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THE LOST SOVIET ATLANTIS

There’s a great statue of LENIN at the end of the world. It’s guarded by murderous polar bears in a mysterious ghost town, where I was imprisoned for a week by nature—and my poor judgment
PARADISE FOUND An aerial view of Pyramiden. The Soviets purchased this land from Sweden in 1927, then turned it into a settlement, sending men, women and children to tame the Arctic frontier.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARKUS ROHRBACHER

THINGS GET STRANGER THE FARTHER AWAY YOU are from home, and wherever you come from, there’s nowhere farther than the North Pole. That’s where Longyearbyen is located. It somehow resides on an Arctic Ocean archipelago called Svalbard. More than 2,000 residents live here, including hundreds of children who were rescued from abusive homes. Everyone here is subject to Norwegian law—and some bizarre restrictions, including one that prohibits death.

You can’t die in Longyearbyen, but the place is constantly trying to kill you. Every year, the permafrost expands at a rate of about 4 centimeters, and with it, the graves of virusridden corpses (apparently death wasn’t always against the law). The climate keeps the bodies from decaying, to the delight of the few animals that can survive the Arctic winter, namely the carnivorous—and surprisingly swift—polar bears, which are why you’re required to carry a rifle at all times.

COURTESY OF NIMROD NIR

I arrived here at the end of October, the last leg of an Arctic journey with a friend, during the long polar nights. For months, darkness blankets the sky, save for the green-red glow of the northern lights.

The town is erected on an immense ice cube, located between twin icy peaks. There are barely any shops or buildings, and the few that exist sell a bit of everything: You can rent a Mauser rifle at the clothing store and send a letter at the supermarket. All products have to be imported—from salt to brandy— thanks to a climate that kills even the most tenacious plants. What’s also here is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a futuristic, underground bunker that stores millions of seeds from around the world—and can survive a nuclear holocaust.

There was no such extinction-level event while I was in town, but not long after I arrived, my companion came down with a severe fever. Longyearbyen is home to the northernmost medical center on Earth. But since death is not an option, if you get really sick, you’ll kindly, but firmly, be escorted back to the Norwegian mainland, which is what happened to my friend.

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