharply contrasting with Gushchin’s position as a subdeacon in the Russian Orthodox Church. Last August, he helped perform the liturgy at Svalbard Church in Longyearbyen, a parish of the Church of Norway. Siv Limstrand, the Lutheran pastor at Svalbard Church, said she had previously considered Gushchin to be “very friendly, easygoing, nonformal, extending communication and cooperation.”
“People get disappointed, but he is a state official,” Limstrand said. “We can’t really expect something different from him. But a little more diplomacy, I think, could have been within reach.”
Having arrived in Barentsburg in November 2018, Gushchin awaits his successor, saying he and his wife are eager to return to Moscow to see their 22-year-old daughter and his 82-year-old mother. Perhaps, many who know him on Svalbard say privately, that is why he dares not contradict Putin.
Clearly, Gushchin is sensitive to optics. On Wednesday, he declined to be photographed standing beside a taxidermied polar bear in the consulate, saying it would convey a misleading symbol of Russian aggression.
He also said he would not attend a planned cultural exchange in Longyearbyen May 21 so as “not to provoke anybody.”
“There are a lot of Russian and Ukrainian compatriots and also Norwegians who won’t be very happy if I take part,” Gushchin said.
When he took the posting on Svalbard, Gushchin said, he considered it a “dream” job, one that has been “a big adventure.” But he also said he is ready to return to Russia.
With a sigh, then a laugh, he said he hoped the invasion of Ukraine did not become “something more ugly and global.” If World War III breaks out “and we’re stuck here,” he said with gallows humor, “it will be difficult to go home.”