Named after Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, the town is a mining town, with coal mining conducted by the Soviet company Arktikugol since 1932. The population has declined over the decades; in its heyday, over 1,000 Soviet citizens inhabited Barentsburg.
Although Svalbard is under Norwegian sovereignty, the unique Svalbard Treaty of 1920 allows citizens of signatory countries equal rights to exploit natural resources. Russia, along with Norway (via the Sveagruva mine and Mine 7), maintains mining operations on Svalbard as a result. Russia maintains a consulate in Barentsburg, the northernmost diplomatic mission of any kind in the world. Barentsburg still has a Norwegian mail address and Norwegian phone numbers.
Barentsburg started as a Dutch mining town in the 1920s. In 1932 the Dutch sold their concession to the Soviet Union. Since 1932 the Russian state-owned Arktikugol Trust (Russian for "Arctic Coal") has been operating on Svalbard. The main economic activity is coal mining by the Arktikugol (Арктикуголь) company. The coal is usually exported to Northern European buyers. The town relies entirely on mainland Russia for food and coinage. There have been instances in which not enough food was sent, and aid packages were sent from Longyearbyen. Tourism is now being developed, but does not yet generate enough income to revive the town.
The distance from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg is about 55 km but there are no roads connecting the two settlements. Most contact between the two is by boat, snowmobile, or helicopter. There is a heliport (ICAO code ENBA) with a road connection at Heerodden (78°06′03″N 14°11′46″E / 78.100809°N 14.196224°E / 78.100809; 14.196224), 4 km north of Barentsburg. Tourists usually arrive via a 2-3-hour boat trip from Longyearbyen. The coal is freighted by ship. The port is located in the middle of Barentsburg.
The Barentsburg Pomor Museum presents Pomor culture, Arctic flora and fauna, and archeological objects preserved in the permafrost. It is open when the daily, summer-only boat from Longyear arrives and by special arrangement. There is an athletic complex, including a swimming pool with heated seawater. Every summer, several dozen geophysicists, geologists, archeologists, biologists, glaciologists, geographers, etc., from Russia and elsewhere work in the scientific research centre. There is also a year-round meteorological observatory and the northernmost cosmic rays station.
Adrian Briscoe completed Dream Town, a feature-length film about Barentsburg, in 2014. Part documentary, part fantasy, Dream Town examines the stark reality of the miners, scientists, and children who live there and contrasts their unusual existence with fictional interludes they created with the director. From documentary to fiction, the film concludes with a series of resolutions centered on the themes of love, dreams and escapism.
Co-written by novelist Ray Robinson, Dream Town won the Best Picture award at both the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Derby Film Festival, UK in the spring of 2014.
Barentsburg has its own school serving the Russian community; in 2014 it had three teachers, with one for most subjects, one for music, and one for the English language. By 2014 its welfare funds had declined.
On October 17, 2006 Norwegian inspectors detected a smoldering underground fire in Barentsburg, prompting fears that an open fire might break out, which would have forced the total evacuation of Barentsburg for an indefinite period of time, and also cause unknown environmental problems for the entire archipelago. The fire was later contained. Coal mining resumed at the end of 2010.