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Russians Adapt to a Freezing, Dark, and Polluted Place

Despite the extreme climate conditions, the inhabitants of Norilsk have adjusted to life above the polar circle.

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With the population of more than 170,000, Norilsk, Russia, is one of the biggest cities above the polar circle. The architect created the urban space to protect inhabitants from violent winds. The buildings are grouped together to form enclosed courtyards, with narrow passageways in between.

How do people adapt to life in one of the most polluted cities in the world, in sub-zero temperatures, during extended periods with no daylight?

Photographer Elena Chernyshova recently set out to explore those questions in Norilsk, Russia, a city of more than 170,000 people located above the polar circle.

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The city-factory of Norilsk has only one reason to exist: maintaining the biggest metallurgical and mine complex in the world.

Norilsk is home to a massive mining and metallurgical complex—workers extract and process vast amounts of nickel, copper, and cobalt, making up more than 2 percent of Russia’s GDP. But the history of the area is bleak. Soviets originally profited from the area’s resources through Gulag labor. From 1935 to 1956 more than 500,000 prisoners were forced to work in the freezing cold under inhumane conditions. Many died. Now, most people live in Norilsk by choice—they have strong social and familial networks and can make a decent wage.

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A melting department in Norilsk is filled with gas emissions. Workers suffer from pollution, heat, and noise, and must use masks or breathing tubes connected to oxygen tanks. Compensation for the risks is countered by 90 official holidays, and early retirement at 45-years old.

However, the relatively good economy comes with a price—the city is so polluted that residents suffer high rates of cancer, lung disease, blood and skin disorders, and depression. The amount of sulfur dioxide in the air is so high that vegetation in an almost 20-mile radius has died, and residents are forbidden from gathering berries or mushrooms due to high toxicity.

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A building in Norilsk sits abandoned after a damaged pipe filled it with water. Despite its prosperity, Norilsk faces a huge maintenance problem. The majority of buildings were constructed on pilings, which are now shifting due to melting permafrost.

Chernyshova recently spent eight months in Norilsk between 2012 and 2013, over three separate trips. I caught up with her over email to learn more about her project, as well as the surprises she encountered while documenting this unique place.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

COBURN DUKEHART: What was your inspiration for this project?

ELENA CHERNYSHOVA: My mother lived in Chukotka (far northeast Russia) in a small town above the polar circle for 10 years. As a child, I was fascinated by her stories about the polar night, polar day, Northern lights, frost descending to -60 degrees, sparkling crispy snow, and food delivered in dry form or powder. These conditions seemed to me unusual, almost fairy-tale like. I wanted to experience this life long before I became a photographer.

Five years ago I met a girl from Norilsk. Her stories re-awoke my curiosity, and from that moment I couldn’t say whether I wanted to do a story about the adaptation of people to the hostile environment of the North, or about Norilsk itself. It was inseparable.

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One of the best ways to adapt to the cold is quenching. Norilsk has a “Walrus” club whose members swim in outdoor ice-holes despite the temperature. After swimming people warm themselves in small banyas (saunas) that are heated with steam from the power plant.

COBURN: What story were you trying to tell through these pictures?

ELENA: I wanted to show the particularities of this city: its isolation, extreme climate conditions, polar night, history of its creation, architectural particularities, huge dimension, and the daily life of people involved in its operation. I also wanted to show the ecological catastrophe, and the domestication of this environment. The complexity of Norilsk inspired me a lot.

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Norilsk is one of the coldest cities in the world with an average winter temperature of -25° C. Winter lasts 280 days per year, and even a simple trip outside can be dangerous. A column of 15-20 buses transports workers between the city and factories three times a day. If one bus breaks down, passengers can quickly be evacuated to another bus.

COBURN: Was there anything you discovered about the people of Norilsk that surprised you?

ELENA: The people of Norilsk are full of affection and deep nostalgia. I couldn’t understand how a place that looks like a hell on earth could awaken such sentiments.

When I was in Norilsk, people often complained about the city, its administration, awful ecology, tough climate, isolation (plane tickets are so expensive, that some people can’t leave for several years), slow Internet, etc., but they were also deeply attached to, and sincerely loved, Norilsk.

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Anna Vasilievna Bigus, 88, was sent to the Gulag in Norilsk at age 19. Her fault was to have survived the German invasion of her village in the western part of Ukraine—she was then considered by the Soviets to be a collaborator of the German army. After her liberation at the age of 29, she stayed in the city, having no other place to go.

There is also a spirit of brotherhood. Difficulties unite people. A simple trip from the house to the shop can be an extreme challenge, and these extremes teach us to appreciate many simple things that seem banal in other conditions, like daylight, warmth, or a cup of hot tea. Overcoming hardship makes us stronger—awakes personal potential.

Also, there are not a lot of places to go out, and the old Russian tradition of meeting in somebody’s flat and having a kitchen party is still alive. The Internet is bad, so people spend much more time communicating in person. I am still in contact with lot of people from Norilsk—some have become really good friends.

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Children are allowed outside only under certain conditions, and sometimes have to spend several months indoors. Large enclosed spaces are designed for them, so they can enjoy activities like cycling and running, even in the winter.

COBURN: What were some of the challenges you faced in shooting this story?

ELENA: The main challenges were ecology, climate, and the polar night. During the summer, the gas from the factories stays in the lower levels of the atmosphere. Sometimes the pollution was so high I got an asthma attack and couldn’t breathe.

For about two months there is no sun, no light at all. I was completely disoriented all the time and had a horrible insomnia for more than a month. I was very tired all day, then couldn’t fall asleep because my body hadn’t actually woken up. Psychologically it was hard—I had an unreasonable anxiety, an almost animal fear that the light would never come back.

Norilsk people consider your first polar night as a test. If you make it without difficulties you can live in the region. I have not passed this test.

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During the polar night the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, leaving the area without light. The period lasts in Norilsk from the end of November until the end of January. During this time, the body slows down its release of melatonin, causing a lack of deep sleep, increased anxiety, and depression, and physical discomfort. Most of the apartments in Norilsk have UV lamps to reproduce natural light.

COBURN: What do you hope people will learn from these photographs?

ELENA: I hope these photos awake some questions. Where are the limits of human ambition in the race for natural resources? How much are we willing to damage nature and the health of hundreds of thousands of people in the drive for riches? What are the limits of human adaptation to extreme living conditions? For example, after two months in Norilsk I didn’t pay much attention to the things that had surprised me at the beginning. They just became habit.

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Dolgoe Lake lies at the foot of Norilsk and separates the industrial area from the city. City architects imagined a large park and a recreation area here, but development was never done. Still, picnics, barbecues, sunbathing, and swimming are organized when the sun is out.

A selection of these photos were published in the Nov. 2013 Russian edition, and the Jan. 2014 French and Italian editions of National Geographic. They were also published in the Feb. 2014 Dutch and Mongolian editions. View more of Elena Chernyshova’s work on her website.

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