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The Two Arctics: Soviet Environmental Experiences, and Socialist Realism In the Far North (Part II).
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The Two Arctics: Soviet Environmental Experiences, and Socialist Realism In the Far North (Part II).

Norilsk is a major city in the Siberian Arctic. It is an example in itself of an economically profitable monocity. In fact, it has continued to be an industrial powerhouse over the decades after the collapse of the USSR. It contributes about two percent each year to the Russian GDP. Photo: Ninara

Multiple Soviet Arctic realities existed as the state built different northern cities to serve different purposes. The case of Pyramiden on the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard was a prime example of a town that became a largely political place in the second half of the 20th Century. The coal industry there was not profitable, and the town was forced to become a tourist destination. Norilsk in the Siberian Arctic is a great example of an economically viable monocity. It has continued to be a major industrial forcehouse in the decades since the fall of USSR. This second part of the two-part series examines Norilsk’s case in greater detail and examines the different Soviet Arctic experiences.

Norilsk and Arctic reality

The Council of Peoples Commissars of the USSR ordered the construction of a combine in Norilsk on June 23, 1935. This was to facilitate the successful development of the Norilsk coal and nickel deposits. It also allowed for the construction of a 10,000-ton per year plant, which was launched in 1938.1)The Soviet Union leadership ordered the creation of a special camp (meaning forced labour camp) in Norilsk. This was to be managed by the Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs. It also ordered drilling machines, pipes and other supplies to be sent out to Arkhangelsk as well as qualified technicians to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk before they made their way to Norilsk.2)The order also required the allocation of steamers to transport the cargo along the Northern Sea Route and the construction roads around the Norilsk region, including between Dudinka and Norilsk, to facilitate the transportation of people and goods. It called for the design of the plant to be completed by August 1, 1935, and for the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, to begin work at the Norilsk site on January 1 1936, and allocated 10 million rubles from the reserve funds of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR to the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs for work, design and purchase of equipment and materials in 1935. The order called for construction of a smelting unit by 1938. This facility would be used to produce 10 thousand tonnes of nickel each year, as well as the equivalent amount cobalt, copper, platinum, and palladium.3)

Simon Ertz, a historian, notes that the mineral resources in the Norilsk region were important for Soviet industry because they were used to make high-quality stainless steel, which was required by the military. Ertz says that the Norilsk region holds more than a third of the world’s nickel reserves and 40 percent of the planet’s platinum reserves.4)Norilsk was also a good location for mining and metals processing because of the large coal concentrations in the area. This could be used for smelting or transporting materials.5)Ertz wrote that Norilsk’s immense military and economic importance was well established at beginning of the second-half of 1930s. The Gulag was then responsible for the extraction of these riches. Ertz also stressed the importance of this project, which was reflected by the speed with which work orders were completed.6)Between 1935-56, more than half of a million Gulag prisoners were sent from Gulag to the Norillag camp at Norilsk, to build mining facilities, extract these minerals and help with their processing.7)

Norillag held 500,000 prisoners. However, the camp was not mentioned in any official newspaper or magazine reporting at the time. This was because the state controlled and censored the information. The camps were gradually opened up after the 1953 death of Joseph Stalin. However, it was nearly 50 years before the Gulag was discussed openly in Soviet society. Pyramiden was an example of this. The negative aspects of the monocity were not discussed and until the 1980s, the media presented Norilsk as a mythologized version.

Between the 1930s and early 1980s, the industry was praised as the engine of socialist progress in the media. Cities like Norilsk were praised because they provided goods and development for the Soviet people. The Gulag is never mentioned in Soviet newspapers. Human health is also discussed in the contexts of ecological hygiene and human ecology. There is no discussion about pollution or environmental harm. In the late 1980s, however, archival papers reveal a very different story. Articles critiquing industrial pollution begin to appear. This eco-friendly movement is a result of the environmentalist movement.glasnost Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies likely resulted in “openness” (meaning transparency). perestroikaThe Soviet apparat was encouraged to reform and increased transparency, but ultimately led to the collapse of the entire system. Another motivating factor for the deluge of environmentally-minded articles could be the Chernobyl explosion of 1986, which demonstrated to Soviet cadres and citizens alike that there was a greater need for transparency, and discussion of the Soviet Unions countless environmental woes.

