The Persistent Memory of a Soviet Mining Town

I was pretty excited to finally get my hands on E. Andreassen, H.B. Bjerck, and B. Olson’s Persistent Memories: Pyramiden, a Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic (Trondheim 2010). This book is an archaeological essay that combines haunting photography with reflective text to provide the reader with an intimate portrait of the Soviet mining town of Pyramiden. The town was abandoned for close to a decade after the Russian company that established the settlement after World War II closed the mine in the late 1990s. The team of Norwegian archaeologists and a photographer arrived in 2006 nearly a decade after the last permanent resident had departed.

Despite the town’s completely modern history, the archaeologists understood that there were very few traditional documentary records of life in the town and arrived to document its state. In a relatively short essay, the authors bring the town back to life through careful attention to the remains. 

There are a few ways in which the author’s research intersects with our work in the man camps of Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota.

1. Non-Places. The authors consider the status of Pyramiden as a non-place. The formal plan, the cookie cutter residences, and the position of the town as a heterotopia (a realized utopian space), created a settlement that has few distinct features outside of the global standard of a hypermodern “Sovietness”. Moreover, the provisional and short term character of any community created by the inhabitants created few opportunities for the inhabitants to fuse their identity to the character of the location. It maybe that the radical isolation of the site and the absence of longterm human settlement in the area necessitated the status of the Pyramiden as a non-place. It may have also been both formal and informal policies designed to enforce uniformity among the workers and managers at the site that robbed the place of the distinct character associated with “place-ness”. 

2. Housing and Homes (and Class). While the authors suggest that Pyramiden was a non-place, they nevertheless recognized efforts workers in the mine to personalize their spaces. In fact, there seems to have been greater signs of individualization among workers than those of the mangers and elites. Not only did workers decorate their apartments with symbols of global consumer culture, but they also customized their spaces with improvised shelves, art, and furnishings. In contrast, the larger and more comfortable apartments of the management classes showed less signs of customization and efforts to establish individual identities. Perhaps managers stayed less time at Pyramiden or had greater pressure to conform to a homogenized standards or corporate expectations, as the authors suggest.

In the North Dakota man camps, we noticed a similar characteristic between workers who lived in RV parks and those who lived in the standardized man-camps provided by the larger corporations. The former group tends to work in industries peripheral, but vital to the main work in the oil patch (truck repair, truck driving, equipment cleaning, and various contract services). The latter work in the core industries associated with jobs on drilling or fracking rigs or with large contractors that provide large scale services to the companies in the patch. The former tend to be independent or quasi-independent contractors, whereas the latter are company men. A similar division in how various groups individualized their living space occurred in the early days of the Texas boom.

3. Margins. One thing about Pyramiden is clear: it is situated in an intensely marginal environment. Perched at the foot of the Arctic Mt. Pyramiden and surrounded by glaciers and the sea, the town was visited only once a year by a supply ship. A helipad provided the only other physical link to the outside work. The need for an entirely self-sufficient community and the remains left behind demonstrate the close link between the expense of bringing material to the Arctic and the value of removing the remains.

In short, the persistence of Pyramiden and its arrangement as a “non-place” is at least partially a product of its marginal location and the expense of transporting the aspects of consumer culture that we deploy in a range of distinct ways to mark our modern identities. There are general parallels between the location of Pyraminden and the marginal position of the man camps in western North Dakota. The creation of a new society ex nihilo and the tenuous physical connections with the core demands a particular kind of engagement with the environment.

4. Provisional Discard. Distinct discard practices often characterize communities in marginal environment or situated at the periphery. One of the most significant features of the community at Pyramiden is the absence of substantial dump. As the Russian managers of the community explained, the inhabitants reused and repurposed as much of the material as possible and material that could not be repurposed or consumed completely rarely came to the site. Food scraps were fed to pigs, left over paint or solvents needed for one project were used in others, and workshops and apartments were filled with recycled and repurposed tools and equipment.

 The man camps of North Dakota show a similar assemblage of recycled and repurposed material – from the ubiquitous shipping pallet to piles of pvc pipe left behind by departing RVs for the next residents of a camp. Like the residents of Pyramiden, the inhabitants of short-term settlements in the Bakken oil patch tend to travel light and find new uses for objects that might be cast aside closer to the core. 

5. Formation Processes. The greatest disappointment in reading this book was its relative lack of attention to formation processes. The site as a ruin or as a haunting reminder of the earlier activities and lives takes center stage whereas the post abandonment processes that created the site for archaeologists and photographer become interference or, at worst, the romantic residue of a life in ruins.

This is a missed opportunity, to my mind, as our modern world (filled with non-places) so rarely decays slowly in the face of nature without massive human intervention. Pyramiden is a place where its abrupt abandonment has left it exposed to nature in a way so rare in our modern world. More could be made of the processes that transformed the settlement since its abandonment and how man-made materials situate themselves in their environment.

You can check out some of the book on Google Books or – even cooler in some ways – on Google Maps!  

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