Friday, April 24, 2015

A Home in Hell

As most of you know, I live in Ireland and I absolutely love it. I would say that most people live in a place they like because, well, if they didn’t they would probably pack up and leave.
That’s how it should be. If you don’t like the place where you live, your life will be miserable.

Ofcourse, people are bogged down in places they would rather leave but can't, because they’re stuck with mortgages on houses they can’t sell, or because they want their children to finish high school or whatever reason they may have, but these are not the people I want to talk about today. 

Imagine that you were born in a place that is horrible. Unspeakably horrible.

Play this scenario out in your head and write down what would make a place horrible to live.

I bet you came up with things like constant freezing temperatures.
Little or no sunlight.
Air that has a quality score so low, you think they made errors in their measurements. 
Unbelievable pollution.
No vegetation in sight.
And you can't leave.

Dear readers, I welcome you to the bizarre world that is home to the people of Norilsk.

Norilsk is a city in Northern Siberia and home to one of the biggest mining operations in the world. The area has the biggest copper, nickel and cobalt reserves in the world and this was the reason that a labour camp was set up there in the early days of the Soviet Union. More than half a million people were sent there over the years and forced to work in inhumane and Arctic conditions until they literally dropped. Many of them died. Some survived and stayed, mainly because they had nowhere else to go.

Because of the mining operations, a city grew around the erstwhile labour camp.
A city that, bizarrely, is now home to 175.000 people.

At first glance, it doesn’t look all that bad: 

It looks a bit grainy, but apart from that it looks like an average former Soviet city.
Big apartment blocks, painted in bright colors:

Some neatly designed government buildings and expansive avenues:

All in all, at first sight you probably couldn’t really tell it apart from Kiev or Minsk.

But then , the grim reality hits you:

I’m having a difficult time trying to find a point to start describing what life in Norilsk is like so let’s just dive straight in.
Norilsk is located North of the Arctic circle so it is always unbelievably cold. The average temperature is around -20C. That is the AVERAGE for the year. It gets much colder in winter. 
Even on paper, this number gives me the chills but it is impossible to imagine what it must be like to live in conditions like this. A trip to the shop needs to be carefully planned: in temperatures like that, you don't want to be outside longer than absolutely necessary.

One journalist reporting from Norilsk said he went for a walk and had to take a taxi back to his hotel after 13 minutes because he had serious trouble breathing. Imagine that. His lungs were frozen in less time than it would take to get from Central Park to Greenwich Village on the subway.
Mind you, this guy wasn’t out fighting polar bears or trying to run a marathon, he just walked down the block, like you and me would to buy the paper or a sixpack. 
As a result of the cold, people are always dressed in multiple layers of heavy clothing, mostly fur. Look at the pictures of people in Norilsk:

PETA would have their work cut out for them here, if they didn’t freeze to death before they could stage a protest. When pressed on the issue of using fur for clothing, one resident laughed and replied that “anyyone who protests the use of fur should come live here for a couple of months and see if they are still opposed to it”.
To top off the already bizarre weather picture,  Norilsk is covered in snow for 270 days a year, with snow storms occurring pretty much every other day.

So yes, it is cold in Norilsk. VERY cold.
But the cold is only the start of all your problems.

Norilsk is home to one of the largest mining operations in the world and, ofcourse, it’s not a relatively ‘clean’ type of mining, it’s all heavy metals and other crap you don’t want around. Because of this, Norilsk is also home to the largest metal smelting plant on the planet and 4 million tons of cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, arsenic, selenium and zinc are pumped into the air every year. 

The city is so polluted that residents suffer absurd rates of cancer, lung disease, blood and skin disorders and, not surprisingly, depression.
Norilsk ranks high in the Time Magazine’s Top10 of most polluted places in the world, coming in just after Chernobyl which, as you may remember, is the place where a fucking nuclear power plant exploded.
The soil in and around Norilsk is so polluted with heavy metals that it is now economically viable to mine THAT. That is serious pollution.
Large indoor playgrounds have been created because it is deemed too unhealthy for children to play outside:

Not a single tree grows within 20 miles of the city and inhabitants are not allowed to eat any berries or mushrooms they may find, because they are all toxic. The diet consists mainly of frozen fish and canned food that is flown in from the inhabited part of Russia. Malnutrition is rife in Norilsk.

