Inside ‘the world’s most depressing city’ plagued by blood red rivers, toxic air and 45 days of permanent darkness
A GRIM town dubbed ‘the most depressing in the world’ is so remote it cannot be reached by road and therefore polluted life expectancy is ten years lower than the national average.
The northernmost city in the world, the remote Russian mining town of Norilsk is dark for two months of the year and has a truly chilling past.
Home to more than 170,000 people, the small town in the Krasnoyarsk Krai region of Siberia in eastern Russia is one of the most remote cities on earth.
Norilsk is just under 1,800 miles from Moscow and over 930 miles north of the regional capital Krasnoyarsk.
No road leads to Norilsk. A freight railway line runs in and out of the town, and the port town of Dudinka 40 miles away provides a route to the town by sea – although frozen in winter.
It’s so isolated that when locals leave town, they joke that they’re “going to the mainland.”
Norilsk only got a proper internet connection in 2017 – until then, this Ipswich-sized town relied on a dodgy satellite link.
The only year-round route to this remote corner of Russia is therefore by plane, although it is not easy.
After a more than five-hour flight from Moscow, visitors are greeted by an apocalyptic hellscape built on the site of a Soviet prison camp.
The modern history of Norilsk begins at the beginning of the 20th century when a geologist discovered rich deposits of nickel, copper and cobalt at the foot of the Putorana Mountains.
Norilsk is on the largest nickel-copper-palladium deposits on the planet.
In 1936, the USSR began building a huge mining complex in the mountains using around 500,000 forced laborers from a nearby Gulag.
For 20 years they worked in the harsh arctic permafrost, and 18,000 people died in horrific conditions.
Today, a fifth of the world’s nickel comes from Norilsk and more than half of the world’s palladium, a metal used in car exhausts and jewelry.
Almost everyone in Norilsk today has some connection to the nickel factory, either by being directly employed by Norilsk Nickel or by working for one of the many companies dependent on it.
But having such a huge job creator in the city comes at a horrendous cost.
In winter, the snow is also red… On the one hand it’s beautiful, but on the other it’s chemical
Norilsk is now the most polluted city in Russia and one of the ten most polluted cities on the planet.
Each year, the nickel plant pumps out more than two million tons of toxic gases, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon, phenols and more.
About 1% of the world’s total sulfur dioxide emissions come from this city alone.
The air is so polluted that many people mine the surface soil for soot because it contains valuable minerals.
Not only does this cause acid rain that kills many surrounding trees, but it also has a devastating impact on the people of Norilsk.
The life expectancy of a worker in Norilsk is only 59 years, which is 10 years less than the Russian average.
Cancer rates in the city are also double those in the rest of Russia.
A health study found that rates of blood diseases in children are 44% higher in Norilsk compared to an average child in Siberia, while rates of nervous system diseases are 38% higher and diseases bone and muscle are 28% higher.
RIVER OF BLOOD
In September 2016, the nearby Daldykan River turned blood red in chilling scenes.
No official explanation has been given for this terrifying phenomenon, which some locals attribute to a “message from God about an impending world war”.
The most likely reason cited was runoff at the nearby smelter.
Reported former factory worker Evgeny Belikov was quoted by ABC News as saying a tank near the factory was a similar color and known as “The Red Sea” to staff.
“In winter, the snow is also red,” he reportedly said. “On the one hand, it’s beautiful, but on the other, it’s chemical.”
A company spokesperson said at the time: “Norilsk Nickel’s Polar Division does not confirm an emergency industrial waste discharge leak into the Daldykan River that could have affected his condition.
“However, environmental monitoring around the river and adjacent company production facilities is ongoing, including helicopter flights.”
On June 3, 2020, a river outside Norilsk turned blood red again following a massive diesel spill caused by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel.
The spill of more than 20,000 tonnes of diesel in Ambarnaya after a fuel tank collapsed at a power plant led Vladimir Putin to declare a state of emergency and criticize the subsidiary.
45 DAYS OF DARKNESS
In addition to toxic pollution, Norilsk’s desolate location also gives it reasonable claims of being the most depressing city in the world.
Located in arctic permafrost, the city experiences 45 days of continuous darkness each year.
For about two-thirds of the year, the city and its surroundings are covered in snow.
The average temperature in Norilsk in January is -30°C, although it has already reached freezing records of -53.1°C before.
The so-called “polar T3 syndrome” is common. This is caused by a lack of sunlight and can lead to forgetfulness, mood swings and cognitive impairment.
On the other hand, in summer, the sun does not set for 65 days.
It may be disconcerting to some that someone wants to work in “the northernmost city in the world”, let alone live there, although there is a good reason why so many people do.
Norilsk Nickel workers can earn more than £800 a month, compared to a national average of less than £600.
Vladimir Putin is also unlikely to step in any time soon, given that the company produces an astonishing 2% of Russia’s total GDP.
The company is owned by Putin’s ally Vladimir Potanin, and one of the former investors was oligarch Roman Abramovich.
However, the former Chelsea owner sold his 1.7 per cent stake in Norilsk Nickel in March 2019 for $551m (£446m).
The company says it is trying to reduce pollution levels, and in 2017 announced a $14 billion investment in a major new development program.
This ambitious plan aimed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions in and around Norilsk by 75% by 2023.
However, it is unclear whether this goal is still achievable after the huge disruption caused in recent years by the Covid pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.