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Mar 25, 2020

An Unsettling Crime at the Top of the World

The tiny town of Longyearben is the kind of place where people go to start their lives over. (Photo: Helge Skodvin)
The tiny town of Longyearben is the kind of place where people go to start their lives over.

In the isolated Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, some 800 miles from the North Pole, the tiny town of Longyearben is the kind of place where people go to start their lives over. With brightly colored homes laid out neatly against a mountainous backdrop, it seems out of a fairytale. There’s almost no crime, so residents leave their front doors unlocked and their keys in the car. In the surrounding Arctic wilderness are abundant polar bears, arctic foxes, and reindeer. But when an eerie crime happened in the frozen winter darkness, it brought home a harsh reality: in the modern world, trouble always finds you. Listen to our podcast based on our January feature, “The Bizarre Bank Robbery That Shook an Arctic Town.”

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio. 

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast.

Michael Roberts (host): Have you ever met someone who always has great stories to tell? I have.

David Kushner: My name is David Kushner, and I am a contributing editor of Outside Magazine.

Roberts: This is Michael Roberts, and I’m David’s editor. Over the last seven years, I’ve had the unique pleasure of working with him on a string of features that stand out for being… well, let me just describe a few.

In 2013, he did a story about a blind man who hunted down icebergs in Alaska to make Vodka. Really.

Then he did a piece about a tourist who became a kind of folk hero in Iceland after his GPS sent him hundreds of miles in the wrong direction.   

Last fall, he wrote about the first-ever treatment center for video game addicts.

And now comes today’s story, adapted from David’s most recent Outside feature, which had him investigating a bizarre crime in one of the most out-of-the-way places on the planet. It’s an unpredictable tale, to say the least, and it’s ultimately about the ways humans try to escape problems …  and how that’s become impossible in the modern world, where, as we’ve learned in a really scary way over the last several weeks, we are all very closely connected. 

Producer Alex Ward crafted this episode, which begins with a fairy tale.    

(Norwegian folk music starts playing)

Ingvill Kosen-Montgomery: (begins in Norwegian, fades into English translation) “Cardamom is only a little town, and it lies so far away that almost nobody knows about it. Just you and me and a very few others.” 

Alex Ward: This is the beginning of a well-known children’s book from Norway called “When the Robbers Came to Cardamom Town.” If you grew up in Norway, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this story. It was first published in 1955, and it’s been passed down through generations ever since. 

Kosen-Montgomery: I would say top five books of passing down in Norway. You know, you guys have your Disney and stuff, but we got Kardamom-by. (laughs)

Ward: That’s Ingvill Kosen-Montgomery. She grew up in Norway, but now lives in Portland, Oregon, where she volunteers at a local Norweigan cultural center. As a mother of two young children, she introduced them to the book as soon as they were old enough.

Kosen-Montgomery: So you read it many times when you are six, seven, eight, and then, you become a parent and you read it again and it means different things. So it’s been a fun journey to read it again.

Ward: The book is set in the fictional village of Kardamomme-by, located in a fantastical faraway land suited for a children’s story. 

Kosen-Montgomery: (reading) “Cardamom is a rather remarkable town, and a lot happens there that doesn’t happen anywhere else. For example, donkeys and camels walk about in the streets, and even an elephant or two comes ambling along - now and then.”

Ward: It’s an idyllic place where everyone gets along and has their role in the community. There’s a butcher, a baker, a police inspector -- there’s even an old, bearded man named Tobias. He lives in a tower, watching the skies to give weather forecasts. 

All are going about their merry business as they have for years. 

Until one night - when three robbers show up, singing their song about stealing.

Kosen-Montgomery: (singing “Robin’s Song in Norwegian)

Ward: Badly in need of food, the robbers descend into Kardamomme-by in the middle of the night, breaking into the butcher’s shop and stealing the finest cuts of meat. 

When the town wakes up the next morning and discovers the crime, the ever-peaceful community is thrown into turmoil over what to do. They’re not prepared for dealing with this kind of stuff. And who can blame them?

Nobody thought the perils of the dangerous world would ever reach Kardemomme-by, a little town that lies so far away that almost nobody knows about it.

