Norilsk Inferno - PhMuseum

Norilsk Inferno

Julien Chatelin

2015 - 2016

Built by political prisoners in the 1930’s with the promise of huge metallurgical reserves, the northern Siberian city of Norilsk is today the world’s largest Nickel and palladium producer. It is also one of the most polluted and coldest cities in the world. Yet in the words of Irina Prokhorova, literary critic and cultural historian, «everything there is so horrible that it becomes beautiful!»

Karlos Stajnèr, a gulag survivor, describes life in Norilsk in his memoirs: «The cold was so terrible that we had permanent headaches. But the worst were the snowstorms. When the Purga blew, it felt like the end of the world, it was dark, we were blind and the only thing we could hear was the screaming wind….groups of prisoners regularly disappeared in the storm. We would find them later, frozen to death, near the camp.»

Over 400 000 prisoners went through Norillag, the gulag of Norilsk between 1935 and 1953, and at least 17 000 died according to official figures. The accurate number could be around 100 000. The dead were buried in mass graves at the foot of mount Schmidtikha, but the bodies would re-appear when the snow melted. A memorial was erected on this site in 1990, which received the evocative name of Golgotha.

Today 177 000 people live in Norilsk, most of whom work for the metallurgical giant Norilsk Nickel - 2% of Russia’s GDP - that exploits the mineral reserves. In Norilsk, other than nickel and palladium, the company also exploits platinum, gold, silver, cobalt, coal, and cooper.

However this geological heaven is also a meteorological and environmental nightmare. Isolated on the permafrost of the Tamyr peninsula, 180 miles north of the polar circle, and 1800 miles from Moscow, Norilsk is not connected by any road or railway system, and the sea route is closed nine months of the year. It is one of the coldest cities on earth, with a yearly average of -11°c; and temperatures that reach -60°c during the polar nights, when the sun barely appears during four months, and not at all during six weeks.

According to the Black Smith Institute, the three smelters of Norilsk release four million tons of toxic smoke, and that includes not only two million tons of sulfur dioxide, but also strontium-90 and caesium-137. These smelters are responsible for the spread of smog and acid rain on a territory the size of Germany.

Not surprisingly respiratory diseases in Norilsk are much higher than the national average, and 15% of child mortality cases are caused by pollution.

Norilsk exemplifies Dante’s description of the “Inferno” in many ways: rivers of blood and fire, dried out forests, freezing winds, horrible smells, darkness. Living among the phantoms of gulag martyrs (an estimated 100 000 died in Norillag) the inhabitants of Norilsk are ambivalent about their city. If many express the desire to leave, they are much attached to their city and their community. People here express the solidarity of the ones sharing a common destiny.

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  • Norilsk, Russia, August 2015.
    Residential area. The street numbers are written large and high so inhabitants can find their way during winter storms.

  • Norilsk, Russia, August 2015.
    Nickel Factory

  • Norilsk, Russia, May 2015.
    Nikolaï and Stefan, high school students. 13 &14 years old in front of mount Schmidtikha. Most children, will later attend the technical school, and end up working for the factory.

  • Norilsk, Russia, May, 2015.
    Denis 28 years old, electrician at Norilsk Nickel.

  • Norilsk, Russia, November 2016.
    Statue of Avraham Pavlovich Zavenyagin founder of the Norilsk Nickel Kombinat. He is also one of the fathers of the USSR nuclear program.

  • Norilsk, Russia, August 2015.
    Open Nickel mine.

  • Russia, Norilsk, August 2015.
    Dead forest near the Nickel factory. The soil is heavily polluted 100 km around the factories and residents are forbidden from gathering berries or mushrooms due to their high toxicity.

  • Norilsk, Russia, May 2015.
    Polluted river by the Norilsk Nickel factory.

  • Norilsk, Russia, May 2015.
    Decoration on the wall of the coal processing factory.

  • Norilsk, Russia, November 2016.
    Sasha 21, in his personal sunbathing machine. In the long dark winters inhabitants of Norilsk suffer from the lack of sun.

  • Norilsk, Russia, November 2016.
    Norilsk walrus club.
    Winter swimmer in lake Dolgoe which sits between the city and the nickel factory. The outside temperature is -25c°, but a small portion of the frozen lake, melts due to warm waters expelled by the nearby power plant.

  • Norilsk, Russia, November 2016.
    Administrative building.

  • Norilsk, Russia, November 2016.
    In the satellite city of Kayerkan,
    Tatyana, from Moscow works as a concierge in a Gostinka. (workers housing)

  • Norilsk, Russia, November 2016.
    Nadezhda Metallurgical Plant, which translates into "the hope factory".
    A study showed that the life expectancy of a factory worker at the smelters is 10 years less than the country average. The Kombinat has recently implemented new mesures to protect the health of its workers.

  • Norilsk, Russia, August 2015.
    Nickel factory. Old city. This was the oldest of the three smelting plants of Norilsk. It was partially closed in July 2016.

  • Norilsk, Russia, November 2016.
    A migrant worker from Kazakstan, is working on isolating pipes in the outskirts of Norilsk.

  • Norilsk, Russia, November 2016.
    Satellite city of Kayerkan. A child jumping over a small stream.

  • Norilsk, Russia, November 2016.
    "Stariy Gorod". Old city of Norilsk in the industrial area. Now destroyed. This was an old appartement building abandoned in the early 90s.


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