One of the few cities located above the polar circle, the Siberian city of Norilsk is isolated from the rest of Russia, accessible only by air. Waterways connecting the city to the rest of the world can only be used during the summer months.
Interest in the city began when geologists discovered rich deposits of nickel, copper and cobalt in the area in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1936, Russia built a mining and metallurgical complex in the area using Gulag prisoners. The forced labor workers constructed the city, mines, and factories over a period of 20 years.
Norilsk is now home to over 170,000 people, making it one of the largest arctic cities. Architects attempted to protect residents from violent winds by grouping buildings together, forming enclosed courtyards. Narrow passageways between buildings allowed for easy access.
Today, the city exists because of the mining and the metallurgical complex. Minerals are extracted in six underground mines, providing employment for over half of Norilsk’s population.
Even commuting becomes dangerous when it means crossing 15 miles of tundra in a snowstorm. Public buses travel in convoys of 15-20 vehicles, so that if a bus breaks down, passengers can be immediately evacuated onto another bus.
One of the coldest cities in the world, Norilsk has an average yearly temperature of 15 degrees Fahrenheit, with winter spanning 280 days of the year and reaching lows of -58 degrees. Temperatures feel even colder with wind chill, and heat is required for approximately 10 months out of the year.
The city’s factories and mines operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Norilsk is one of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, according to the Blacksmith Institute. Noxious gases permeate the air, including over 2 million tons of sulfur dioxide released annually. Little vegetation remains in a 20-mile radius around the city; soil samples reveal high levels of copper and nickel.
Workers in the smelting metal complex breathe through masks or with the help of tubes hooked to oxygen tanks. Extreme conditions are exacerbated due to pollution, heat and noise. Workers are compensated for their risks with 90 days of vacation and an early retirement at age 45.
At the mines, employees work eight-hour shifts for three days and then receive a day of rest. They rotate between daytime, evening and overnight shifts.
There is a myth in Russia that Norilsk residents are very rich and bathing in gold. The myth’s origins lie in the city’s glorious history during the Soviet period, when there was high funding for development in the area. At the time, salaries were four times higher than in the rest of the country.
Today, the average worker makes a monthly salary of $1,200-2,000. Public sector workers earn between $400-700. The cost of living is also much higher in Norilsk due to expensive imported food, the extended heating season and travel to-and-from the isolated region.
The allure of making money in Norilsk’s harsh climate disappeared after Perestroika and the disintegration of the USSR. The 1990s then brought a period of economic upheaval, resulting in abandoned businesses and inflation. The city now faces increasing numbers of decrepit buildings.
Anna Vasilievna Bigus, 88, spent a decade in the Gulag at Norilsk. She had survived the German invasion in her village, located in the western part of Ukraine. She was sent to Norilsk at age 19 after the Soviets considered her to be a collaborator to the German army. During her imprisonment she worked on the construction of buildings along Lenin Avenue, the main street of the city. She remained in the city after her release at age 29, having lost everything in Ukraine and having nowhere else to go.
“The only joy we could have in Gulag was singing. We sang a lot. And this gave us the force to survive,” Vasilievna said.
She died on Oct. 30, 2012.
Snow covers the city eight to nine months of the year. During this period, over 2 million tons of snow fall on Norilsk, or about 10 tons per inhabitant. The height of snow drifts can reach almost 10 feet.
During the winter months, it is difficult to break the daily cycle of going from home to work and from work to home. The harsh weather almost forbids any outdoor activities, so most activities occur in indoor, restricted spaces.
Sports have become an important way to remain healthy and active. Norilsk has produced several Russian champions in gymnastics, figure skating, skiing and swimming.
The polar night is a period of the year when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, leaving the area without daylight. They begin at the end of November at last through January.
Children are allowed to go for walks outside only under certain conditions. Sometimes they have to spend several months indoors.
The two months of polar nights in Norilsk contribute to decreased levels of the hormone melatonin in residents, which can cause insomnia, anxiety and depression. Most apartments in Norilsk have UV lamps that reproduce natural light, in an effort to combat these effects. Many people also use lamps for indoor gardens that provide some signs of life in the bleak climate.
Once a month, the "Mechanika" night club is put on, organized by a group of volunteers. The dance club provides a rare opportunity to listen and dance to new music.
Young people born in Norilsk usually have one wish – to leave the city. They study to get accepted to a high school on the "mainland" and hope to find work there. The extreme weather, pollution, geographic isolation and lack of cultural and employment opportunities all contribute to their desire to flee.
Architects who were imprisoned in the Gulag helped create Norilsk’s city plan in 1940. The goal was to create an ideal city using a simple and logical method. The oldest buildings were made in the style of Stalinist architecture.
Norilsk’s "walrus" club participates in ice swimming, regardless of the temperature outside. Often, the colder it is, the more people are involved. Afterwards people warm up in small banyas (saunas) that are located on the edge of the lake and heated from the steam of the power plant.
There are signs that Norilsk is making efforts to combat its high pollution by replacing old equipment with new more environmentally friendly technology.