Wrap up warm, this article is going to take you on a journey to the edge of the world, to a place where the rivers run red and minus fifty (yup, -50°C/-58°F) is a normal temperature. This is a place where the snow falls black, the air tastes of poison and the world’s largest nickel plant dominates the skyline.
Welcome to Norilsk, Russia.
Located above the Arctic Circle, Norilsk is the world’s northernmost city and is situated deep in central-northern Russia, in Siberia, east of the Yenisei river.
Norilsk wasn’t always an environmental nightmare, it was once a GULAG slave labour camp, with 500,000 inmates building the city and industry. Before that, it was an icy and picturesque area in which adventurers loved to explore.
Credited as one of the founders of Norilsk was geologist Nikolay Urvantsev, who personally discovered rich deposits of precious minerals at the foot of the Putorana mountains. Urvantsev was accused by Stalin of ‘wrecking’, or ‘sabotage’ and ironically ended up as a slave in the Norilsk labour camp he helped to set up. He wasn’t released until after Stalin’s death in 1953.
Mining and smelting operations began back in the 1930s, not long after the settlement was chosen due to its natural resources, mainly nickel, but also copper, cobalt, platinum, palladium and coal. In February 1942, the furnaces were fired up for the first time to make tank armour, and in 1953 it was granted town status, with many people then moving there to get well-paying jobs.
The city contains the world’s largest heavy metals smelting facility on Earth, which emits 500 tonnes of copper oxide, 500 tonnes of nickel oxide and two MILLION tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere each year. This was built by slaves, thousands of which died in the process.
The average life expectancy of a factory worker in Norilsk is ten years below the national average. A study in 1999 found that pollution from factories here was being found in soil 60km away. The people here really work themselves to death, especially at Norilsk Nickel, where they produce 17% of the world’s nickel and 41% of the world’s palladium. This one business is responsible for 2% of Russia’s GDP, has around 100,000 employees and is part owned by famous Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
Norilsk children don’t get a fair start either. Awful air quality, which well exceeds the maximum allowable concentrations for several gases, has caused plenty of issues for those trying to raise a family. Miscarriages, premature births, late-term pregnancy complications and infant deaths are a normal part of life here. Respiratory diseases are the norm, and cancer rates are double, with how close you live to the nickel plants determining how likely you are to get sick.
The rivers running red, as we mentioned earlier, happened just once and was a reaction to a filtration dam leaking into the Daldykan river. The culprits? Norilsk Nickel.
Aside from black snow, you’ll probably see grey snow and white snow, and a lot more snow. It’s seriously cold in Norilsk, which makes it a tough place to live even when you look past the poor air quality and pollution. As the world’s most northern city, the average annual temperature is -10°C (14°F) with winter lows of -55°C (-67°F). It’s generally windy, grey and ‘cold’ 77% of the year. When the temperature hits -40°C, steam rises from beneath the ground and blankets the city in a fog that makes even seeing hard to do. The city streets were designed as narrow passageways to protect pedestrians from powerful icy winds.
The low temperatures often come during ‘polar night’ when the city is plunged into darkness for two months. Yes, you read that right. These incredible cycles of polar day and night create psychological phenomenons that cause people to behave strangely, in what is known as ‘polar night syndrome’. Since the environment can provide no excitement or motivation, people commonly get struck down with depression, insomnia, anxiety and nervousness.
In summer, the residents suffer the opposite problem, when the sun does not set for six weeks, instead, driving the locals crazy as it spins around in circles.
People spend the vast majority of their lives at home, at work, or shopping and struggle to socialise. However, volunteers come together once a month to open a proper night club so that the people can feel some semblance of a normal city life.
If you want to come and party in Norilsk, you’ll have to fly. There are no roads here, but during the warmer months, you can sail. Plus, you have to be from Russia or Belarus unless you have a special permit.
We interviewed Norilsk native Daria to ask a few questions about life in Norilsk.
“Well, the architecture is really cool, but we don’t have a lot of places to go to. Everyone is really friendly, mostly because we’re all in the same boat, and we know each other’s friends and family. It’s alright. When you’re there you don’t notice the pollution, you just live with it. I wouldn’t say it’s beautiful, but we do have the Aurora Borealis. It’s not all the time, but when it comes everyone looks up and watches. It looks impressive in photos, but in reality, it’s indescribable.”
How long did you live in Norilsk, and could you see yourself going back?
“No, I cannot see myself going back, I live in Moscow now. The teenagers are OK with living in Norilsk because they know as soon as they finish school, it’s a fact that you will leave and go somewhere else. It’s a city for grownups who want to make money. There’s no life for young professionals. I lived there for 17 years and as soon as I finished school, I left. I have a lot of friends who tried to go back when they had nowhere else to go, but even then they couldn’t live there for more than two years. Shit happens and people do go back there, but it’s not a majority.”
What can you do for fun? Are there any big events or festivals?
“There’s a guy called Mikhail Prokhorov, he’s a politician from Norilsk, and his sister makes culture festivals. She’s one of the people with money who really tries to make life better for people. Her festivals are called ‘museum nights’, they bring artists and musicians over and make a night at the museum where you can go and see the stuff. There’s film festivals, music festivals and cartoon festivals. She’s really into the culture.”
Did you have problems with being so remote?
“Sometimes we couldn’t get food in the shops because the airports and seaports were closed due to the weather. The shops didn’t have enough groceries, so we always had a pantry of food for emergencies. In these times the price of food was really high because it was imported. We can’t grow any food, but we do get a lot of fresh fish and deer meat, sometimes there are mushrooms in the summer.”
What happened when the weather was too bad?
“When the weather was really bad, school would be shut. We call this Aktirovka. We’d call up one number and listen to a guy talking about the weather and listing which schools and school years could take the day off school. Once, I got two months off school because of the weather. It was cool, I just chilled. They made a TV show for the students stuck at home to learn while the school was shut. It was great, nobody watched it.”
Is there anything to do nearby?
“We go to the tundra, which is a huge (almost) treeless area that is a popular holiday spot in the summer. You rent a house and go have barbecues. It’s nice!”