Norilsk: The World’s Most Northerly (and Most Polluted) Major City

This is the third entry of a three-part series regarding three major infrastructural projects tied to the Soviet Gulag system. Part one can be found here; part two can be found here.
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NASA Earth Observatory image of Norilsk and environs. Pink and purple areas represent bare ground; areas stripped of vegetation for mining and/or so polluted that the vegetation has died. From downtown Norilsk it is 48 kilometres to the nearest tree.

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Real-colour image of Norilsk and environs. Note the massive amount of barren land south of the city. Click on the image to enlarge to full resolution (2463 x 2505). Source: NASA, http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/257397main_PIA10627_full.jpg.

One of the major legacies of the Gulag system is the dozen and dozens of settlements that were constructed for or by Gulag labourers, especially in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Many of these, such as Magadan and Vorkuta, were essentially built from scratch; others such as Dudinka were old trading and shipping forts absorbed into the Gulag system and transformed into camp communities. The largest such city just happens to be the most remote, most northerly, and climatically-harshest major city on the planet: Norilsk. Inaugurated as a small northern outpost in 1921, Norilsk truly began in 1935 as the base for the Norillag prison camp designated to exploit the metallurgical potential of the region. Over the two decades of the camp’s existence, 500 000 prisoners were sent to Norilsk. More than 18 000 died in the brutal conditions of Norilsk, whether constructing the city or labouring in the mines and their related spinoff projects. Yet, many of those interned at Norilsk stayed after the end of Stalinism to live and work in the city they built by hand. Without the use of forced labour, the post-Stalinist government used guaranteed salaries and social benefits to keep the workers satisfied, resulting in a rather advanced level of social infrastructure in the city by Soviet standards – a 180-degree turnaround from the conditions of the Gulag, attracting workers from across the Union.

At the Arctic edge of Krasnoyarsk Krai, Norilsk is the northernmost city in the world with a population above 100 000 (around 132 000 reside there). The city lies in the continuous permafrost zone above the Arctic Circle; the permafrost is so deep that building foundations and pipes cannot be placed in the ground (buildings are built on piles; pipes travel above ground insulated in wooden casings). 20°C is reached for perhaps two weeks in summer; temperatures here drop into the -50s °C in winter (the year-round average is -10°C). In the dead of winter (which lasts from September to June), there is no sun whatsoever for 45 days, and the snow never does melt completely away. Norilsk is so remote that when people head out of town, they say that they are ‘going to the mainland’ even though Norilsk is not located on an island. The capital of Krasnoyarsk Krai (Krasnoyarsk, of course) is 1 500 km away (a week’s sail up the Yenisey River); Moscow is 4 000 km away – a four-hour flight in which one crosses four time zones. All trade is generally conducted through the nearby Yenisey port of Dudinka, from which product is shipped via the Arctic Ocean to Murmansk or south to Krasnoyarsk.

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Source: V. Dovenko, http://lh3.ggpht.com/_hVOW2U7K4-M/S3kO0dv8QXI/AAAAAAABP48/0ajnUQem7Zg/s640/345ywe45tyewrgde.jpg.

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Dead dwarf trees stick out of the tundra in the background.

Norilsk is the main operations hub for Norilsk Nickel (Nornik), the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium (control of Norilsk Nickel is currently being fought over by duelling Russian oligarchs; were this a business blog, there could be a new entry every week on this story). Nornik produces one-fifth of the world’s nickel at Norilsk. The transition from communism to capitalism hasn’t exactly rid Norilsk of autocratic rule. Norilsk is one of Russia’s several dozen ‘closed cities’: all but off-limits to foreigners and access-restricted even among Russian citizens. Most of the governing politicians in the region are tied to Nornik. As the only major non-governmental employer, Nornik dominates every facet of the town (90 percent of Norilsk’s tax revenues come from Nornik), exploiting the city completely for its resources as it destroys the ecosystem around it and puts the health of its employees and city’s residents at severe risk.