The pre-glasnost period articles are positive and inspiring. They are centered on the happiness of monocity residents, productivity of mighty factories, as well as the monocity’s role in providing goods and services for residents in remote and inhospitable regions.8)1954: The first issue of the popular Soviet magazine “The Bulletin” Ogoniek (meaning light or spark) featured a full page spread of Joseph Stalin on page 3. The article, which was unsurprisingly absent any mention of the city’s Gulag origins, stated that Norilsk was the wonder city of Taimyr. Instead, it said that the city was built through labor, work and more work. This echos the heroic sentiments used for the Soviet colonizations in the Arctic and Siberia. The article’s general secretary of Norilsk municipal Communist Party Leonid Vasilievich Antov says that with the help of the entire country, Norilsk grew on Taimyr. He also noted that the residents of the city give everything they can to the Soviet system.9)

A 1957 article in Pravda Ironically, this means truth in Russian. The official Communist Party newspaper had a circulation over 11 million people. It depicts a picturesque Arctic city surrounded with pristine tundra and lakes teeming full of fish. Here, Arctic treasures are mined against a backdrop of the northern lights to ensure the Soviet state’s prosperity.10)Other articles from the 1950s describe Norilsk, a rapidly expanding Arctic metropolis and land of opportunity.11)Even the Soviet satirical magazines were included. Krokodil 1966 was a positive year for Norilsk. There were several articles in the issue about Norilsk. One poked fun at the Soviet Union’s car shortage and mentioned Norilsk. Another praised Norilsk for being a major city in the Union, calling it a krai rather than a center.12)This is a clever play of words that involves the name Krasnoyarsk Krai. Russian krai can be used to denote a territory, but it also translates into edge. This implies that Siberian regions are located at the edge of the Russian/Soviet empire or state. In this instance, the author argues that Norilsk, although it may be geographically at the edge of the Soviet empire or the Soviet periphery of Russia, its contributions in building socialism make them a vital center for socialist development.

These articles, written in the final days of the Soviet age in the 1970s and early 80s, continue this rhetoric and praise industrial cities for building socialism while describing city development as heroic. An article from 1971. Ogoniek Norilsk is considered the land of luck in the Taimyr region. This echos slogans from the North American goldrush in the mid-seventeenth Century.13)A 1970 article PravdaNorilsk is described as a city that was built around the Kombinat(combine), where Kombinat He is now the boss and has grown into a supergiant with thousands of employees. There are no environmental concerns.14)An article from 1979 Sovetskaya cultura, Soviet art and cultural newspaper, triumphantly declared Norilsks existence answers the question whether cities should be built under extreme climates. The city was called a wonder of 20ThCentury and an oasis of civilization, and exclaimed, “In Norilsk, the conditions are excellent and 200,000 people can live happily.”15)

The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR awarded distinctions to workers of the Norilsk industrial facility in 1980 and 1982 for their achievements in the construction of the Nadezhda Metallurgical Plant, mining and process, and other facilities of the Norilsk Mining and Metallurgical Plant.16)In 1980, dozens of people were awarded medals and orders for valor and labor. In 1982, several hundred workers were awarded the Order of Lenin which is the highest civilian award granted by the Soviet government.17)Both times, the newspaper reported the decrees. Izvestia, This was the official paper for the Soviet government.

One of the few mentions of ecological problems in Norilsk is a vague discussion of pollution in an article from 1975. Sovetskoe Zdravookhranenie(Soviet health and safety) This article examines worker health, pollution, and seems to place blame on workers and plant managers. However, it fails to address the root causes of environmental problems in Norilsk. Additionally, the article doesn’t mention the words environment or ecology. Instead, it focuses on health and hygiene. The article refers to the need for better worker protection, filtration, and fails to specify exactly what they need protection from.18)

The personal accounts of Norilsk residents documented what the papers failed to report on environmental issues:

I was able to visit Norilsk on several business trips and as a guest to the jubilee celebrations for the Combine’s 25th and 30th anniversary. Each time I visited Norilsk, I was shocked at how fast the city was growing and how rapidly the ecological situation was changing. The city is suffocated from sulfurous and other gases. You can’t walk along Sevastopolskaya Street, where the house in which I lived is now, especially on days when the wind blows from the industrial site. Alexander Gaevsky, a former Norillag labor prison inmate, wrote about the city in 1960s.19)

A decade later, articles from the 1990s and 1980s offer a starkly different picture. 1988 Pravda Article asks: Who is to blame for Norilsk’s pollution?20)It is amazing that the Soviet Communist Party’s official paper could publish such a critique. This is due to the extraordinary conditions in which they operate. perestroika This opened the door to such commentary from official sources. Two years later, a 1990 article claims that Norilsk has been on the charts as one the most filthy cities in Russia for decades. This is completely contrary to the rhetoric from the preceding fifty years.21) While newspaper database searches for the words Norilsk and ecology returned scant results in the pre-1985 period, the subsequent 15 years revealed hundreds of environmentally-focused articles. The exalted narratives that Norilsk was a catalyst for building Soviet socialism, modernity and Soviet socialism are no longer relevant in the post-glasnost period. However, hundreds of articles focusing on the environment were found over the next 15 years. This can be attributed to Gorbachev’s reform and openness policies. However, civic participation in environmental movement movements should also be recognized. The Soviet period’s environmental historians argue that the fledgling Soviet environmentalist movements, which began to gain steam in the 1980s as a result of outrage over pollution of Lake Baikal, grew into a full-blown roar in the 1990s, fueled by the Chernobyl disaster, and the newfound freedom for speech. The end result was that endangered wildlife was not besieged. zapovedniki [Russian nature preserves]Douglas Weiner wrote that the flooded monasteries of sixteenth-century Russia lit the fires for righteous civic indignation among Soviet Unions general working population, but the life-and death issues of unbreathable and undrinkable air. A Little Corner of Freedom.22)

