Stretching 7,000 kilometers around the top of the planet, Russia's Far North dwarfs the Arctic regions of the rest of the world put together. Russian bureaucrats call the Arctic the "Zone of Absolute Discomfort" – an icy wasteland dotted with decrepit towns and villages that is awful to live in, but is just about habitable enough for its communities to survive and extract millions of tons of oil, gas and minerals trapped under the tundra. Moscow sees the Arctic as strategic, targeting massive investment. It sent a submarine to plant a titanium flag on the seabed under the North Pole, symbolically claiming its energy deposits to bully gas-hungry European countries. At the same time, the North is dying. The present communities were created by Stalin, who sent prisoners all over USSR to the northern gulags to mine the resources. When Stalin died, the prisoners were freed but many stayed on to work at the pits and factories. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia no longer supported these remote Arctic settlements, and many of the gulag descendents now languish in poverty as factories, schools and hospitals close.
This story focuses on the Arctic people, their aspirations, their love and their survival in a landscape of bleak, haunting beauty.