The Arctic border between nature and a post-apocalyptic landscape

The Soviet ghost towns of the Arctic have been abandoned for decades - but nothing can keep these intrepid explorers from visiting them
The Soviet ghost towns of the Arctic have been abandoned for decades - but nothing can keep these intrepid explorers from visiting them / Natalya Bogorodskaya
How passionate travelers rediscover abandoned lands.

"In the Arctic, the two of us had to protect ourselves against polar bears; once, we almost drowned during a storm at sea. But it’s only in these abandoned Arctic territories that we acutely feel a zest for life and the reality of death, while our existence without these sensations seems bland, like unsalted food," say Natalya and Pyotr Bogorodsky, two extreme tourists from St. Petersburg.

They have been visiting the Arctic since 2008, navigating the White, the Barents and the Kara Seas in kayaks, as well as twin-hulled and triple-hulled boats of their own design, to explore abandoned Arctic lands.
 

Franz Josef Land, Graham Bell Island

Photo credit: Natalya BogorodskayaPhoto credit: Natalya Bogorodskaya

"The first thing that caught our eye was the never-ending snowy plain, ablaze with blinding light wherever you looked. We landed on the shore of Graham Bell during the polar day. The first thing we felt was blistering cold, with the temperature of – 15°C aggravated by an icy wind," recalls Pyotr.

Photo credit: Natalya BogorodskayaPhoto credit: Natalya Bogorodskaya

Franz Jozef Land is Russia's most northwestern outpost. Only the North Pole lies beyond it. Abandoned in 1993, Graham Bell Island holds an ice airfield and two military settlements.

Natalya and Pyotr arrived here in 2013 with a group of Russian Arctic National Park employees: They had been invited to assist in the cleanup of scrap metal and objects devoid of historical value.

Photo credit: Natalya BogorodskayaPhoto credit: Natalya Bogorodskaya

The Bogorodskys came to the island in search of artifacts related to the history of aviation, such as planes and plane engines, airport infrastructure elements, antique vehicles and tractors, as well as radar equipment. They examined artifacts, photographed them and attached a ribbon to mark objects that were not up for removal or destruction.

Photo credit: Natalya BogorodskayaPhoto credit: Natalya Bogorodskaya

The abandoned facilities of Graham Bell Island are all that’s left of the ice airfield and the military settlements. Houses and residential blocks made only of metal, resembling giant barrels from the outside, houses on skids, cargo vehicle warehouses and the wreck of an AN-12 plane – everything has been preserved unchanged thanks to the Arctic climate.
 

The settlement of Amderma

Photo credit: Natalya BogorodskayaPhoto credit: Natalya Bogorodskaya

The frames of a dozen two-story houses and the remains of some infrastructure on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, a place to which no road goes, is all that is left of the Soviet settlement of Amderma. Natalya and Pyotr visited it during their kayak trip along the shores of the Barents and Kara Seas in 2010.

Amderma still has a few residents – around 300 people – but the inhabited houses are interspersed with abandoned ones. This area features empty blocks of flats and old Soviet special-purpose vehicles. Abandoned military facilities are a playground for children, who are happy to have this ghost town all to themselves. A team of reindeer with a sledge is sometimes parked in front of a store, awaiting its owner, a Nenets deer herder who has come to buy supplies, and the shore by the settlement is frequented by polar bears.

Not far from the settlement, the explorers discovered the domes of abandoned shelters – huge white mushrooms against the velvety green of the tundra.

Photo credit: Natalya BogorodskayaPhoto credit: Natalya Bogorodskaya

The two-story Lena-M central facility is protected by fireproof steel doors, and the insides of the station are still entangled in a cobweb of cords and a network of ventilation shafts. Natalya and Pyotr spent a long time roaming its floors, examining crew quarters, storage facilities, the operations room, equipment and classrooms; 20 years after the facility was abandoned, you can still find old photographic negatives of the crew and various work documents.
 

Abandoned villages of the Arctic: Where hermits and bears live

Photo credit: Natalya BogorodskayaPhoto credit: Natalya Bogorodskaya

Fishing settlements from the previous century on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago have turned into abandoned villages with mouldering houses. Their wooden beams are so rotten that you can push your finger right into them. Not a soul lives in these neglected villages, but Natalya and Pyotr always carried firearms with them, in case polar bears attacked them. They had already encountered polar bears and realized that these animals saw humans not as a threat, but as food.

Photo credit: Natalya BogorodskayaPhoto credit: Natalya Bogorodskaya

The neighboring settlements are popular vacation destinations among those who were born and grew up in the Arctic.  Some even use the island as their dacha, spending the entire summer in a cottage, fishing and hunting away from the city. These hermits are supplied with fuel and food by their relatives.

Island hermits pilfer material from the ruined houses in Arctic villages because they need materials to mend their own homes.
 

Cape Svyatoi Nos

Photo credit: Natalya BogorodskayaPhoto credit: Natalya Bogorodskaya

The travelers did not spend a long time at Cape Svyatoi Nos, as it was unsafe to stay there. The rocky shore prevented them from dropping anchor, and their twin-hulled boat was being dragged away by a strong current. They faced the risk of losing their transport and getting stuck on the cape.

The steep, rocky precipice Pyotr and Natalya had used to climb the cape looked intimidating: in a storm, giant waves pound against it, sweeping everything they reach into the sea.

They were unable to find any traces of recent human presence. The knee-deep grass had not been walked on and the abandoned houses had a sepulchral atmosphere of decay. Even the rows of 20-liter battery jars found at the power station had been left untouched, although the locals normally use them as containers for salting meat or as fish tanks.

Passing the dump site with its rusting frames of crawler tractors, the Bogorodskys found their way to the lighthouse. The unlocked iron door was swinging in the wind. In near-darkness, Pyotr and Natalya climbed the steep spiral staircase, which vibrated with each step they took, to the height of an eight-story building and looked out of the cabin window. The narrow cape was engulfed by the gray, icy sea. Pyotr shuddered at the thought, imagining how the lonely crew of the lighthouse struggled against the storms even at night, when the cold waves threatened to destroy the rocky precipice beneath the lighthouse.

The people who ventured to conquer the Arctic in all its severity in the Soviet times left these parts a long time ago. However, the facilities they abandoned, such as residential buildings, lighthouses and air bases, are still out there. Struggling against the forces of nature in their journeys, Natalya and Pyotr are rediscovering these Arctic lands along the routes once traced by pioneers. The Bogorodskys publish their travel notes and photographs on their project website, Sevprostor (in Russian). Natalya and Pyotr view the chronicles of their trips to the neglected facilities of the North as a means of education: They aim to make the Arctic less of a terra incognita and give the abandoned facilities a new life as historic artifacts. 

Read more