Like many of the cities that were built and populated against all odds in the days of the Soviet Union's breakneck development of the 1930s and 40s, Norilsk doubled up as a prison camp, part of the vast network of forced labour colonies that became an indispensable element of Soviet economic planning. Founded in the 1920s and officially established as the centre of a mining and metallurgical complex near the mouth of the Yenisei River far above the Arctic Circle, the city also served as the administrative centre of Norillag, a network of prison camps that are estimated to have processed around 400,000 prisoners from 1935 until 1956. Tens of thousands of prisoners died building a city in the frozen tundra that now has a population of over 175,000, making it the second largest city within the Arctic Circle.
After the discovery of huge deposits of nickel, palladium and other valuable minerals at the foot of the Putorana Mountains by a geological survey between 1919 and 1922, the site quickly gained in importance in the feverish drive for industrial production in the 1930s. Since all materials had to be transported up the Yenisei river to Krasnoyarsk or shipped downstream to the Kara Sea and across to Murmansk, a railway line to Vorkuta, some 1,000 km to the West, was begun in the early 1950s but discontinued after Stalin died.
According to the official records of Norillag, 16,806 prisoners died in Norilsk between 1935 and 1956 from exhaustion, forced labour and intense cold. When news of Stalin's death reached Norilsk in 1953, over 16,000 inmates in started a 69 day strike. It became knowns as the Norilsk Uprising and remains the longest uprising in the history of the Gulag. An unknown number of prisoners continued to work in the mines until the late 1970s.
Norilsk's viability in post-Soviet Russia is for now guaranteed by the profitability of its mines which churn out 17% of the world's nickel and 41% of the world's
palladium, accounting for 1.9% of Russia's GDP. Over the decades the mining and metallurgical complex has expanded to include 6 vast underground mines which have tunnelled some 800 kms under the permafrost. Over half of the population of Norilsk is in some way involved in natural resource sector.
The relentless extraction of minerals has taken its toll on the environment and propelled Norilsk into the top ten most polluted cities in the world. Two million tonnes of noxious gases, mainly sulphur dioxide, get hurled into the atmosphere each year and some 100,000 hectares of formerly virgin tundra now lies devastated, covered in dead and dying trees and putrid waterways. The city is ringed by rubbish dumps where obsolete industrial equipment is dumped along with domestic rubbish and other detritus.
Yet the degraded environment is but one factor which makes life in Norilsk more difficult and, in many cases, much shorter than in other parts of Russia. Life expectancy is around 10 years less than the average and cancers, respiratory diseases, skin ailments and mental health problems are all too common.
Residents of this remote outpost face daily challenges, from the extreme weather with temperatures as low as -55C to a total of 280 days of cold weather per year with 130 days shrouded in snowstorms. For six weeks, from December until mid January, the sun doesn't rise at all in Norilsk. This, along with the 6 weeks in summer when the sun doesn't set, has been linked to sleep abnormalities, anxiety disorders and depression. Being so completely isolated, Norilsk offers little in the way of short breaks without having to board a plane and head south. The city's young complain about the lack of stimulation and opportunities to enjoy themselves and during the long months of intense cold, much human activity happens indoors - in community centres and in peoples' homes.
Elena Chernyshova received a Lagardere Foundation grant to complete this study of a human community living in almost complete isolation in some of the harshest environmental conditions imaginable. The city is a testament to human adaptability, endurance and versatility.