Critical articles about Norilsk reveal a fundamental shift within the Soviet psyche and show yet another departure from Soviet Arctic dreams. The Arctic is no longer a myth. Eco-friendly was the result of deindustrialization, which destroyed the Soviet Arctic mythology on Svalbard.glasnost As figures emerged about the extent and severity of pollution in Norilsk, and other parts of the north, the Soviet industrial valorization in the north was stopped. During the turbulent years of 1990s and 2000s, before Russia’s autocracy emerged, groups that were previously silenced, such Indigenous activists, disclosed that Norilsk and its factories, owned by Norilsk Nickel, had a terrible track record of human rights violations.

Russian newspapers have been growing in popularity in recent years. Novaya Gazeta The Norilsk Nickel has documented the extent of corruption, pollution, and cronyism. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the leadership of Norilsk Nickel has promised to reduce emissions on a regular basis.23)They remain as high as ever nearly 30 years after their initial publication.24)The emissions have had a negative impact on Norilsks 177.500 residents who now face a life expectancy that is up to 10 years lower than the national average.25)Are they the northern lights? They are not visible to me. The sky is smog, said Nadezhda Tokokonnikova, famed Pussy Riot singer who hails from Norilsk. This was in a 2019 article written for Meduza.26)Numerous fuel spills and company accidents have made entire rivers muddy and caused irreversible harm to fragile ecosystems. NorNickel has been polluting the Arctic for decades with impunity. The company was fined $560 for a 2016 fuel spillage that poisoned a whole river.27)In 2020, a fuel pump burst, releasing 21,000 tons of diesel fuel onto the tundra. The mayor of the city was sentenced to community work and no other members of the company were charged. Despite the fact that Vladimir Potanin is the CEO of the company and one of the richest billionaires in the world, the company fought any fines against them in court for several months before finally agreeing with the payment.28)

According to the Bellona Foundation (an environmental think tank based out of Norway), NorNickel has bribed environmental watchdogs in order to avoid paying fines.29)Evidence has shown that NorNickel is responsible of numerous accidents, including wastewater spillages and emissions that are far above the allowed standards. In 2020 alone, the company was responsible for more than 2,000 environmental violations.30)Russian media reported that spills and accidents were occurring almost daily at the company.31)Norilsk has been subject to close media scrutiny over the past 30 years. The extent and mismanagement of the environment makes it difficult, if not impossible, to argue for Soviet industrial growth.

Russia is still grappling with the effects of the Soviet environmental crisis. Only a few efforts have been made to address it. The state’s dependence on natural resource extraction has made the problem worse. Currently, 69 percent of Russia’s federal budget comes directly from the energy sector.32)Russia provides much of the world’s supply of metals and minerals today.33)


Norilsk, Pyramiden, and other parts of the Soviet Arctic experience are integral to its core, which is centered on industry and conquest. The Soviet Union’s constant focus on industry at all costs to the natural world can be attributed to the Arctic’s environmental degradation.

Pyramiden was the embodiment the Soviet Union’s focus upon the Arctic as the symbol and future land. It was a place to show its might to the rest, especially when one considers its geographical location thousands of kilometers beyond Soviet Union territorial boundaries. The Soviet socialist realism, utopic thought, geopolitics and the valorisation of industry as a tool for building socialism are all closely tied to Pyramiden’s development. Norilsk is closer than the Soviet Arctic reality as experienced by ordinary people. Norilsk, which was built through Gulag forced labor and plagued with environmental issues for decades, reflects a more common Arctic experience during the Soviet period. The city and its industry were nevertheless celebrated in Soviet media outlets and hailed as major contributors for the construction of socialism. Until the last years of the Soviet system, any mention of the Gulag and environmental issues was censored. The official rhetoric changed and the state became more open to criticism in the hope of promoting democratic reform. These changes, as well as their fallout when the state collapsed in 1990s, were intimately linked to deindustrialization, economic crisis, and environmental degradation.

Both of these locations still exist today. Pyramiden, which is frozen in time, is a tourist attraction that allows visitors to see a relic from the Soviet Union. It represents an abandoned Soviet dream of the Arctic. Norilsk is a major regional center in which mining, metals processing and pollution are carried out unabatedly. However, recent media scrutiny has led to the company to make pledges of change in the past decade, demonstrating that the Soviet legacy of industrial obsessiveness and reliance upon natural resources lives on through its new host the Russian Federation.

Part I and the case of Pyramiden (Svalbard) can be viewed here.

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