• January 6, 2014

Russians Adapt to a Freezing, Dark, and Polluted Place

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.

Picture of Norilsk, Russia.
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.

Picture of a worker in Norilsk, Russia.
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.

Picture of an abandoned building in Norilsk, Russia.
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.

Picture of swimmers in Norilsk, Russia.
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.

Picture of bus convoy in Norilsk, Russia.
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.

Picture of Anna Vasilievna Bigus in Norilsk, Russia.
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.

Picture of children in Norilsk, Russia.
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.

Picture of a family in Norisk, Russia.
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.

Picture of sunbather in Norilsk, Russia.
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 will also be published in the Feb. 2014 Dutch and Mongolian editions. View more of Elena Chernyshova’s work on her website.

There are 76 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Artem
    March 11, 2016

    Great story!

  2. kamal
    January 27, 2016

    Amazing to see how many ways of living exists. Thanks to the author.

  3. Vera
    September 3, 2015

    I lived in this city for 12 years. The pictures are true and do the city justice. I’d like to answer one of the questions – how do people stay happy? I can’t speak for everyone but for us it was the family, having a sense of humour, spending a lot of time during the dark nights on reading and pursuing hobbies, and skiing in the mountains. Skiing during the polar nights, when the whole sky is lit up on fire (aurora borealis) can be quite an experience.

  4. eugene
    May 21, 2015

    you dont adjust to russia. RUSSIA adjusts you

  5. Tor Henrik
    April 20, 2015

    Great article and lovely photos from one of the truly remote areas of the world. I spent a few months working in Mys Kamenyy, which is a bit west of Norilsk, by Obskaia. The way people adapts and manages to make a life, and living in these parts of the world is truly remarkable. Hat of to the people of arctic Russia from northern Norway. 🙂

    • Mustang chef
      April 20, 2015

      Ainna mun pitaa
      Seatbelts Detroit
      PKN, Finland

  6. mustangchef
    January 6, 2015

    any more pics of the redhead sitting at Dolgoe Lake

  7. mustangchef
    January 6, 2015

    how do they bury the dead?

  8. mustang chef
    January 6, 2015

    Any more pics of the redhead that is sitting at Dolgoe Lake?

  9. Mustangchef
    January 4, 2015

    Was wondering what is the most popular hat there?

  10. Tony Pompetas
    November 19, 2014

    Vaya ciudad chunga.

  11. Natan Camacho
    November 11, 2014

    Es fascinante la adaptabilidad del cuerpo humano a estas condiciones de extremas. Mas sin embargo es lamentable la cuestión ambiental. Excelente articulo muy bueno, nos ayuda a valorar nuestro medio en el que vivimos.

  12. Georgi
    October 13, 2014

    Many thanks for the interesting story and pictures of Nurilsk.

    Best regards from frendly Bulgaria

  13. Paul taylor
    October 5, 2014

    how do they stay happy in the polar dark and cold

  14. sharik
    August 29, 2014

    gosh, there are millions places in Russia where its hot summer most of the time, but NG makes it look like there’s only winter here, what a bias!

  15. indianassault
    August 19, 2014

    Russians are always tough and they dont complain. I am from India and we complain for everything without being tough.

  16. Roberta
    July 14, 2014

    Ola sou do BRASIL
    Parabéns adorei conhecer a historia deste lugar …
    Apesar de nao ter ficado muito feliz em relembrar como o homem tem a capacidade de destruir o ambiente e a saude das pessoas =/

    As pessoas se adaptam porque nascemos para vida lutamos para viver. Nao importa o local ou as condiçoes mesmo um bebe sempre lutara pela vida.

  17. Maggie
    March 19, 2014

    ooops I meant to say “I take my hat off” on the previous comment.

  18. Maggie
    March 19, 2014

    Excellent work on this article. Leaving aside the the fact that I don’t like at all the problem that industries cause to nature and the people, I hate my hat off for this article. I’m from Argentina and I completely hate cold temperatures, winter here isn’t as cold as it is in Canada for example, not at least where I am (I’m right in the middle of the country), on the southern provinces, that’s a different story, so I can’t imagine myself living in a place like Norilsk, but I’d accept the challenge to live there for a while to learn how to adapt to that kind of weather, learn from that people who surely have many interesting things to tell and things we could learn from them. I see many comments wondering how can anyone live in a place like this, well…. I suppose it’s the same with the places we’re living in, some of them must be there because they have no choice, other because of work, other because it was their choice and many others because they were borned and raised over there therefore they have learned to adapt and to love the place and to have a happy life and that’s what’s admirable of the different places around the world, at least for people like me who love to discover and study new places, cultures and meet new people and learn their ways. My best regards for Elena and the people of Norilsk. Excellent job.

