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Life in Norilsk Welcome to one of the most isolated cities on Earth. A photo essay by Elena Chernyshova

Meduza
Photo: Elena Chernyshova

If you're looking for cities with more than 100,000 people, you'll find nothing north of Norilsk, Russia's second-largest city (after Murmansk) inside the Arctic Circle.

Norilsk might also be one of the world's most isolated cities. There are no roads to Norilsk. If you go, you need to fly or, when the waterways aren't ice, you can sail.

The city's modern history began in the early 20th century, when a geologist's expedition discovered rich deposits of nickel, copper, and cobalt at the foot of the Putorana Mountains.

In 1936, the USSR started building a massive metallurgical complex. The city, its mines, and the metallurgical factories were constructed by Gulag prisoners. For roughly 20 years, about 500,000 inmates labored in Norilsk. Thousands died in the process.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Norilsk became the main center of the company Norilsk Nickel, the world's leading producer of nickel and palladium, with 17 percent and 41 percent of world production, respectively. Nowadays, Norilsk Nickel brings in 2 percent of Russia's national GDP. Almost 60 percent of the people living in Norilsk today are involved in this trade.

Thanks to all this industry, Norilsk is also one of the top-ten most-polluted cities on the planet. Every year, more than 2 million tons of gas (clouds of dioxide sulfur, nitrogen oxides, carbon, phenols, and more) are expelled into the atmosphere. This ecological disaster is damaging the health of the city's locals, who on average survive 10 years fewer than people living elsewhere in Russia. The risk of cancer is also twice as high, and respiratory diseases are widespread.

Even forgetting the suffocating environmental concerns, Norilsk is a hard place to live. Intensely cold, the city's average temperature is subfreezing, and the skies are typically windy and gray throughout the year. The weather is cold roughly 77 percent of the time, and snowstorms are typical on 130 days out of the year. The average annual temperature is -10ºC (14ºF), reaching lows of -55ºC (-67ºF) in the winter, when for two months the city is plunged into polar night.

The cycles of polar day and night also wield powerful influence, both physically and psychologically, on the human body. People in Norilsk can suffer from "polar night syndrome," experiencing anxiety, nervousness, drowsiness, and/or insomnia. Given the psychological discomfort and lack of environmental stimuli, it should come as no shock that Norilsk has many cases of depression. 

With conditions being what they are, the people of Norilsk spend most of their time in enclosed spaces at work, at home in their apartments, or indoors at local recreation centers and shopping malls.

As a result of all this isolation, Norilsk is a city folded in on itself. When people do brave the elements to meet socially, it's anybody's guess what might happen.

Meduza presents a photo series by Elena Chernyshova about life in Norilsk.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

Once a month, a group of motivated volunteers works to open "a real club"—the "Mechanika." This is the only opportunity in Norilsk to listen and dance to the latest music.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

In the thick of winter, when temperatures drop below -40°C (-40ºF), steam rises from underground, blanketing the city in a thick fog.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

Norilsk's "Walrus" ice-swimming club meets at outdoor ice holes. People take part, even when the temperature is -40ºC (-40ºF).

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

Permafrost destroys many of the buildings in Norilsk, where 7 percent of the local structures are seriously dilapidated.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

Anna Bigus, photographed when she was 88-years-old. She spent her first 10 years in Norilsk as a prisoner of the Gulag. She arrived when she was just 19, having survived the German invasion of her village in western Ukraine. (The Soviet government decided that she'd collaborated with the Nazis.) Anna died on October 30, 2012, when the Russian Federation observes the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

Norilsk's main city planning was designed in the 1940s by Gulag prisoners.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

"Pioneers" in Norilsk welcome the summer with a picnic before an outdoor festival.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

Dolgoe Lake lies at the foot of Norilsk and separates the industrial area from the rest of the city.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova
Photo: Elena Chernyshova

In the summer, Norilsk's air pollution gets worse. It often becomes difficult to breathe.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

Long underground corridors connect Norilsk's factories.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

A space for young people to relax and for garage bands to perform music.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

To protect against violent winds, Norilsk's buildings have very narrow spaces between them.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova
Photo: Elena Chernyshova

A scene from a smelting factory.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

Despite the harsh climate, this mine in Norilsk is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

Family life in Norilsk.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

Soaking up some of Norilsk's precious few rays of light.

Photo: Elena Chernyshova

In the tundra of the polar circle, Norilsk is inaccessible by land and, for much of the year's subfreezing weather, by water, as well.