Ward: In real life Norway, almost 500 miles north of the northern tip of the mainland, there’s also a place that lies so far away that almost nobody knows about it. It’s a group of arctic islands called Svalbard.

Not long ago, Outside contributor David Kushner flew there for a story. He’ll be our tour guide from here on out. 

Kushner: Just arriving there, I had never seen anything like it. It's just, first of all, it's stunningly beautiful. It's what they call an Arctic desert. Flying in, you're just seeing white mountains and snow and nothing and it's just gorgeous. 

Then there's this one little town which really does look like kind of a storybook town with the red, green, yellow, orange buildings, nestled in in this small Valley

Ward: David was headed to Longyearbyen, a small town about 800 miles away from the North Pole. It’s one of the northernmost permanent settlements in the world.

And in this storybook town, instead of the camels, donkeys, and elephants we find in Kardamomme-by, there’s polar bears, arctic foxes, and reindeer. Other than that, it’s pretty similar. 

There’s colorful buildings housing bakeries, pubs, and shops. There’s even a brewery and a sushi spot, all run by members of a community living far away from the rest of the world.

Kushner: It's people who are really -- it's a pioneering sense out there. You know, people are just doing their own thing.

Ward: People like Trond Hellstad, the manager of the only bank in town. 

Trond Hellstad: It’s been like the city where everybody knows each other and almost no crime at all.

Ward: Trond is one of many that fell in love with the area while on vacation there, and he and his wife soon ditched mainland life for Longyearbyen.

Hellstad: In Norway we call it Kardamom-by. That was a fairy tale town. 

That’s kind of a saying in Norweigan, when there’s no criminal thefts. You can leave the door open, the key in the car -- but it’s not like that any more

(music begins) 

Ward: In 2018, that long distance between Longyearbyen and the rest of the world shrunk. 

That December, one week before Christmas, a 29 year old Russian man named Maksim Popov  arrived at Svalbard Airport and checked into a hotel. He laid low for a few days, got his hands on a gun, and walked into the bank to rob it.

(music stops)

Historically, the biggest threat to folks in Longyearbyen have been the polar bears. Their population outnumbers the citizens there - roughly 3000 bears to 2000 people.

It’s commonplace to see people walking around with rifles for protection. 

Kushner: Obviously that's strictly for a last resort self-defense situation.  So it's something you need and it's very rare that anybody's going to use one and very, very rare that a polar bear gets shot. It happens. But not that often.

Ward: Because of the abundance of bears, Longyearbyen is one of the easiest places in the world to get a gun. 

You can rent a rifle from the local sporting goods store. It costs about $20 per day.

Kushner: You get very used to seeing people just walking around with rifles and when you go to the grocery store, there's signs outside saying, please put your rifle in a locker. So it becomes a part of life there.

Ward: That may not match the image you have of a quaint Scandanavian town, but then again, this is far from a typical place.

Take the sunlight, for example. 

The seasons swing between what the locals call the polar night and the midnight sun. All dark, or all light. 

Kushner: It's almost got a feeling of being like a snowy version of the TV show Lost: you feel stranded, abandoned, you feel like there's this strange pre-apocalyptic feeling to the place.

It's kind of like, what are you going to do at the end of the world? What you're going to do is you're going to go snowmobiling and dog sledding and drink some good local kind of microbrew and wander around in the dark in the middle of the day.

Ward: Being so close to the top of the world is what makes Longyearbyen feel magical, and surreal, like living in a snow globe.

But it’s also the reason that when you shake up that globe and look under the surface - there’s a whole other side to it. 

For starters, there’s the Svalbard Global Seed Vault also known by its more dramatic moniker “the Doomsday Vault.”

It opened just outside of Longyearbyen in 2008 as a worldwide seed storage bank to secure humanity’s food supply in the wake of a catastrophic event. 

Svalbard’s geography is the reason it’s here. The vault is surrounded by permafrost that provides an icy, protective barrier around the seeds. 

Kushner: It sort of looks like the Monolith from 2001 has just been thrown into the side of a mountain. It's totally weird.

Ward: A giant stone monolith meant to save mankind in the middle of nowhere. It’s a fitting exclamation point to the strangeness of Svalbard. 

The last time Longyearbyen was in the headlines, before the robbery, it was because the vault was threatened. 

