Norilsk, Stalin’s Siberian Hell, Thrives in Spite Of Hideous Legacy – by Robert G. Kaiser (Washington Post – August 29, 2001)

Is there any stranger human habitation on Earth than this?

In Norilsk, 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, the sun does not rise for three months a year, the winter temperatures remain under 30 degrees below zero, and the air is, literally, the dirtiest on the globe. Yet there is a full-blown city of 230,000 here, whose citizens are fierce local patriots with a romantic sense of their own uniqueness.

They live in a place created by zeks, political prisoners who populated Joseph Stalin’s gulag — perhaps 100,000, or even 200,000 died in its building; the exact number is lost or buried in still-sealed archives. They were inmates in an unimaginable chamber of horrors, a community of prison camps designed to create nickel and copper industries, and to kill people. It succeeded impressively on both counts.

Modern Norilsk is populated by descendants of those prisoners, among many others, and the city remembers its horrific past. This is unusual in Russia, where forgetting is easier. On the busy streets of Norilsk in August, with pretty women on parade and children chasing each other on bikes and in-line skates, that past seems so remote as to be unreachable.

But it is not. Someone 65 years old today was born in the first year of maximum horror here — 1936. There was nothing near Norilsk then but a primitive camp set up by the first prisoners, who arrived in 1935.

Five arctic winters later there was a functioning nickel smelter whose production was carried to the Yenisey River port of Dudinka, about 50 miles away, on a railroad line that was the zeks’ first accomplishment. The nickel went into the tanks and other armor that saved Russia, and perhaps the rest of Europe, from the Nazis.

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