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Blessed with a cornucopia of precious metals buried beneath a desert of snow, but so bereft of sunlight that nights in winter never end, Norilsk, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is a place of brutal extremes. It is Russia's coldest and most polluted industrial city, and its richest — at least when measured by the value of its vast deposits of palladium, a rare mineral used in cellphones that sells for more than $1,000 an ounce.
It is also dark. Starting about now, the sun stops rising, leaving Norilsk shrouded in the perpetual night of polar winter. This year that blackout began last Wednesday.
Built on the bones of slave prison laborers, Norilsk began as an outpost of Stalin's Gulag, a place so harsh that, according to one estimate, of 650,000 prisoners who were sent here between 1935 and 1956, around 250,000 died from cold, starvation or overwork. But more than 80 years after Norilsk became part of the Gulag Archipelago, nobody really knows exactly how many people labored there in penal servitude or how many died.
The Norilsk camp system, known as Norillag, shut down in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev began to dismantle the worst excesses of Stalinism. The legacy of repressive control, though, lives on in tight restrictions on access to city. All foreigners are barred from visiting without a permit from Russia's Federal Security Service, the post-Soviet successor to the KGB.
"Norilsk is a unique city, it was put here by force," said Alexander Kharitonov, owner of a printing house in the city. "It is like a survivor. If it had not been for Norilsk, there would have been another principle of life in the Arctic: You came, you worked, you froze — and you left."
The residents of Norilsk have stayed, turning what until the 1930s had been an Arctic wilderness inhabited only by a scattering of indigenous peoples into an industrial city dotted with smoke-belching chimneys amid crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks and the ruins of former prison barracks.
The population dropped sharply after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which sent the economy into a tailspin. It has risen again, along with Russia's economic fortunes. Around 175,000 people now live year-round in Norilsk.
Beyond the city, which is 1,800 miles northeast of Moscow in northern Siberia, extends an endless, mostly uninhabited wilderness.
"Everything else is a vast wild land with a wild nature and no people," said Vladimir Larin, a scientist who lives in Norilsk. "This is where the last wild mammoths died. When they dug the foundations of the buildings, they found the bones of mammoths."
The bones of former prisoners also keep resurfacing, appearing each year when winter finally breaks in June and the melting snow carries to the surface these buried remains of the city's grim and, in official accounts at least, still mostly smothered past.
Some residents are the descendants of former slave laborers who stayed on simply because it was too hard to leave a place so remote that locals refer to the rest of Russia as "the mainland." There are no roads or railway lines connecting Norilsk to parts of Russia outside the Arctic. The only way to get in or out is by plane or by boat on the Arctic Ocean.
Many residents, however, came voluntarily, lured by the promise of relatively high salaries and steady work in the city's metallurgical industry, a sprawling complex of mines and smelters owned by Norilsk Nickel. The business is a privatized former state company that is the world's largest producer of palladium and also a major supplier of nickel, copper and other metals.
It is also one of the world's biggest producers of pollution, turning an area twice the size of Rhode Island into a dead zone of lifeless tree trunks, mud and snow. At one point, the company belched more sulfur dioxide a year than all of France. It has since taken some steps to reduce
its output of toxic waste but was last year blamed for turning the Daldykan, a river that runs by the plant, into a flow of red goo. Locals called it "blood river."
The company gets its products to market through a port at Dudinka on the Yenisei River, the largest of three great Siberian rivers that flow north into the Arctic Ocean.
Dudinka, as well as providing Norilsk's main outlet to the outside world, also offers a glimpse of the region's past. The settlement's natural history museum displays tents used by the four main indigenous peoples in the area. The biggest of these today are the Dolgans, a nomadic Turkic people that used to live off hunting and reindeer herding but were themselves herded into collective farms during the Soviet era.
There are now around 7,000 Dolgans, many of whom have given up their ancestors' shamanistic beliefs in favor of Christianity. Smaller native groups include the Entsi, of which there are only around 227 left in the region, which is known as Taimyr.
Traditional belief in shamanism has been steadily eroded by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been sending priests into the area since the 19th century and in 2000 built a new church on a bluff overlooking Dudinka port.
"Our children study their native language as if it were a foreign tongue," said Svetlana Moibovna, who is a member of the Nganasan indigenous group. "Many local people were persecuted for shamanism. One shaman in his dreams saw that the Russian god would defeat the shaman god and that only the Russian god would rule in Taimyr."
Despite the horrendously harsh climate, choking pollution and absence of sunlight from late November until January, many residents are fiercely proud of Norilsk — and their own ability to survive in an environment that even the hardiest of Russians living elsewhere would find intolerable.
Last winter, temperatures plunged to minus 62 Celsius (minus 80 Fahrenheit), and early winter this year has also been unforgiving, with temperatures in November already falling to around minus 20 Celsius, about 4 below Fahrenheit.
The cold has spawned a booming freelance taxi business because it is too cold to walk even short distances. Taxis charge a fixed price of 100 rubles (about $1.70) to go anywhere in the city. There are also buses, but it is too cold to wait outside so passengers crowd into nearby shops to shelter until their bus arrives.
But even the bitter cold is for some a source of delight, with the frigid waters of Lake Dolgoye attracting swimmers who revel in the bracing experience of bathing in ice. "After bathing, I have the feeling that I have been on vacation for a week," said Natalia Karpushkina, a 42-year-old who runs a local walrus club. The lake freezes only partially because of hot water pipes from a nearby power plant.
The city also has a large indoor swimming pool for those less keen on bathing in ice water.
Most of the work and leisure takes place indoors, particular in the winter period of perpetual darkness. Life inside became considerably less monotonous recently thanks to a long-awaited breakthrough: After decades of serving the digital economy by providing materials needed to make cellphones and computers, Norilsk got its first reliable internet service.
But even without the internet, it had replicated as best it could the amenities of a normal Russia city. The Norilsk College of Arts offers ballet lessons. Norilsk Greenhouse, a local company, grows cucumbers in heated shelters, while the Zaboi Bar offers revelers home brew and live music.
The bar's 30-year-old manager, Anton Palukhin, who moved to Norilsk with his parents from Kazakhstan when he was 5, said that he still struggles with the climate and that whenever he travels to warmer parts of Russia on vacation, dreads having to return to the Arctic.
"I really do not want to go back and am ready to give anything so that I don't have to fly," he said. All the same, he keeps coming back....Read more