Almost completely shut off from the outside world, the city of Norilsk in northern Siberia is a surreal place dominated by the world’s largest nickel plant. Pollution from the enterprise and the harsh climate make life hard for those who work here, but there is also a pride in surviving in such an inhospitable environment.
In the northern part of Siberia’s vast Krasnoyarsk Territory, not far from the Arctic Ocean, lies the city of Norilsk. It is often referred to using superlatives – the northernmost city in the world with more than 100,000 inhabitants, the most polluted city in Russia, one of the coldest cities in the world, and the home of the world’s most northern railway.
Snowdrifts on the streets of Norilsk may not melt until the following winter, the numbers on buildings are two meters big so that they can be seen during a blizzard and real summer here usually lasts for only one week. Temperatures in the city frequently drop to -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit) and below in winter.
Around 170,000 people live in the city, which foreigners can enter only with special permission. Most residents work for one of the wealthiest companies in Russia – Norilsk Nickel. The company is the world’s largest producer of non-ferrous metals, but simultaneously pollutes the fragile Arctic environment in a catastrophic manner.
A city built on prison labor
People had been settling south of the Taymyr Peninsula in northern Siberia for many centuries (both Russians and indigenous peoples of the north lived there), but Norilsk’s history began in the 1930s when under Stalin a Gulag camp was set up in the area and construction began on a mining and metallurgical plant.
“You can say that my family are native Norilsk residents,” says Tatyana Lavrushina, a library employee. “My grandfather built the first houses in the new city. He was an architect sent here from Leningrad. That’s why our city center looks like [St. Petersburg’s main artery] Nevsky Prospekt.”
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