                                                    Who's Up for a walk in the woods?

                         The idea to name the local football team Norilsk Forest was quickly dismissed.

The lovely combination of Arctic Siberian weather and pollution that kills everything in a 20 mile radius make for another nice perk: the sky is always overcast, apart from a couple of weeks in ‘summer’.  We get our share of rain and clouds here in Ireland, but most days the clouds disperse at some point or other, even in fall and winter. We recently had a spell here in Dublin when it was overcast without break from Sunday afternoon to Thursday early evening. I was getting seriously grumpy by Wednesday and when the clouds finally broke and the sun returned, I felt like hugging the first person I came across out of sheer joy. 

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to have that grey murk hanging over your head for 11 months straight, and that is even before we touch the subject of the polar night, when the sun disappears around mid-November  and doesn’t return until the end of January. Nothing but darkness and freezing cold for 2 months. I would probably shoot myself before the end of week 2.

                                                  It's 2PM in this picture.

                                                        Oh, look: Snow!

Workers are compensated for the ridiculous conditions with over-average wages, 90 holidays per year and early retirement at 45.
While this looks like an interesting package, keep in mind that your increased salary will evaporate quickly, like snow before the sun, because the cost of living is high as a result of the extreme isolation. (perhaps a strange analogy because most people in Norilsk rarely, if ever, see the sun).
90 holidays per year? Great, just a shame that there is little or nothing to do in Norilsk other than working and sleeping. Your main chance of entertainment is to go to someone else's flat and hang out in the kitchen.
Early retirement at age 45 may sound awesome, but the reality is that you will probably have developed lung cancer or heavy metal poisoning at that age. 

                                                                    House party

People work in and for the mines: they can only spend their wages in the company controlled shops in the city. You can’t just drive to the next town down the road, you see. That next town is 500 miles away.

You literally live for the mines. Then you die, and the next generation takes over and the cycle starts again.
As Time magazine once put it: Norilsk started out as a slave labour camp. Life has been going downhill ever since.

                             I bet you'll never complain about the air conditioning at work again.

So you live in permanent frigid conditions, your city is so polluted that your children may never play outdoors in their lives, you will probably be seriously sick by the time you reach retirement age and if you want to pick up a loaf of bread, you’ll spend an hour getting ready for the trip. Surely, nobody can live like that in the long run. Time to go to a place where they have exotic luxuries like ‘sunlight’ and ‘fresh food’. So you save up your money, pack your belongings in the car and leave.

Except that you can’t.

“Come on, Lennard”, I can hear you say. “Just load up the car, step on the gas and take the first road out of there”.
Yes, and that is where the problem lies. Look up Norilsk on Google Maps. Go ahead, have a close look at it. I’ll go get a beer from the fridge while you look at Norilsk.

Did you have a look? Did you find the “Road out of there” .
No, you didn’t and you know why you didn’t find the road? Because it ain’t there.
Norilsk is not just isolated because of its remoteness. It is also isolated because there simply is no road to get to it or, as in this case, away from it.  The only road connection is to the industrial port of Dudinka where the only activity is shipping the stuff that comes out of the mines.

Now the next thing you are probably going to throw in my face is that, while looking for the non-existing road, you found that Norilsk has an airport. This is true, but the airport mainly receives cargo planes that carry supplies to and from the mines. Passenger air travel is rare in these parts. On top of that, tickets for flights are expensive, because it is literally Very Far from anywhere and there is little to no demand for scheduled services. But let’s say that you did manage to scrape together the money for your tickets, decide to leave all your belongings behind and head to the airport.
Do you remember what I said earlier about the weather? That there is constant snow, blizzards, bizarre Arctic winds and an eternally overcast sky. When it gets this cold, a freezing fog constantly obscures the sky.
All this results in weather in which it is very difficult to fly a plane, so even when commuter services are scheduled, most get cancelled because of the weather.

Here is your situation; you live in the most horrible conditions imaginable, in the middle of the middle of nowhere and even if you do manage to get the funds together to leave, you can’t because there simply is no way out of there.
Most children in the Western world have dreams of becoming a Superbowl winning quarterback, an Oscar winning actress or the President of their country one day.
All children in Norilsk share one dream: Leave. 

                               This is what happens when a water pipe breaks in Norilsk.

                                           Waiting for the bus in Norilsk

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