The winter landscape of the tundra is not known for its diversity. You realise this almost immediately when you arrive in Norilsk — once your teeth stop chattering. The endless expanse of snow and ice is only occasionally interrupted by the black trunks of dwarf birch trees, which look as though they have been drawn in pencil on a sheet of white paper. Beyond this scene, the perfect trapezoid of Mount Schmidt shines blue; somewhere to the left, the faint strokes of a railway line, twisted this way and that by the eternal winter, interrupt the landscape.
If a storm lashes bursts of air on to the line, these strokes disappear. Instead, a wall of snow emerges from the permafrost, which is then moulded into a tunnel by snow-clearing machinery. Under the influence of pressure and cold, the snow and ice is compacted into a rigid crust that looks more like an abstract work of art than the result of infrastructural maintenance. It seems here that the weather gods have taken the phrase “Let it snow” a little too seriously.
In Norilsk, found on the 69th parallel within the Arctic Circle, the Siberian winter starts in October. As the curtain falls on the autumn, the lights go out and the temperature drops as low as -40°C. For three months, the city is shrouded in dark, dense polar night, with daylight persevering for only two or three hours a day. By April, the sun’s rays begin to shine more strongly, the snow starts to melt and the city’s streets become damp. At the end of June, Norilsk is visited by a proper — albeit short — summer: the temperature hits 30°C and the days are long and bright. Even in this brief summer, however, you can stumble upon a dirty, melting snowdrift that has managed to remain intact in the shadows.
"You could be forgiven for thinking the city was designed to resemble a frozen hell"
Disrupted sleep and fluctuating temperatures are but two of the woes faced by residents. Norilsk is situated in a valley, into which Arctic winds blow with vigour and enthusiasm. They reach speeds of 30 to 40 metres a second, laying waste to all in their way, picking up the snow and tossing it this way and that. Residents are sometimes barricaded in their homes by these relentless storms and forced to escape through their windows.
Then there are the mining and smelting factories, located in the hills around Norilsk. These puff out a plethora of harmful pollutants, which are whipped up by the winds and blown through the city. As a result, Norilsk is one of the most polluted cities on earth. The locals swear they can tell which way the wind is blowing by the smell, depending on whether the odour is sulphur dioxide or chlorine. Snow is frequently seen coloured with hues of rust, thanks to the high copper content here.
But however much you might wish to leave this city, it is very hard to do so — and not only because of the weather, which can mean you are stranded for days at the airport. Air fares to Moscow verge on astronomical and there are no other convenient ways to get out; the road network serves merely to connect the city with the airport and the neighbouring regions. Meanwhile, navigation on the great Yenisei River is possible only for a brief period before the snow hits, and even then it takes about 10 days by boat to reach Krasnoyarsk, the region’s principal city. Given this isolation, the residents of the Taymyr peninsula refer to the outside world as “the continent”.
“Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” would be an apt motto for the city, then, the sort of thing an enterprising businessman with his tongue in his cheek might print on a miniature power station to flog to any passing tourists. In a sense, the locals have taken it on already. Halfway from the airport to the city lies the Nadezhda — “hope” — nickel smelter. The road sign here, with the word “Nadezhda” crossed out, carries a specific symbolism in these parts. Another half an hour along the bumpy E666 highway — “The most northerly federal highway in Russia,” I’m proudly informed by the taxi driver — past industrial buildings, warehouses and a smoking copper smelter, and we have arrived in Norilsk.
This small city, which stretches only a couple of kilometres across, is a cryogenic chamber for Soviet-era architecture. The historic centre greets visitors with stern, almost classical, buildings of the Stalin era. These were built by political prisoners beside a concrete sculpture of Lenin, casting out his hand in a welcoming, commanding manner, pointing perhaps to a brighter future.
These beautiful but incredibly impractical buildings give way to the panel-made residential developments of the 1960s and 1970s. The grey, five-storey Khrushchyovka houses are well known to every resident of the former Soviet Union. Initially intended to serve as cheap, temporary housing, people across Russia continue to live in them — and northerners are no exception.
