Bishop Iyakov, who backs Putin’s war, raised giant cross at Svalbard without Norway’s knowledge

Bishop Iyakov of Naryan-Mar and Mezen proclaimed Pyramiden to be Russian as he blessed the ghost town with holy water. The Russian Orthodox cross erected on August 5 is decorated with St. Georg’s Ribbon, a well-known Russian symbol of military valor and patriotism. (Screenshots from video by Trust Arktikugol/Via The Independent Barents Observer)

“The bishop is sending a message to the home audience that Russian settlements on Svalbard are “holy lands” and belong to the Russian cultural and spiritual sphere,” says Kari Aga Myklebost, Professor in History at UiT The Arctic University of Norway.

Pyramiden was once the world’s northernmost town, but abandoned 25 years ago it is today nothing else than a ghost display of what the Soviet Union wanted to offer in the Arctic.

The playground outside the kindergarten is still there. So are the books on the desks at school. A sports complex, swimming hall, cultural center, and cantina for the miners that dug coal out of the shafts deep inside the permafrost of Pyramiden, the mountain giving the name to the town. It’s all there, like a time-frozen museum of Moscow’s past dream of extracting natural resources from the Arctic.

This week, Pyramiden got a very special guest.

Bishop Iyakov of Naryan-Mar and Mezen, well-known for pushing Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in the Arctic by blessing the country’s remotest polar outposts, staged a well-planned ceremony in the hill above the port.

With the bishop leading the path, a group of 10 persons carried the 7-meter high orthodox cross upward the mountainside. First in line is Ildar Neverov, the newly appointed head of Trust Arktikugol, the state-own company that practically runs all Russian operations on Svalbard. 

Neverov is the one taking charge of placing the fundament for the cross down in the permafrost, a video (see below) by Trust Arktikugol shows. 

When erected, Bishop Iyakov consecrated the cross and named it after St. Georg. Hardly any coincidence, as the cross is decorated with the bicolor black and orange ribbon of Saint Georg. Nowadays, this ribbon serves as a strong military symbol used to mark aggressive imperialism and the ‘Russkiy Mir’ (Russian World). Almost all military weaponry and vehicles active in the war on Ukraine are painted with black and orange stripes, often formed as the Z-symbol. 

“The world’s northernmost Orthodox Cross is installed,” Trust Arktikugol writes on Vkontakte. 

In another video, Bishop Iyakov enters the top balcony of the hotel building with holy water and states: “… Russian Pyramiden. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen. Hooray.”

Governor unaware 

The Governor of Svalbard is surprised when asked by the Barents Observer about the erection of the cross. 

“The Environmental Protection Department will follow up,” Governor Lars Fause says in a short comment.

Svalbard environmental protection act is strict and procedures for notification of excavation are basic.

“Aggressive history policies” 

Kari Aga Myklebost, a professor in history at UiT The Arctic University of Norway says what happened at Svalbard this week “is unprecedented.”

Myklebost is an expert on Kremlin’s memory politics of the North. 

Additional to erecting the giant cross in Pyramiden, Bishop Iyakov held ceremonies in Barentsburg and at the war memorial in Kirkenes, the Norwegian border town. 

“A Russian-Orthodox touring ceremony of this kind, starting in Barentsburg/Pyramiden and then visiting Kirkenes, is unprecedented,” Professor Myklebost says to the Barents Observer. 

“Still, it is part of a pattern of Russian aggressive history policies towards Norway over the last decade, with the establishment of Russian-Orthodox crosses and war memorials in Norway and regular commemorative events filled with military-patriotic and Orthodox symbols.”

She elaborates: “Under Putin, history has become an intensively politicized field, used by the Russian state to legitimize geopolitical ambitions abroad and create enemy images at home. We see this most clearly in Russia’s warfare in Ukraine. The bishop’s commemorative tour to Svalbard and Kirkenes is part of the same policy from the Kremlin, using history to accommodate Russian presence.”

“The bishop’s tour is sending a message to the Russian home audience that both Sør-Varanger and Russian settlements on Svalbard are “holy lands” and belong to the Russian cultural and spiritual sphere,” says Professor Kari Aga Myklebost. Photo: Elizaveta Vereykina.

Blessing soldiers 

Russia’s Orthodox Church is closely connected with both the Kremlin and the military forces.

At home in Naryan-Mar in Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Bishop Iyakov played a key role in blessing the group of young men who shortly after Putin’s partial mobilization were sent off to the slaughter fields in Ukraine, local news online NAO 24 reported.  

