Spitsbergen is an archipelago in the Norwegian Sea, approx. 565 Km north of Norway. The group contains three bigger and some smaller islands between  71°-81° N & 10°-35° E. The area is 63.000 Km² (about the size of Ireland), and 60% is covered by glaciers. This was not always the case 360 - 60 million years ago Spitsbergen could be found at the equator in the Atlantic Ocean. Slowly the archipelago moved to the north.

Spitsbergen got its name from the Dutchman  Willem Barentsz in 1596, when he was on his way to Novaya Zemlya, searching for a northern route to Asia.
Although the name Spitsbergen (or Spitzbergen in German) is wellknown, the Norwegians prefer Svalbard which means 'cold coast'. The earliest known time this name was mentioned, is in an Icelandic book from 1194, it is not sure that this is really todays Svalbard. When the Norwegians talk about Spitsbergen, they only mean the big western inhabited island.
Willem Barentsz thought it was a piece of Greenland, therefor the Danish thought it was theirs. After a couple of years the whalers mapped the whole coastline and the battle about the whales started. Whales had a great value because of their 'blubber'
In 1906 the American buisiness man called John Munroe Longyear founded a mining company in Adventfjorden. This led to Longyearbyen and the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani A/S (SNSK). Today there is still mining in Mine nr. 7 & Sveagruva. Also there is a mine in Barentsburg, by a Russian company Trust Arktikugol. 

Since 1920 Norway has had sole sovereignty over the islands (see first part of the treaty below). But the country stands by itself, the taxes are different and the money from Spitsbergen stays in Spitsbergen. There is no tax on alcohol and tabacco, so the prices are much lower than in Norway.)
It is ruled by the governor (The Sysselmann), who is elected.
Remains from before 1946 are cultural heritage, this means that they have to be protected from damage.
Examples are remains of mining and whaling.

Spitsbergen has approx. 2500 inhabitants, (roughly the same as the number of Polar Bears in the Barentz Sea). Longyearbyen is the capital. Barentsburg with its coalmines comes second. 450 people from Russia and the Ukraine live there, working for Trust Arktikugol. It is a Russian enclave with its own powerstation, hospital, hotel, sportshall and even greenhouse and a farm with pigs and cattle. The Russian consulate can be found in Barentsburg.  

If you want to do some shopping, you have to do it in Longyearbyen. There is a real shoppingmall. In Ny Ålesund there is a little shop, but it only sells some basic items.
Souvenirs can also be bought in the Russian towns Barentsburg & Pyramiden.

Annex 1

Treaty between Norway, the United States of America, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas and Sweden relating to Spitsbergen of 9 February 1920

The Treaty has been ratified by all of the saidsignatories and the instruments of ratification have been deposited at Paris on the following dates: the Netherlands 3 September 1920, Great Britain and Ireland 29 December 1923, Denmark 24 January 1924, the United States of America 2 April 1924, Italy 6 August 1924, France 6 September 1924, Sweden 15 September 1924, Norway 8 October 1924, Japan 2 April 1925.

The Treaty enetered into force in its entirety on 14 August 1925.

As of 14 September 1999, the following states are parties to the Svalbard Treaty: Afganistan,Alabania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Egypt, Finland, France,Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand,Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania,Russia, SaudiArabia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland,South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Venezuela

Article 1

The High Contracting Parties undertake to recognize, subject to the stipulations of the present Treaty, the full and absolute sovereignty of Norway over the Archipelago of Spitsbergen, comprising, with Bear Island of Beeren-Eiland, all the islands situated between 10° and 35° longitude East of Greenwich and between 74° and 81° latitude North, especially West Spitsbergen, North-East Land, Barents Island, Edge Island, Wiche Islands, Hope Island or Hopen-Eiland, and Prince Charles Forland, together with all islands great or small and rocks appertaining thereto.