Living in a Closed City
Consider an average temperature in winter well below -30 °C. and not seeing the sun for almost three months per year. Imagine living in a city that is physically disconnected from other large urban centers hence exists in relative isolation. Consider that the city you live in is officially a ‘closed city’, not allowing tourists without invitation. Consider living in one of the most polluted placed on earth. In reality such a city exists in Siberia, Russia. Norilsk, a city with 175.000 inhabitants, situated high above the Polar Circle, is an industrial city largely dominated by mining practices. As one of the largest mineral reserves of the world is situated here, the city view is dominated by chimneys at the borders of the city, causing health endangering pollution. It is fascinating to see that a city of that size is able to function in the extreme Siberian climate. But what is the history of the city, why is it situated there and why are people actually living in such a city?
The city’s origins lie in the end of 1920, when it was decided to build a metallurgic complex for extraction of the rich resources of the region. The city was built by Soviet Gulag prisoners and became the the center of a Gulag prisoner camp in 1935 which reached its highest peak of (mostly political) prisoners in 1951, having as many as 75.000 estimated prisoners. Later in the 1950s these same prisoners were abused in the plan of Joseph Stalin to connect the city to the South-East of the Soviet-Union and ultimately to Moscow itself with a railroad. The project was never finished, as the arctic climate proved to be a large burden, but at the cost of thousands of prisoners. For this reason the city is only accessible through air or the infamous Russian road system.
Norilsk is currently a so called ‘closed city’ since 2001, as it is for strategic reasons closed to foreigners. It is believed that these reasons are the huge mineral reserves and mining operations and the IBM-missile depots which are situated in the vicinity of the city. The closed city is a follow up of the ‘secret city’ concept which existed during Soviet times. These were cities which were not on any map, roadsign or listed as a destination for public transport. These cities were mainly cities which were regarded ‘Atomgrads’, cities with nuclear research activities or weapon depots. Currently access to these former closed cities is only possible with an invitation and a long application procedure.
This apparent secrecy does not stop citizens to report on the city on online or foreign journalists entering the city and reporting on the polluted reality of Norilsk. On the one hand citizens indicate that wages are high and the people are nice and have a specific character. On the other hand they do not like to have their children growing up in a city which is believed to be one of the most polluted cities of the world. BBC journalists have entered the city and reported on the ‘Dead Zone’, an area of the size of Germany surrounding the city, which is affected by acid rains produced by Norilsk Nickel factories emitting sulphur dioxides 24/7.
Considering all these conditions and the restrictive authorities in Russia citizens seem to be quite actively reporting about activities in their city in various ways; Rap-talents seem to sprout in the city:
relaxing in nice weather is still possible:
and extreme or ‘urban’ barbecuing is explored in the inner city:
During the winter the city still has a functioning public transport network and the people still go to work during rush hours and still relieve themselves when needed, even when temperatures are freezing@ 1:34.