You’d be forgiven for saying you’ve never heard of Norilsk, the northernmost city in the world is located within the Arctic Circle in Russia. The city was closed to foreigners during the Soviet period and remains difficult to visit today. This is partly due to requiring special permission to visit and also due to the lack of connections to ‘mainland’ Russia.Norilsk is considered to be an ‘island’ by many Russians as it is located so far from Moscow – approximately 1800 miles and the only way to get there is by plane. There is a ferry which sails during the summer, but it has no road or rail connections to any other major cities. If you do manage to visit Norilsk, that makes you a member of a very exclusive club, with around only 200 foreigners visiting each year.Hearing all of this, you may be wondering why on earth I would want to visit Norilsk? Especially in November when the temperatures drop and the city prepares for Polar Nights: when the sun never fully rises.I was invited by FusionNow, to learn more about the Ethnic Groups of Taimyr Peninsula and we were using Norilsk as our base for the Bolshoi Argish Festival. I will be sharing my impressions and what I learned from that experience shortly, but I felt compelled to give a glimpse inside life in Norilsk. A place where resilience and community are key to survival and a place that many foreigners will never see.
The City of Norilsk
The city’s existence is a remarkable feat of human resilience. Built by prisoners in 1935, they had to endure incredibly harsh conditions including polar nights and temperatures that would make you shiver even thinking about it. It’s sadly no surprise to hear that many lives were lost in the process of building Norilsk.Norilsk is now home to around 170,000 residents, which accounts for 2% of the GDP of the entire country! The residents of Norilsk lead their lives as normal, despite enduring winter for nine months of the year and not seeing sunlight for several months at a time.The city itself is rather unique in that it is located on permafrost. Therefore, it has been designed to endure the severe winters – the buildings are on stilts and the entrances are high to ensure residents are not blocked in by snow. Additionally, the city offers protection from the bone-chilling winds by building houses close to each other to create an anti-wind ‘wall’ of sorts.With all of that said, I bet you’re picturing a very grey and dismal city – but reality could not be further from that. As we were walking around on an evening, I felt as though I could be in Saint Petersburg, not thousands of miles away in the Arctic! The architecture of the main city is very beautiful and the use of colour on the buildings adds a much needed vibrancy.The residential buildings also have large colourful numbers painted on them – interestingly, this is because when it is super snowy, all of the buildings look the same. Therefore, residents require these bright numbers to identify where they live. There is also a theory that painting the buildings with different colours gives the eyes a rest from the bright white of the snow!
It would be remiss of me to write about Norilsk without mentioning Nornickel. Nornickel is the world’s leading producer of nickel and palladium and ranked in the top ten copper producers. Norilsk is home to Nornickel’s Polar Division and is a key asset in Taimyr Peninsula. A significant number of the residents in Norilsk are employed by Nornickel. Interestingly, the company runs their plants 24/7, as it would be difficult and expensive to stop and restart production. Therefore, no matter what time of day it is, there will always be people wandering around the city. They will either be starting their shift at work or heading home.The FusionNow programme is built in partnership with Nornickel and we were very fortunate to visit the Nornickel building to enjoy the views from the roof. It truly has the best views of the city at night.
What to Do
Visit Nurdi Kamal Mosque
This is the world’s northernmost mosque, which was opened in 2000. We visited to learn more about the local community and it was a very welcoming environment.
Attend the Polar Drama Theatre
The Norilsk Polar Drama Theatre is the northernmost theatre in the world (do you see a trend here? Everything is the most northern in the world!) The theatre is considered to be the cultural centre of the city, with creative teams travelling from all over Russia to perform there.
We were fortunate enough to watch a performance of ‘Dreams of the White Land’ at the theatre. It was an evocative piece about the lives of nomadic people in the region. The message was how Shaman were the link between three worlds and this was portrayed through music and dance.
The First House of Norilsk
Whilst Norilsk was established in 1935, the first house was actually built in 1921 by geologist Nikolai Urvantsev. He was creating a geological map of the area at the time and he became the first true resident of Norilsk. The house is still in Norilsk and you can visit it, as it’s now a museum. It’s interesting to think that all they had to keep themselves warm were fires and furs.
Visit The Museum of Norilsk
The Museum of Norilsk is a contemporary exhibition space, used to showcase creative endeavours, art and showcasing the history of Norilsk.We attended a public talk with Alexandra Kaloshina titled ‘Global Trends and Local Brands. Russian Design as a Global Fashion Trendsetter’. Alexandra spoke passionately about her business Radical Chic, sharing how she has grown her brand. It was great to see a buzzing atmosphere with a lot of interest from locals. There was a Q&A session that was very engaging.
Try Local delicacies
I’ve spoken about my love for Russian food previously, however there are some Northern dishes that are incredibly unique. One such dish is Sugoodai, they use fresh frozen fish which has never been heat treated. The fish is sliced into thin pieces which is then mixed with salt, pepper and lemon juice. It is said to be a delicacy, I don’t eat fish, but everyone in the group seemed to enjoy it. Another norther favourite is reindeer, they eat the meat in salads and in smoked or dried forms.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Hotel Polar Star on Leninsky Prospect. The hotel is a redevelopment of a beautiful building which was originally built in 1945, it looks incredibly imposing from the outside.The interior is cozy and warming, which should come as no surprise. Russian’s take the cold very seriously and heat the buildings to a practically tropical level!
The hotel offers all of the modern amenities you could require, including a restaurant, bar and gym on site.Located in the heart of Norilsk, you’re able to walk to the downtown area in around 5 minutes and you have views of the nearby mountains from your room – the best of both worlds.
I found Norilsk to be an intriguing city! On the surface it’s a regular city with some lovely architecture in the centre, however I can’t help but marvel at how the people who live there, are able to cope with some of the harshest conditions on the planet and continue daily life as normal.It’s as though they have resilience hard-wired into their DNA and yet, they are still warm and welcoming with a real sense of community.Despite the distance from the ‘mainland’ of Russia, the fact that goods can cost double the normal price, people here seem very content with their way of life.
There are many cultural activities to enjoy in the city itself including performances in the Polar Drama Theatre which are available year round.When summer arrives, it has been known for the temperature to soar to 30c and this gives residents access to some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. The Putorana Plateau is a UNESCO world heritage site, located in Taimyr Peninsula and I’m sure the people of Norilsk are of the few that have visited this remote and pristine region, home to canyons, lakes and the highest waterfalls in Russia. I hope to return one day to explore this myself.