  19. Richard
    February 24, 2014

    I know both the photographer, Elena Che and her mother. I am an American who lived in Moscow for three years 2011-2014. Elena is a very nice, likeable and attractive young woman whom I met when she came to visit her mother during breaks in her photo assignment in Norilsk. She is a very talented photographer who can speak Russian, French and English quite well. She is also quite brave to have produced this beautiful photo project in such challenging circumstances. But then I shouldn’t be surprised because she an example of the legendary Russian spirit of adventure and creativity.

  20. Vadim
    February 10, 2014

    Opsss! When I wrote “surving” in my previous comments, I meant “surviving” (family member who are still alive). Sorry for mistyping.

  21. Vadim
    February 10, 2014

    I was born and lived in Norilsk for 21 years before I moved to New York. So, when my coworkers complain about the cold winter, I tell them that it is all relative (especially if comparing to Norilsk weather). It’s very beautiful place and is populated by incredibly strong (mentally), kind and carrying people from one side and it’s a very harsh and depressing place to live in from the other side (though we did not feel any depression – maybe because we were young or because we only knew that life and in that environment back then). And Yes, you can see Aurora (North Lights) there for many many times during the winter as well as many other nature’s wonders. BTW, all Norilsk people think and many say: “We all love this place very much and we all dream about leaving (get out of) this place as soon as possible”. This statement as well as following few videos are about two sides of Norilsk. Check them out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNtEs_LyXlQ (This is a regular winter day), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74Z5Kzg-ZFo or
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34tT8_iZejE or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUTaQWGmSqk or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHkNQyLpI4Q or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRZwqSgW0yc
    Also, the corruption of the officials and the lack of enforcing the law against the air polution from metals production besides the harsh climate make it even harder to physically survive there and even with the retirement age for men from 50 to 55 and 45 to 50 for women (depending on the occupation) it is a common and is considered a quiet normal when a man dies at 50 years old. Sad. And a shame on the city officials and on the owners of “Norilsk Nickel” who are among the handful of the richest people in the world. And they do nothing to put there some good (not 30 years old) filtration (or whatever it is called) equipment. BTW, in Russia surving family members are not entitled to collect money that, let’s say, the head of the family was paying during his whole life to the retirement fund (like social security benefits in US). That money go to the goverment. At least this is how it was 20 years ago (when my dad died).

  22. Ron
    February 7, 2014

    Great article. Like to meet Norilsk.

  23. Jeet Shah 007 (Amrut)
    January 27, 2014

    The People Here Are Inspiration To Them Who Dont Like To Wake Up Early In Morning……….. Hats Off To Them and All The Best.
    Mumbai Is Far More Better Then This.

  24. 瑞初
    January 27, 2014

    Mysterious place .

  25. dennis abellanosa
    January 26, 2014

    it’s amaze me people do live here and survive in environment like that.

  26. Hans K Hildebrand
    January 23, 2014

    I admire their grit and typical Russian toughness and adaptability. Thanks for the article!

  27. Daria
    January 20, 2014

    Home, sweet home:)

  28. Richard Cornell
    January 19, 2014

    Ahh…for two years I “survived” in and around Anchorage and like the heroes of this story, despite the long darkenss, there was a unique and almost tender survival element among us all, quiet thinkers, rough-house construction workers, Native Americans, spouses and children…and like those featured in this story, we agonized at the length of darkness but remained mystified by what Mother Nature had wrought. The singular difference, however, was the environment was far purer and pristine. I now live near Orlando and have absolutely no desire to recreate my time in -54 degree survival exercises. Thank you for reminding me how fortunate I am today!

  29. Egor
    January 17, 2014

    I used to live there when I was a child, and it is really cold! But Saint-Petersburg’s winter is cold too, cause of near sea.

