One of the defining features of Siberia is that it has long been a resource frontier for Russia. During the Soviet period huge cities were built to support extractive industries, resulting in patterns of settlement in harsh environmental conditions that are different from any other county in the world. Two examples of this are the cities of Noril'sk above the Arctic Circle and Novokuznetsk in the Kuzbas region. Two films made in 1995 portrayed the life of Russians and Indigenous Peoples in these regions.

Noril'sk: Life in the Arctic

For an economic and demographic profile of the region click here

You can view recent photographs taken by the New York Times Click here to go to original article.

Summary of the film and class discussion: At 70 degrees north latitude Noril’sk is the largest city in the world that is above the Arctic Circle (in contrast, Fairbanks Alaska is at 64 degrees, 49 minutes North and the Arctic Circle is at 66 degrees, 32 minutes North latitude). The current population It is in the Taimyr (Dolgan-Nenets) Autonomous Area (Okrug) within the Krasnoyarsk Territory

Noril’sk is one of the newest cities in Siberia (the Soviets began building the Noril’sk nickel combine in 1935). It was built on permafrost, which causes a lot of problems because it melts and shifts, cracking foundations and creating sink holes. Noril’sk was built for mining in middle of huge area of indigenous reindeer herders. The sale of minerals from the region’s mines was tremendously profitable for the Soviets, and is now profitable for oligarchs. But a great deal of environmental damage has ensued from the mining and smelting operations (see close up from Google Map satellite view below).

1/4th of Russia is within the Arctic Circle. The tundra is permanently frozen most of the year (it is underlain by permafrost). Since the 1930’s, Norilsk grew to over 200,000 people. Before that time only the indigenous Nenets lived in the region (the film showed a celebration of a reindeer days festival).

Nickel, cobalt, platinum, gold are mined in huge quantities. There are also openpit coal mines. Nowhere else in the world are metals processed in such a remote and inhospitable place. Under Soviet policy, cities were built at the site of resource extraction, even if the environment was so harsh that the cost of living was high (this is explored in your textbook “The Siberian Curse”). In contrast, resources are shipped from the mines to smelters in warmer locations. The Noril’sk furnaces smelt ores to produce metals, the process producing tons of waste that are pumped into the atmosphere, and slag which is poured in giant heaps on edge of town. In the 1980s the smelters produced more sulphur dioxide than the entire city of Italy (recent estimates are around 1.9 million tons). The area of destroyed vegetation caused by this pollution is the Size of Great Britain.

Norilsk Nickel Company Website

The image on the left below is the concentration of sulphur dioxide as measured by NASA satellites 

On the right is a map of vegetation damage around Noril'sk from AMAP 1998. AMAP Assessment Report: Arctic Pollution Issues. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway. Xii+859 pp. Modified from: Vlasova, T.M., B.I. Kovalev and Philipchuk, 1991. Effects of point source atmospheric pollution on boreal forest vegetation of Northern Siberia. In: G. Weller, C.L. Wilson and B.A.B. Sever (eds). Proceedings of the International Conference on the Role of the Polar Regions in Global Change, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Vol II, 1991, pp. 423-428. University of Alaska, Fairbanks. (AAR Figure 9.29)

Sulfur Dioxide from Noril'sk, Russia 

Color bar for Sulfur Dioxide from Noril'sk, Russia


People now come from all over Russia, lured by high salaries and guaranteed housing. The town was built by creating a series of closed squares to protect people from the wind. Early on building on permafrost was not understood and foundations froze and cracked. Now the foundations are raised and heat escapes. 

To grow food in Noril’sk you must use greenhouses.  Indoor collective farms were developed to grow some vegetables, but everything else is either flown in or brought from the port by truck.  Industrial products are sent to the port by rail—this is the most northerly railroad in the world. The trains haul metals from the smelters to the Dudinka River and transfer it to ships, which are the easiest and cheapest way to ship metal ores. But freezing weather requires icebreakers to carve paths for the ships. The film showed a nuclear powered icebreaker. Russia has 23 icebreakers, which is the largest fleet in the world. It takes 5 days for ships to travel the 2000 kilometers to Murmansk. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the sea lanes were neglected and fewer ships sailed to Noril’sk.

The Taimyr Peninsula has been greatly changed by oil and gas production. Pipeline accidents have locals worried that land may be damaged beyond. A Nganasan elder in the film said that traditional ways are changed by roads and pipelines, the reindeer are being poisoned by the pollution, and they are forced to move from traditional places. The effects of pollution are very evident around Noril’sk during the short summer when snow melts.

The film then showed an area 500 km from polluting industries where the tundra blossoms briefly and explosively. For 12 weeks in the summer the sun never sets, and although temperatures remain cool (not warm enough to melt permafrost) the tundra blooms. When winter descends, like other nomadic Arctic people, the Nenets live in hide tents, fishing, hunting, and grazing reindeer. 

Below is a close up view of the city of Noril'sk in Google Maps satellite view. You can use the + and - arrows to zoom in and out.

To see a YouTube about the Nenets and oil development (great footage of reindeer) shot in 1996 click here
Recent article on the Nenets and Global Climate Change click here

Mikhail Prokhorov: The Russian Is Coming Billionaire Plans To Buy New Jersey Nets, Vows To Turn Around Team's Fortunes 

In 1995, Prokhorov and Potanin's bank won the equivalent of the Russian lottery: Kremlin leaders gave them what amounted to an insider's opportunity to buy one of the state's most valuable assets - a huge mining and metal operation called Norilsk Nickel, which is among the world's largest producers of nickel, copper and platinum. They acquired it from the Kremlin in a so-called auction for the measly sum of a few hundred million dollars, in a process that even Prokhorov's business partner admitted wasn't perfect and probably not even legal under western standards. But it was legal in Russia.