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The industrial city of Norilsk was founded in Russia at the end of the 1920’s. The mining city is the world’s largest producer of Nickel. They have an average of 130 days of snow storms per year. The average life expectancy is 50 years. It is the 7th most polluted city in the world; the most polluted in Russia. This photo documentary project aims to “investigate human adaptation to extreme climate, environmental disaster and isolation”


Ice swimming is one activity that people undertake to cope with the winter, even on days when the air feels -40° C. After diving into ice holes, swimmers warm up in small banyas (saunas) heated with the steam from the power plant.


Norilsk is facing a big problem of maintaining its buildings. Thawing of the upper layers of permafrost has caused instability in the pilings and has led to the destruction of buildings. This is aggravated by a negligent maintenance of the sewer system, the constant leakage of hot water, and the global elevation of temperature.


The next step of Norilsk’s construction was in 60s, and followed the widespread system in USSR of constructing the buildings with pre-built panels.

Architects created an urban space that could protect the inhabitants from the violent winds. Buildings are grouped together to form enclosed courtyards. To ensure a good circulation and avoid long bypasses, architects designed very narrow passages in between structures.


Young people here have only one desire – to leave the city. They do everything to integrate into a high school on the “mainland” and then find work there. This is a trend among young people living in harsh conditions. The severe climate, the problematic ecological situation, a serious lack of diverse places to go out to have a full cultural life and a sense of isolation all come into play. There are few options for those not working in metallurgy. “We cannot even leave for the weekend in another city just to exchange ideas and meet other people.”


For the holiday of Shrovetide, the Russian tradition is to burn a scarecrow. This represents the passing of winter and the beginning of spring. In Norilsk, the winter lasts 9 months, so this tradition offers only the distant hope of sun and warmer weather. The people must wait another 2-3 months before the arrival of true spring.


Once a month, “a true disco”, the “Mechanika”, is organized in the city by a group of volunteers. This is the only opportunity to listen to new music in a public setting.

Dolgoe Lake lies at the foot of Norilsk and separates the industrial area from the city. When the city was being designed, the architects imagined a large park and recreation area along the lake. Yet the development of this area has never been done. In response, people have tried to domesticate industrial zones for leisure and recreation.

During the summer, the air becomes even more polluted. The difference of temperature in the atmosphere prevents the evacuation of smoke. Thus, a nauseating smog pervades the streets of Norilsk. This situation is aggravated by the position of the three factories: they lie opposite one another, meaning that no matter which way the wind blows, smoke enters the city.

Photos and words by Elena Chernyshova

via Lens Culture

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