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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 18:35 GMT
The closed city of Norilsk
Nickel pollution from a factory in Northern Russia
Norilsk was known for its nickel production
Kevin Connolly

Everyone has a city that becomes special to them. It doesn't have to be like a song that enters the soul either - it can just as easily be like a nagging thought that robs you of sleep on restless nights.

For me, it is Norilsk, big enough in its days as a prison camp to feel like a city, grim and isolated enough as a city to feel like a prison.

Norilsk was a city that only communism could have built, a dreary collection of apartment blocks and metal foundries

It is not so much in the middle of nowhere as on the edge of it - a forbidding monument to communism's refusal to count the huge human cost of tiny economic achievements.

Any mention of Norilsk in a newspaper column brings the memories flooding back, in the same way that overhearing someone speak the name of an old lover can make you catch your breath.

I see Norilsk in a wire service report about nickel prices, and I see it all - the cars with triple-glazed windows; the ring road cut through 20-foot deep walls of frozen snow so that it looks like a giant bob-sleigh run; the people who find the meat they store on their balconies in winter so deeply frozen that they put it in the freezer to start defrosting it.

Closed community

It was in many ways the perfect vantage point from which to chronicle the collapse of the Soviet Union - one of the closed cities that opened itself up to the outside world as the old system disintegrated.

Closing a city was a crude, inhuman, but effective technique for keeping its secrets. Anywhere that housed factories making missiles or tanks, a nuclear research facility, or sensitive military installations was simply declared off-limits to foreigners. Even Soviet citizens needed special written permission to visit.

Krasnoyarsk factory in Siberia
Norilsk is made up of apartment blocks and metal factories
One or two such places were either left off official maps or placed in the wrong locations - a useful civil defence tactic if the Americans had been thinking of using motoring maps in the event of an all-out thermonuclear confrontation.

Norilsk was a city that only communism could have built, a dreary collection of apartment blocks and metal foundries halfway across the freezing wilderness of the Arctic North.

There are 23 hours of darkness in the middle of December, 23 hours of daylight in the middle of June, and winter temperatures that regularly fall below - 50.

Harsh conditions

Its first inhabitants were political prisoners sent to exploit the reserves of strategic minerals which providence had inconveniently deposited below the frozen ground.

But finding workers prepared to live through the freezing nine-month polar night eventually forced the Soviet authorities to resort to the most capitalist of measures - bribery.

Most of the arctic north is a freezing wilderness
Workers in the polar north were given better wages and longer holidays than anyone else. Food supplies, even when they were erratic elsewhere, were usually good. In this part of the old banana republic at least, there were - occasionally - actual bananas.

But even in the 1990s, the people of cities like Norilsk remained prisoners in a sense. As the Soviet economy opened up, prices soared and the rouble collapsed against the dollar - and their high wages became meaningless.

A month's salary might still be two or three times the Russian average but suddenly it wasn't enough to buy a pair of shoes.

Finding the money to move back to "the continent", as they call the rest of Russia, was suddenly out of the question.

A woman we employed as a fixer cried when we met her at the airport to hand over the 50 dollars a day which was our going rate at the time. It wasn't because we were leaving, just because she was overwhelmed that we'd paid her almost the exact equivalent of her life savings for three days work.

In that world before the internet, mobile phones and satellite television, the spiritual cost of the isolation was probably even greater, although harder to measure.

Shutting down again

I've still got a recording somewhere of a group of children singing "Old MacDonald had a farm", which I'd used to illustrate a piece about how hard times were getting for Soviet ideologists. The fact that the country's children were warbling away about the wealth of a private farmer would have been unthinkable under Stalin.

Joseph Stalin
Stalin would not have approved of "Old McDonald" owning a farm
But the recording stands out because the children have got the wrong sound effects associated with the animals - so that the cows go quack quack, and the sheep bark. It gives the song a faintly surreal quality, but of course it's really a reflection of the fact that the children were being taught English by someone who'd never even met a native speaker.

The local authorities in Norilsk haven't really given a convincing explanation as to why they're closing the city again - and in this age of global communication, there won't be the same sense of isolation that there was in the old days.

And somehow, while it is a grim and depressing thought, I can't help feeling somehow that Norilsk will open again one day.

For that, after all, is the real point of those places that stick in the heart or the mind - the certainty that you have unfinished business with them, and that somehow, you'll be back.

report by Kevin Connolly
"It was in many ways the perfect vantage point from which to chronicle the collapse of the Soviet Union."
See also:

11 Jul 00 | Europe
Russia cracks down on 'oligarchs'
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