Norilsk is home to the world biggest mining and metallurgy complex, and is shut off from the world in more ways than one.
From deep in Soviet times, it was ‘closed’ to outsiders, and currently remains exceptionally hard to visit for foreigners. It appears on lists of the top ten most polluted cities in the world, and yet has no road or rail connections to the ‘mainland’, as the rest of Russia is known here, and the sea port Dudinka, which is 100 km from Norilsk is closed for nine months a year. Yet, intriguingly, the 177,000 people living in Norilsk – which accounts for two per cent of Russia’s entire GDP – seem more contented than many others in Russia.
On a Saturday night, local photographer Nadezhda Rimskaya, 32, goes to OverTime bar to see the local rockabilly band. Nadezhda graduated from a college in St Petersburg but decided to return home and has been working here for the last four years. The concert finishes after midnight and the group of young people decide to go for a late dinner.
Luckily there are places where the kitchen remains open after midnight – for example Maxim pub. Indeed, Moscow-level restaurants and night clubs, bars and coffee shops, are increasing in Norilsk powered by the high demand, surprising as this may seem.
‘Norilsk misses just two things – oxygen and the internet’, says Nadezhda on her night out, referring to the general lack of oxygen in the air in the north and the absence of the high speed internet in the city. Everything else is fine here and in many ways much better than in many Russian cities. I’m honestly surprised when I hear people say that Norilsk is ‘horrible’. That’s just a misinformed stereotype.’
And indeed the existing stereotypes can really scare people off, drawing an image of Norilsk as a freezing, dark and polluted former Gulag camp. True enough, Norilsk did originate from NorilLag, the biggest Gulag labour camp set up in 1935. Inhumane work conditions, freezing cold, and a lack of food were the reasons of the high mortality rate in this Stalinist hell. The last year of NorilLag – 1953 – became the first year of Norilsk as a city.
‘NorilLag is a tragic page of our city’s history,’ acknowledges Lada Shebeko, head of the literature section of the Norilsk drama theatre, who was born and lived all her life in Norilsk. ‘17,000 people died in the Gulag here. But the north was always a struggle even after the camp was abolished.
‘Man coming to the empty Arctic and building a city here cannot do it easily in any case. And Norilsk accepts only the strong and beautiful souls.
‘Back in those days as well as in our time, there always were and are people whom the north doesn’t accept and it’s good that nowadays they can leave for the mainland. But there are others who not only adapt to the north but fall in love with this land and are not willing to leave it. Our theatre invites a lot of actors and stage directors from the mainland.
‘Our main director is from Omsk and the leading actors are from Krasnoyarsk and other cities. They see the opportunities for themselves here and like the company.’
Natalia Fedyanina, project curator at a local media holding, is one such professional who came to Norilsk from the ‘mainland’. Working in Moscow, she got an offer in Norilsk from the Prokhorov Fund, a private charity foundation, and when it moved to Krasnoyarsk, she stayed.
‘It was my deliberate choice to come to Norilsk, and I have spent already seven years here, and love it. I don’t see this city as an obstacle to my professional life since I am implementing a lot of social projects here that would be impossible to do on the mainland. Like ‘Sowing project’. It wouldn’t make sense anywhere but in such an Arctic city as Norilsk, that lacks greenery.
‘Every time I hear something bad about Norilsk, I feel very sad as it’s doesn’t depict the reality here. The Gulag era is in the past and now people gladly come to work and grow as professionals here. Last year, for example, my 34 year old brother moved to Norilsk and now works as a history teacher at school. It’s not a prestigious job, but here he got a chance to do what he likes, and to be paid for it. First I thought that I would need to help him to adapt, but soon he found friends and now I rarely see him as he socializes and has a life of his own.’
Natalia herself shines with joy telling about how she brings the best Moscow experts to Norilsk to give lectures, and how the citizens welcome guests from the ‘mainland’.
‘The only thing that felt uncomfortable for me was the lack of cultural life. You do not have the variety of the workshops or lectures here like in Moscow, so I decided to create a monthly lectures by bringing people from Moscow. And it’s created big interest. We brought famous Russian designers … and all the seats for such lectures are booked in advance.’
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