According to some estimates, a full 1 percent of global sulphur dioxide emissions come from Norilsk5 000 tonnes a day, more than the entire country of France (it certainly helps when the government not only looks the other way but grants permits to do so). The soil is so contaminated that it is now economically feasible to mine it; it even contains economic grades of platinum and palladium. During spring thaw, metal soot enters ponds and streams and forms layers on the bottom one to two metres deep. Snow falls black, yellow, or even pink in addition to white, and acid rain covers a surrounding expanse the size of Germany. It’s easy to see how these conditions have ensured the life expectancy for factory workers in Norilsk is ten years shorter than the Russian average (which itself is shorter than it was twenty years ago), putting Norilsk on par with sub-Saharan Africa. Children who have lived their entire lives in Norilsk find themselves with a myriad of health problems. In the struggling post-Soviet economy, the aging Stalinist buildings of the city are crumbling away, adding to the bleak aura of the city. One doesn’t have to think hard to guess why the government doesn’t want people entering Norilsk. It’s also unsurprising that once the Soviet Union collapsed, the population of the city plummeted by 40 000 residents as people finally had the freedom to leave (and the state supports them; anyone wishing to leave receives a plane tickets and a small subsidy, and residents of 15 years or more are offered free accommodation anywhere else in the country for life). Of course, older residents on pensions might have difficulty with such a move, seeing as pensions are 2.6 times greater in Norilsk than ‘on the mainland’; working-age residents are trapped as the economic engine sputters. Those who actually choose to move to Norilsk are usually specifically recruited for specialised jobs and looking for a quick buck.

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The view from the city square, with the Nadezhda (‘Hope’) smelter in the background.Source: http://ra0ba.qrz.ru/images/norilsk.jpg.

One of the first results that comes up in a web search for ‘Norilsk’ is what at first glance appears to be a small website promoting tourism in the city and its ‘lush green landscape’. Given Norilsk’s status as a closed city and its horrific environmental condition, this may seem unlikely, and it is: it doesn’t take much reading to discover that this is an obvious satire on the bleakness of the town. The conditions of the city are mocked by the proprietor, for example, via this video:

Below, a non-satiric December drive through Norilsk:

Norilsk now has an active 24-hour webcam, and a very good photo essay can be found here. It is rather interesting to note that the Soviet-era street names have still not been changed 20 years after the collapse of communism.

Further Reading

af1461 (2009). Photo Essay Of The Week: Norilsk, An Arctic Oasis. Russia!, 11 May 2009. Available at http://community.livejournal.com/russiamagazine/8745.html. Accessed 14 November 2010.

Eberovsky, V.K. (2000). Lyudi Noril’laga. Krasnoyarskaya Pyatnitsa 15-16: 109-110. Available at http://www.memorial.krsk.ru/Public/00/20000609.htm. Accessed 13 November 2010.

Foek, A. (2008). Norilsk Nickel: A Tale of Unbridled Capitalism, Russian Style. CorpWatch, 9 October 2008. Available at http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=15215. Accessed 14 November 2010.

Galpin, R. (2007). Toxic truth of secretive Siberian city. BBC News, 5 April 2007. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6528853.stm. Accessed 14 November 2010.

Helque, E. (2004) .The City Which Should not Exist. Russian Life 47(5): 38-45. Available at http://web.sci.ccny.cuny.edu/~znamensk/norilsk.pdf. Accessed 14 November 2010.

Kramer, A.E. (2007). Norilsk Journal: For One Business, Polluted Clouds Have Silvery Linings. New York Times, 12 July 2007. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/12/world/europe/12norilsk.html?_r=1&ref;=world. Accessed 14 November 2010.

Paton Walsh, N. (2003). Hell on Earth – Norilsk in Russia. The Guardian, 18 April 2010. Available at http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=1409. Accessed 13 November 2010.

Popova, N. (2008). Norilsk Cited in Pollution Inquiry. The Moscow Times 3969, 19 August 2008. Available at http://www.blacksmithinstitute.org/articles/file/Norilsk+Cited.pdf. Accessed 13 November 2010.

Russia Today (2007). Russia Close-Up: Norilsk – Russia’s aluminium heart. RT, 2 November 2007. Available at http://rt.com/news/prime-time/russia-close-up-norilsk-russias-aluminium-heart/. Accessed 13 November 2010.

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One thought on “Norilsk: The World’s Most Northerly (and Most Polluted) Major City


  • Russian security services responsible for closing down NORILSK's only Christian radio station, New Life Radio Norilsk, FM 103. Harrassed Christian pastor who owned the radio license, eventually got him fired from his management job at a state owned telecom company (where the little radio studio was located). As he and the station were reorganizing, the federal broadcast service issued warnings that they were not doing enough local broadcasts during the day, using NLR Moscow satellite programming (their main provider). The radio station was making a favorable impact on people in this suffering city. Seems dictatorship is never comfortable with freedom loving Christians

    story at http://www.CRFR.org New Life Radio at http://www.NLRadio.net

    from: Daniel Johnson, Christian Radio for Russia, 520 Spring Street, Jamestown, NY 14701

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