  30. Valeria
    January 17, 2014

    First i would say that the devil is so black as it painted. I read a lot of similar articles before i moved to Norilsk. and all of them were depressing. The conditions seemed to me terrible and unbearable. I could understand how i would survive in the city. When I moved to Norilsk, i can see everything with my own eyes and i understood that maybe it wasn’t so bad as it seemed. many people live here because they have high salaries, guarantees, they can travel whereever they want inspite of living from hand to mouth in other cities in Russia.
    Having been in Norilsk, one begins to appreciate simple things… fresh air, trees, flowers..sun..
    Most of all i feared severe frosts, strong winds, but polar night, very long winter and isolation of the city turned out to be worse for me.
    I looking forward to leaving this city.i will nevr get accustomed to such conditions

  31. iquanyin
    January 16, 2014

    interesting….it seems that the less freedon a people has, the more their rulers use their power in a way i mostly only associated with china till now. as i was reading, i was alsot hinking about this. conclusion: when people are more free, they will push back against what poisons their home. freedom is essential for sustainig life. in also a totally literal sense.

  32. Pavel
    January 16, 2014

    I have lived in this city for 17 years. For me Norilsk – a small homeland in which I lived and studied. I don’t visit my home town for 5 years but I miss by winds, northern lights, northern tasty fish and venison 🙂 Norilsk’s people the kindest and the most supportive people in Russia. When my friends travels around the world, we always call me depending how many thousands of miles separate us. I advise you to go there! Welcome to Norilsk.

  33. Zarina R.
    January 16, 2014

    I was born in this city. This is a wonderful place, the pictures do not convey the atmosphere that exists among people who live in Norilsk. We look at each other with an understanding of where we live. They have their own, the magical atmosphere that will recognize only those who live there.

  34. Loga
    January 16, 2014

    Here the developmental logic is reversed. We develop facilities for better living but here they compensate lives for development.

  35. brenda andrade
    January 15, 2014

    I love your article I had forgotten how I love to learn more about other countries thank you….

  36. Bernardo
    January 13, 2014

    Thanks for sharing that!

  37. Karen
    January 12, 2014

    What is the cost of living there? Are most financial able to leave & live comfortable lives elsewhere, when they retire @ age 45? Do they?

  38. Anastasiya
    January 11, 2014

    To those who find this article “depressing” are really missing the point. Russian people don’t need your compassion or understanding. We don’t like outsiders messing into our lives, no matter how screwed up they may seem to others. We’re a very stubborn and prideful people and will probably stay that way. So please understand that I have no patience for someone thinking how wrongly my people are living their lives. They find their own ways and stand strongly by them.

  39. muge
    January 9, 2014

    I think it is a very exciting experience to live in Norilsk for months.

  40. chiangraiken
    January 8, 2014

    Amazing how people can destroy environment and tolerate extreme conditions. I see similar in slums in Asia.

  41. Can Jane Yalcin
    January 8, 2014

    The article evokes great questions may be we are to late to ask ourselves as world citizens.

  42. Alin Haim
    January 7, 2014

    This article is inspiring me… Are there any volunteer opportunities for volunteering in the region? I find it fascinating that people leaving in such conditions can maintain a positive outlook on life. I wonder how the teenagers feel? What is the outlook of a young person in Norilsk. Do people still fall in love and decide to live there? Great article and pictures.

  43. Rasimo
    January 7, 2014

    Nice article. Thank you for shaing

  44. Steven
    January 7, 2014

    Amazing. It makes one wonder how our distant ancestors managed to survive similar conditions during the Ice Age, without modern technology.

  45. Tina
    January 7, 2014

    Inspiring? Amazing? What are you guys talking about? I am absolutely blindsided by how depressing this article sounds! Of course I admire the journalist for following up on an inner personal caring…but the discovery of the wanton resource pollution, the steadfast population putting up with this..for the money and “lifestyle”? Are you kidding? who are these companies who have no regard whatsoever for proper resource management and environmental stewardship? that is where I want information…I would like to write these mining companies and inquire why they do not care what they do to the environment. This is all our mother earth we would not live without her air and water.

  46. Leon Comeau
    January 7, 2014

    Right now (January 2014) most of Canada is in a deep freeze with similar temperatures but is sure to be short lived . Living in this climate and condition would drive me insane over a period of time , especially with no daylight for 2 months .