In a longer interview on the site of the Russian Orthodox Church, the bishop tells about his work in the Arctic, including the churches at the military closed bases at Novaya Zemlya and Aleksandra Island, part of Franz Josef Land. Photos from his travel with FSB Coast Guard to the remotest corners of the Northern Sea Route are made available at the Church of Naryan-Mar’s portal. 

Kari Aga Myklebost says the Church regularly hosts ceremonies blessing weapons and soldiers going to war, including blessings of nuclear warheads.

“The bishop’s tour to Svalbard and Kirkenes thus has a strong militaristic flavor to it,” she says and adds:

“At the same time, the tour serves as a demonstration towards Norway of allegedly Russian ‘privileges’ and rights on Norwegian territory, under the cover of ‘historical presence’ in these areas.”

Comrade Lenin has a great panorama view over Pyramiden with the Nordenskióld glacier in the background. (Thomas Nilsen)

Raising tensions 

The Barents Observer has previously reported about Trust Arktikugol director Ildar Neverov staging a military-stylish Victory Parade in Barentsburg on May 9, followed by waving the separatist flag of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in Pyramiden on the same day.

Two weeks ago, on Navy Day July 30, Russia’s Consul General in Barentsburg, GRU-affiliated Andrei Chemerilo, led a military-inspired small flotilla in the waters outside Barentsburg. This happened simultaneously as Vladimir Putin praised the ambitions of the Russian Navy at the main ceremony in St. Petersburg.  

“Freedom of religion and expression are undisputed and key Norwegian values that also orthodox Russians on Svalbard enjoy,” says Karen-Anna Eggen to the Barents Observer.

Eggen is a Ph. D. Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies and an expert on Russian information confrontation in the Nordic region.

“The problem here is what I believe can be seen as a broader Russian information confrontational push on Svalbard, where Russia through military signaling and – in this case religious means – are asserting Russian presence in these areas.”

“Undermining Norwegian sovereignty” 

There is a pattern here, Karen-Anna Eggen says. “All of these incidents should be seen together because that is how Russian influence attempts work. They do not have to be big events, but rather slowly normalizing Russian presence and rhetoric using whatever means available to, in this case, undermine Norwegian sovereignty on Svalbard.”

Bishop Iyakov plays an important geopolitical role in the Arctic, Eggen notes.

“He has sanctified the Northern Sea Route and was also part of a mission to the North Pole in 2012 where he sent off a blessed capsule from the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to sanctify the region. Keeping this in mind, the sanctification of the Russian settlement on Pyramiden has, at least, a symbolic effect that we might be missing if we only see this as a stand-alone incident.”

On a 2013 tour to the North Pole, Bishop Iyakov flew via Longyearbyen into Russia’s ice-base Barneo in the high Arctic. Upon return, he made a stopover at Nagurskoye, the military base at Franz Josef Land. Together with him was Nikolai Patruchev, the former FSB director that from 2008 has served as Secretary of Putin’s Security Council. The two placed a commemorative plaque on the wall of the new church. Patruchev and Ilyakov fasten one screw each. 

Bishop Iyakov then made clear that the Arctic is an integral part of holy Russia:

“The well-known saying ‘The borders of the Motherland are sacred and inviolable!’ has now acquired the power of divine blessing. The borders of the Motherland are sacred, and therefore inviolable. Russia’s national interests in the Arctic require reliable state protection, and the spiritual presence of the Orthodox Church here is also extremely important, because the Arctic is and integral part of our Holy Russia,” the Bishop said. 

Second World War 

St. Georg’s Ribbon, now decorating the 7-meter high cross visible for everyone sailing by Pyramiden, is in Russia often used to commemorate the Red Army’s contributions to victory in Second World War.

At Svalbard, however, no Red Army soldiers participated in the battles. Neither any civilian Soviet citizens died. The Soviet settlements were evacuated, and while Barentsburg, Grumant and Longyearbyen were destroyed, Pyramiden was not affected.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Northern premiers say Canada can’t have Arctic security without infrastructure, The Canadian Press

China: Satellite imagery reveals construction progress on new Chinese Antarctic base, Eye on the Arctic

Denmark: Danish policy prioritizes low-conflict Arctic amidst Russian tensions, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Icelandic embassy suspends operations in Moscow, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Svalbard’s travails in a changing Arctic, Blog by Marc Lanteigne

Sweden: US bombers land in northern Sweden for first time, Radio Sweden

United States: Russian, Chinese vessels near Alaska reminder of ‘new era of aggression’: Senators, Eye on the Arctic

Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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