In early 2017, record setting temperatures from the previous year created more melting snow than normal. This mixed with unusually heavy rains, and the entryway to the seed vault flooded, sparking international concern. 

And although the seeds were never in danger and precautions were quickly taken, the image of snowmelt seeping towards humanity’s last hope was compelling.

Kim Holman: The seed vault itself is Norway’s gift to the world, so building it and running it is Norway’s contribution.

Ward: Kim Holman is the international director of the Norweigan Polar Institute, an organization that oversees environmental research and management in the area. 

In the Kardemomme-by book, Kim would definitely play the role of Tobias the weatherman, assessing the climate while stroking his long, white beard. 

Kim took David on snowmobile rides outside of Longyearben. They passed by the seed vault before heading out to find some wildlife.

Kim Holman: And we’re going into the Advent Valley to look for some reindeer that are usually walking around in here, and we’ll see what we can find. The light is flat today, so it might be difficult, but I hope and believe we’ll find some.

Ward: Kim says that in Svalbard, despite the arctic setting, there’s a decent amount of greenery in the summer, which brings reindeer to the valleys. 

In the winter though, the greenery disappears under snow.

Holman: So they come here to kick through the snow to find their pasture. But it’s single leaves that it might find. And it’s hard work.

(music starts)

Ward: Reindeer survive winters in Svalbard by subsiding on blubber they built up during the summers. But, in the winter, they still need to eat something now and again to keep their intestines working.

Kushner: So when we approach these two reindeer you could see how they were using their hooves to hammer at the ice in the ground to try to get to the grass.

Ward: In recent years, the rising temperatures have increased rainfall here, which means the reindeer now have to penetrate through a layer of ice along with the snow. 

Kushner: So they're trying to evolve. But the problem is they're getting more rain. So the reindeer are dying.

Ward: The problem the reindeer are having is emblematic of life on Svalbard - living in a beautiful, strange land, but forced to adapt to the changing world around it.

Svalbard is among the fastest-warming places on Earth, with annual temperatures rising more than 7 degrees over the last 40 years. 

Kushner: It's just irrefutable, both the beauty of it and also, the problems, the melting, the tragedy of it in a lot of ways. It's just so pristine.

Ward: Near the end of their snowmobile ride, David and Kim stood overlooking a fjord on the other side of Longyearbyen. 

Holman: This time of the year, we would have been on a snowmobile belting across to the other side in half an hour. But now it’s open water. So it’s [a] profound change. 

Kushner: How does that make you feel when you stand here and look at this?

Holman: It makes me feel frustrated. We knew it was coming 40 years ago -- it is still coming. But I don’t feel very much. I more see the facts as we stand here. 

Ward: Long ago, before Longyearbyen began dealing with rising temperatures, it was a place of utility and not much else.

For over a century it was a coal mining outpost; before that it was a base for whaling and hunting expeditions. 

Eventually, an airport was opened in 1975, and tourists began flying into the region.

Nowadays, tourism accounts for the majority of Longyearbyen’s economy and employment, with over 100,000 annual tourists in recent years, arriving year round by airplane and cruise ship. 

As a gateway to arctic expeditions and wildlife, the access to polar research and adventure travel attracts scientists and thrill seekers. 

Then there are the ]f people who decide to make Longyearben their home. The 2,200 residents here come from all over the world, with more than 50 nationalities represented. English is the most commonly shared language, and the average stay is about seven years.

As one of the last stops on earth for civilization - an outpost where we protect our food supply and watch climate change - Longyearbyen draws a particular kind of person. 

Kushner: It just seems to attract people who are either running to or away from something and can't really get any farther. It does have a doomsday reality that's going on there.

Put whatever adjective you want to describe, whether it's magical or bizarre, just strange; there's something about this place. And that was really ultimately the realization that Maksim Popov was just another person drawn to this unusual place for similarly apocalyptic reasons.

Ward: We’ll be right back

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Ward: Maksim Popov, the robber that came to Longyearbyen, arrived in December of 2018. David wasn’t able to talk to Maksim for this story, so we can’t know what was going through his head at the time. 

What we do know is that he had travelled from his home in Volgograd, an industrial city in southwest Russia. He was 29, single, and unemployed. 