The final building to be constructed here was Arena-Norilsk, a monstrous retail centre inspired by the hypermalls of Moscow and built as a tribute of sorts to the dawn of Russian capitalism. This new temple to consumerism rose slowly, over seven years, on the deserted Oktyabrya Square, which marks the end of Prospect Lenina. For a while, it looked as though it would not be completed — the construction company’s accounts were frozen and building was suspended. Most of the city’s residents were convinced the leviathan would remain unfinished, that its rusty shell would be consumed by the snowy landscape. In the end, though, the centre was encased in tile and acrylic glass and opened to the public. With the exception of this colossus, these northern citizens have seen no new buildings for heaven knows how long.
The permafrost also imposes restrictions on property construction: the frozen land barely yields at all, so laying regular foundations is impossible. Housing in this northern outpost has to be built on solid metal piles driven into the ground — much like in Venice — to support the houses themselves.
However, even metal can crack under the impact of temperature and harsh winds: in Norilsk and the neighbouring village of Oganera, there are plenty of uninhabited, nine-storey concrete houses that look out listlessly onto the Arctic desert. The only building with foundations and a basement in Norilsk is an unremarkable residential site in the city centre, under which there is a bomb shelter; the stifling heat of the Cold War even reached these northerly latitudes.
From the time this land was first developed, it was obvious that it had strategic importance. In addition to nickel and copper, metals including cadmium, lead, arsenic, selenium and zinc are extracted in Norilsk. The reserves in the subsoil are so great that they have spawned several urban legends. One tells of a German company that wanted to buy the city’s dead rock as it was convinced that the exhausted material still held valuable metal that the local plants were unable to extract.
Whatever the case, craggy mountains of slag adorn the road into the city, while thousands of Norilsk residents — despite the local wealth of resources that sustains their community — continue to head to work in the deathly cold mines and sweltering smelting workshops.
In reality, the most valuable resource of this city cannot be found in any geological reference book. This treasure trove is its residents. The people of Norilsk are steadfast in their insistence that no gust of wind, not even the harshest, will break them. Others simply would not be able to make this remote and wild place their home; without a sense of team spirit, people would not last here for a single day.
"“You’ll never walk alone,” is not a motto for the locals, rather a raison d’être: when you face a blizzard so cold it batters and burns you, what choice do you have but to hold on to someone else’s shoulder?"
Last year, residents of Norilsk made it on to the national news thanks to a ridiculous situation at the city’s airport: a plane slid off the runway, at which point the passengers hopped off to push the stranded vehicle back on course. But, of course, every resident of Norilsk has, at some point, pulled an unfortunate neighbour’s car from a snow drift. Tricks like this are part and parcel of life here.
People from Norilsk have always been singularly hardy types. The first to arrive here were the elite of the Soviet intelligentsia: in the 1930s and 1940s, the Norilsk Correctional Labour Camp was a major point on the map of the infamous Gulag Archipelago. Architects, poets, military chiefs and engineers alike dug the permafrost with their hands; many of them found their final resting place here.
In 1952, the camp was disbanded, but those of a similar disposition were still drawn to the region: free thinkers, strong, highly professional and adventurous types in their own way. The north, the last white spot on the world map that had not yet yielded to human will, had a magnetic attraction for them. It was their own outer space.
Here, the conquerors of the tundra were able to dream the most incredible dreams: that a transparent dome would, one day, be constructed over the city; that cypress trees would sprout from Prospect Lenina; that mandarin oranges would be grown in hothouses at this northernmost edge of the world; that Lake Dolgoe would have its own yacht club, where sailing boats would glide over its millpond-like surface in summertime (this actually became a reality in the 1980s).
It seems today that no one is dreaming of a sub-Arctic garden city; it is clear to almost everyone that the city exists purely as an accessory to the local industrial facilities. The moment the minerals are truly exhausted, Norilsk will simply cease to exist. But this city that rose from the ice will always hold a special place for its residents, past and present. Those who have left always want to return.
So, what is the magic pull of the north? Why is it that people still flock here, to this place of deep, cold stillness?
When I raise my head above the ventral roar of the blizzard and the rhythmic crackling of the lamps, when I open my eyes, welded shut by the frost and I see the electricity of the northern lights streaming out, I think I begin to understand what it’s all about.