  47. Pamela Angeles
    January 7, 2014

    Este es un increíble artículo, soy del Caribe y no puedo imaginarme vivir en un lugar tan particular como este, pero el que hayas hecho este reportaje me ayuda a imaginarme mejor como son las condiciones de vida de personas que viven simplemente en un ambiente totalmente distinto al mío. Te felicito por el trabajo arduo de documentar esta historia. Me parecen completamente atinadas tus preguntas reflexivas sobre hasta donde llegará la ambición humana.

  48. rocky chaudhry
    January 7, 2014

    very nice

  49. Mariano
    January 7, 2014

    it’s amazing how far a man can go

  50. jesus
    January 7, 2014

    Im a political refugie from cuba i live in miami now .can you please elena you that are russia go to cuba and investigate the conditions that we have there especially we dont have fredoom our human rithgs are constatilly ignore

  51. Amz
    January 7, 2014

    There is no perfect place on earth! That’s the beauty of it.

  52. Sathyapalan
    January 7, 2014

    It’s a wonderful learning experience

  53. Kanika Kaushal
    January 6, 2014

    What an enriching and inspiring article. Things like these really bring us closer to reality and makes us cherish what we have even more. thanks for sharing!

  54. Medina
    January 6, 2014

    Goes to show a colony on the Moon or Mars can be a real possibility.

  55. Christian Rivero
    January 6, 2014

    I was so amazed of this article, Thanks to the author and to the photographer. More power to both of you!

  56. Enrique Perez Melendez
    January 6, 2014

    Boy! Am I lucky to live in Mexico City.

  57. Dave Chavez
    January 6, 2014

    I loved the commentary on how more intimate of a culture they were due to lack of internet usage.

  58. sandra
    January 6, 2014

    I should appreciate the sun more as I live in the Tropics and gets to sit in the park every morning with my dog.
    But I wish I could experience this place for a short period.

  59. saurin
    January 6, 2014

    Excellent article and photo, what do they eat? How do they get it?

  60. lynessa
    January 6, 2014

    fantastic article, beautiful photography. Russia remains one of the most mysterious beautiful places on earth, it needs more coverage and mostly we need more of an understanding of its people

  61. Richard Crouser
    January 6, 2014

    This is one fantastic article. Maybe one day I would love to visit there.

  62. Elena
    January 6, 2014

    Wish you showed more pcitures of the city itself as it does have a very beautiful architecture, more so in the oldest part which is a lot like Saint Petersburg.
    Good article otherwise, brought up a lot of good memories as you see I am originally from Norilsk myself.

  63. thomas Scott
    January 6, 2014

    Facinating story and the photos were awsome. These people have to be strong to survive there.

  64. Nino
    January 6, 2014

    I come from Sicily and hate the cold, but this story – that was previously published on an Italian magazine some months ago – really captivates me. I would like just try for a shorter period the experience the author did!

  65. alison canales
    January 6, 2014

    Tremenda historia, es un mal compartido en todo el mundo esto de olvidar que el hombre pertenece a la Tierra y no al revés.

  66. Asha
    January 6, 2014

    I think i was wrong complaining about the winter in Calgary.

  67. Adel abadli
    January 6, 2014

    Wonderful , thank you for the valuable information

  68. SWA
    January 6, 2014

    I think I should stop complaining about how cold it is now. Thanks NG.

  69. Stevens
    January 6, 2014

    It amazine seeing the extent of human adaptiveness. This article is really insightful. Does aurora occur in Norilsk too?

  70. Stevens
    January 6, 2014

    It amazine seeing the extent of human adaptiveness. This article is really insightful. Does Norilsk have aurora too?

  71. Blanca Pinon
    January 6, 2014

    What a fantastic article and photos … thanks for a learning experience.

  72. Pascalina
    January 6, 2014

    Amazing to see how many ways of living exists!

  73. Banimibo-ofori Jack
    January 6, 2014

    This is a good expository. Thanks to the author.

  74. bultan m. cayda
    January 6, 2014

    i hope human will realize the true important of life and should be contented in a little things they have…cause what will happen if all the part of the word are sud zero ?….

  75. Zed
    January 6, 2014

    I live in paradise when I compare this city wit my.

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