Le città del Nord: Noril’sk, neve e nichel

🇮🇹 Per la versione italiana clicca qui.

In the northernmost reaches of the world, blows of icy wind as sharp as razor blades seem to be screaming to ward off the madmen who dare venture up there. They may seem threatening, but they are no more than compassionate for human life, which cannot hope to survive for long in those regions. However, its proverbial stubbornness and hunger for resources have brought mankind here too, where the only legitimate master is – or should be – the cold. About four million people live in the Arctic today, including members of the indigenous tribes that have been roaming here for centuries.

The overwhelming abundance of resources in the Russian Arctic has in every age driven hunters, explorers, merchants and soldiers to the inhospitable northern lands, fostering Russia’s rapid expansion. As early as the 9th century A.D., hunting parties would set out from the city of Novgorod in search of the precious furs of Arctic squirrels, wolves, white foxes and sables. The Russians thus began to get to know Karelia, the Kola peninsula, the shores of the White and Barents Seas and the indigenous peoples living there, reaching as far as the gates of Siberia. Arctic furs and the tribute that the Novgorod warriors and later the Moscow Cossacks obtained by force from the natives soon became the main source of revenue for the Russian state.

When Stalin became first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, he decided to transform the new socialist state into a world-class industrial power. The development of the Arctic thus began to be taken seriously. Terrible purges and arbitrary arrests led to the imprisonment of millions of people in GULag labour camps, strategically established in the north and in the most uninhabited parts of the Union, where no one would voluntarily move but where there was a great need for labour force. Workers built railroads, roads, bridges, waterways, industrial complexes and mines to allow the state to exploit the immense riches of the underground.

Norillag was one of many GULag labour camps. It had been founded to house tens of thousands of prisoners who had to work in the nickel, palladium and copper mines, resources in which the area on which the camp stood was extraordinarily rich. Norilsk, the town that grew up near what had been Norillag, which closed in 1956, is now the second largest city north of the Arctic Circle, with a population of more than 180,000 people.

Children in Norilsk receive a daily dose of ultraviolet rays during the polar night to compensate for the deficiency of vitamin D, which is synthesised by our bodies through the absorption of sunlight by the skin.

Norilsk is a truly extreme place. The polar night lasts for about two months, from November to January, when the sun does not rise. Similarly, in summer, the sun shines for the entire day, never setting. Snow covers the city for about two-thirds of the year, and average temperatures in winter are around 27 degrees Celsius below zero (-16.6 °F), reaching as low as -50 °C (-58 °F). However, Norilsk is exceptional not only for environmental reasons. The violent industrialisation to which it has been subjected has turned it into probably the most polluted city in the world. The furnaces and industrial plants that process the extracted metals release millions of tonnes of polluting and poisonous agents such as sulphur dioxide, cadmium, lead and arsenic every year into the air. These cause irritations, allergies, lung diseases and malformations in the local population and lead to an extremely high incidence of cancer cases.

The state of the air the inhabitants of Norilsk breathe is so bad that life expectancy at birth is around 60 years, ten years less than the rest of Russia. The rivers turn red due to the spillage of industrial production waste into their waters, and the acid rain that falls on the city sometimes has the same colour. Even snow often turns red, orange or yellow due to heavy metals and chemicals in the air.

In 2020, a cistern collapsed in the Ambarnaya river, spilling some 20,000 tonnes of diesel into it, colouring it red again and causing an environmental disaster of colossal proportions. As if this were not enough, in the region of the Taymyr peninsula, where Norilsk is, a rather high presence of radiation can be detected, caused by several underground nuclear explosions during the years of the USSR.

Norilsk was built as the socialist ideal city. Its architects wanted to combine functionality with the simplicity and rationality typical of the Soviet architectural style. The entire city is designed with great consideration for the environment in which it is located: the narrow passages between apartment blocks, the small courtyards and the position of the buildings serve to protect the population from the harsh Siberian winds. The blocks of flats are painted in bright colours to give a vague illusion of beauty in this frozen hell and to enable the inhabitants to recognise their homes during the long winter snowstorms.

For years now, there has been talk of cleaning up Norilsk and improving the environmental situation of the world’s most polluted city. Thirty years ago, at the fall of the USSR, the Russian government founded Nornickel. The state-owned mining and metallurgical company, now worth many billions of dollars, was supposed to invest in the renovation of the industrial facilities and the gradual reduction of pollution. It has hardly moved in this direction, as the 2020 accident also seems to prove.

Today, Norilsk remains a cold, polluted, isolated and deadly city. Respiratory diseases, cardiovascular degeneration, digestive malfunctions and tumours continue to kill the people who live there, and from the outside world no one can even access it without a specific permit issued by the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. The city is still closed and inaccessible. Its underground wealth must be protected at all costs.

Exactly as fifty years ago.


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