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-20 with a hint of sulfur

What life is like in the polluted city of Norilsk

There are no roads to this place. Your best bet is to catch the ferry in the summer or take a plane to the airport. If you’re invited of course.

That’s because Norilsk, the world’s northernmost city with more than 100.000 inhabitants is a closed city. You’ll need some connections in high places to get a ticket. Before you’ll run out to the nearest bookstore to get “Russian politics for Dummies”, let’s give the place a proper introduction:

Norilsk is among other Siberian settlements built in the 1930s under Stalin’s command by gulag prisoners and made itself notorious for the gulags there. The reason why the city was founded was however not to make the gulags the worst they could be, but because of the vast nickel reserves in the area, among the biggest in the world. It’s the only reason the city exists, and still exists. Nickel is used for various products like magnets, rechargeable batteries and in the production of stainless steel. Among other coins that are currently in use, the 1 and 2 euro coins also use a nickel alloy. After the Norilsk gulag closed in 1956 more and more labor was done by Soviet citizens rather than prisoners. The Soviet authorities made Norilsk an attractive place to work because of the higher wages in comparison to the rest of the USSR.

The end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s meant a decline in interest in the northern Siberian settlements. The far northern harbors built by the Soviets and visited by Soviet ships were largely abandoned and populations declined because of the lack of labor. Because the Norilsk nickel reserves had not run out yet, the city continued to operate. After the state seized control over the mines in the early 1990s, they were sold off, and Norilsk Nickel (or NorNickel for short) was founded. In 2007 Norilsk Nickel acquired numerous companies in Canada, Europe, Africa and the US, which made them the largest producer of nickel worldwide. The company has a revenue of over 8 billion USD, and thus contributes for an important part in the Russian national income. As much as 2% of the GDP, some say. NorNickel also owns the railway from Norilsk to Dudinka and the port of Dixon (on the northern coast) as well as the ships that transport the nickel to ports connected to railways, which means NorNickel handles both the mining, production and transport of nickel in the Norilsk area. This makes the city of Norilsk not only an economically but also strategically important place. With the increasing interest of the Russian government in the arctic regions of the country, the continuation of the closed city policy is understandable.

Both the climate and the distance to the connected road network (Norilsk has 1 federal highway (the A382) connected to Dudinka settlement, but the road is not connected to the rest of the network.) make the building of a road to Norilsk expensive and difficult. A road as a transport route for the nickel would be faster than the ships that are currently used to transport the nickel, but a train track instead of a road would be more feasible for bulk transport. The closest piece of connected highway is approximately 1.000 kilometers away and the harsh arctic climate would make a paved road very difficult to maintain. The airport, which due to the width of the airstrip can be used as an emergency landing spot for passenger flights, handles about 570.000 passengers a year, which is about double the amount of Groningen Airport Eelde. Flying is likely the fastest and most comfortable way of reaching Norilsk as a visitor.

But perhaps the aspect that Norilsk is most famous for is the severe pollution. Not only the connectivity and the arctic climate (-40 does happen) make the city unpleasant to live in, but the acidic rain, smog, heavy metal pollution in the rivers and soil, not to mention the lack of plants willing to grow on it (an area about as big as Germany is impacted) have a big impact on health in the city. The average life expectancy in Norilsk is just 61 years. Ten years lower than the whole of Russia, and almost 20 years lower than the Netherlands. Combine this with the polar night and you’ve got yourself something special. The title of ”Most depressing city in the world to live in” and a place in the Pure Earth’s top 10 most polluted places (right up there with places like Chernobyl) are not given without a reason.

“Norilsk Nickel feels like it owns the whole territory here, so [people] are afraid to speak out against it”

The quote above is from a Norilsk citizen in the short documentary My deadly beautiful city (which I recommend for anyone interested). “we all know about [the pollution] here. But nothing changes, no one protests”. Almost all the Norilsk residents work at NorNickel or at companies owned by NorNickel, so protesters would risk unemployment in a place where they, roughly speaking, got nowhere else to go. While NorNickel announced that they could handle cutting down on the emissions themselves as part of a long time vision, not a lot has changed in recent years. There have been projects to construct emission-reducing installations in NorNickel plants (some currently on the way) but there is scepticism about their effectiveness.

With the ever-high demand for stainless steel, the nickel from Norilsk will continue to be feasible for some time. I guess we’ll see what happens when the nickel runs out.

The short documentary “Frozen Dreams” about a coastal Siberian city on YouTube is also worth watching if you’re interested.

Location of Norilsk.

This article was first published in the First-year edition (Year 49 of Girugten – issue 01 – September 2018).



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