Kushner: For reasons that I couldn't quite figure out, he had become suicidal. I know that he had lost a job and I think that that was a big problem, his unemployment. He had gotten to the point at which he wanted to take his own life.

Ward: To do that, Popov wanted to get a gun. In Russia, that’s a difficult thing to do, which is presumably why he turned his sights towards Longyearbyen. 

It’s a popular tourist destination for Russians, so it’s likely he’d heard about the place before. 

Kushner: He knew that you could get a gun and he figured this is a good place to go end my life. Aand that's what he went off to do.

Ward: After some 18 hours of travel, Popov found himself in Longyearbyen. He was there in what locals call the dark season, when the sun never rises above the horizon. 

He checked into his hotel room and proceeded to spend a few days exploring the town. Before leaving Russia, he’d filled out an application for a gun rental, and eventually he went to the sporting goods store to pick it up - a large rifle capable of taking down a charging polar bear.

The clerk showed him how to use it, and Popov walked out with the gun slung over his shoulder, just like everyone else. 

Back in his hotel room, Popov mulled things over. He was far from home, in a strange place with no sunlight. He finally had his gun, but now, faced with the moment he’d been thinking about so much, he lost his nerve. 

We don’t know what made him change his mind, but for whatever reason he didn’t want to die anymore. 

But, he also didn’t want to go back to Russia.

Kushner: And he decides, I need to get help. I'm depressed, I'm suicidal. And again, this is not a rational mind here. So, rather than walking into somewhere and saying hello, I need help -- He decides he's going to rob a bank.

Ward: Over at the bank, the manager Trond Hellstad - who we heard from earlier - was sitting in his office with his cup of morning coffee. 

Transition to Trond field tape

Kushner: So what happened? You were sitting here and it’s pitch black outside.

Kushner: Yeah it was the 21st of December, kind of a quiet time…and this man came in. I didn’t notice him at all. And then he had a rifle in his hands and the first thing I said to him was, you have to leave the weapon outside because you’re not allowed to.

Kushner: What did he look like, physically?

Hellstad: Big guy, kind of nervous. You could see that he was warm, he was wearing thick clothes and...he was quite calm. He didn’t do any dramatic things. 

Ward: Trond thought Popov had simply come into the bank while absentmindedly holding his rifle.

Instead, Popov spoke in English the words he had been practicing. “This is not a joke. This is a robbery. I need a hundred thousand.”

Kushner: What did you think when he said this?

Hellstad: Actually, still then I didn’t believe it was happening. We tried to talk him from it. But we had to realize that he was robbing us and we had to give him some money. 

Kushner: Did he aim the gun?

Hellstad: He was aiming the gun, not the whole time, but if we started to argue too much, he would aim the gun at us. 

Kushner: That must’ve been scary; how did you feel?

Hellstad: Yeah, but, the situation was not so dramatic.

Kushner: So then, what happened? He wouldn’t leave --- what was he saying to you?

Hellstad: I need money. You have to give me money.

And finally, we did. 

Ward: Popov left the bank with about $8000 in cash stuffed in his pockets. One of the bank employees had already called the police by that time, but in an isolated place like this, the chance of getting away with such a crime is almost zero. 

Kushner: One phone call shuts down the one airport, which is a few miles away. There's very few roads.. You can't really drive. So that was the mystery, where is this guy gonna go? And also where is he going to go in a town full of people with rifles?

Ward: In the Hollywood version of this story, this might end with a snowmobile chase across the permafrost, dodging polar bears and reindeer. Or maybe Popov would barricade himself inside the Seed Vault, leading to a tense shootout. 

But this isn’t Hollywood. It’s Svalbard.

Popov made no attempt to get away. Instead, he walked back to the sporting goods store and returned his rifle.

Panic set in, and Popov needed to hear a familiar voice. He called his mother in Russia and told her he’d just committed a robbery. According to Popov at his trial months later, she advised him to run, but he said he was on a desert island. So he walked back to the bank. He would claim in court that he intended to return the cash.

Police soon showed up, and he was swiftly arrested. 

It was as if the robbery was a bizarre daydream that came and went.

Though, for Popov, it wasn’t really a robbery at all. It was a cry for help that was answered, though not exactly as he might have hoped.. 

Kushner: He did get what he wanted, ultimately. He was sentenced to a little over a year in prison in Tromso, which is a town on the mainland. But he's not going to get to stay. So once he's out, they're gonna expel him from Norway.

So I think that he as a character was not that different from a lot of other people. I mean, obviously he was struggling with perhaps mental illness or certainly depression, but he had his own reasons to go to this far flung place.

Ward: As for Trond Hellstad and the residents of Longyearbyen, the incident was a kind of menacing omen for what's really happening underneath this fairytale place.

Kushner: What people told me was how it did shatter the snow globe that they lived in, like the feeling was this doesn't happen here. And actually just anecdotally, there are people who are saying that now there's been this kind of uptick in petty thefts and things of that nature. Trond, he specifically said to me, it's like the big cruel world is coming to town. Which I think that that's true both in terms of the nature of this crime, but it’s also I think the big cruel reality of climate change and how it's impacting this place.

Ward: It’s easy to interpret Popov as a chilling, real-life manifestation of the robbers in the Kardemomme-by folk tale. An idyllic, yet strange town, suddenly upended by a crime they didn’t see coming. 

  

When I talked to Ingvill, the women that read us bits of the book at the beginning, she nodded politely when I explained the connection between the book and the robbery in Longyearbyen.

Kosen-Montgomery: Oh yeah, alright, robbery? That makes sense. How it’s a slow town and everyone knows everyone. Everyone is nice and no one expects anything like that to happen. Kind of how it is in this book. And that is a good comparison.But there might be different ways of looking at this story and connection to this book because it's an amazing book.

Ward: What she was trying to tell me was that if you aren’t focusing on how the Kardemomme-by book ends, you’re missing the whole point.  

Let’s pick up from when the three robbers are finally caught stealing meat and bread. The police inspector catches them, but doesn’t want to arrest them since they were just hungry. But the town decides, no, there should be some punishment. So they go to jail.

But then the community begins cooking meals for them, and keeping them company in jail. Soon the robbers feel like a part of Kardemomme-by.

Kosen-Montgomery: They really appreciate it this. And it turns out, one of the robbers can play an instrument. The community finds this instrument for him, and now he plays, and he has a concert. They're finding their self worth again. 

Then there is a fire in the tower where the weatherman Tobias lives and the three robbers get to be the hero of the day. They save the animals in the top of the tower and they put out the fire and the whole town celebrates the robbers now. So they're the heroes of the story, even though they started out being the bad guys. Now they're the heroes.

But what I was thinking was the story of the robbers in this book, they're longing for community and they're not really that evil. They are hungry and they don't have clothes. Maybe there is a reason why they don't have a job and maybe they are lazy and stuff, but at the end of the day, they're not really that bad. As soon as they get in jail, they create some friendships in jail, and they have some kind of purpose and they clean up and they turn into these three great guys.

All they needed was a little bit of a help to get back on track. But all they knew was how to go to town and steal a sausage cause they were hungry. (laughs) And then maybe they took some candy because, who doesn’t like candy, right? (laughs)

Ward: Today, Maksim Popov sits in prison on mainland Norway. He’ll likely be released sometime this spring or summer, and sent back to Russia. 

Will he emerge from prison feeling healed like the robbers in the book? Only time will tell, but one would hope that he does. 

As for Longyearbyen and what the future will bring for the people there, they’ll be okay, that’s a more difficult question. Sure, they’ll recover from the robbery and move on, but the town is changing no matter what. 

Popov’s crime was a sobering reminder of the real threats encroaching on this fairytale town—the kind of magical place that might turn robbers into heroes.

(Kosen-Montgomery sings in Norwegian)

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OUTRO

Roberts: That’s Alex Ward. He produced this episode, which was edited by me, Michael Roberts, with Music by Robbie Carver.

David Kushner’s feature story about the robbery in Longyearbyen first ran in Outside Magazine’s January/February 2020 print issue. You can find it at outsideonline.com with the title: “The Bizarre Robbery that Shook an Artic Town.”

This episode was brought to you by Visit Florida, one of the country’s great adventure destinations. Learn more the many adventures that you can find in the sunshine state at VisitFlorida.com/outside

We’ll be back next week.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.