Beautiful But Toxic! 6 Facts of Norilsk in Russia

Some things can look so fine from the outside but, seen and felt up close, actually very poisonous. Like the apple that Snow White eats. Like Norilsk, an industrial city in Russia. This place is officially one of the most polluted cities in the world and not ideal to be inhabited. There are people living in Norilsk, actually, more than one hundred thousand. Then how do they live with toxins flying around them every day? We are about to find out 6 facts about Norilsk, the beautiful but toxic city in Russia.

1. The world’s northernmost city

Norilsk is the second largest city above the Arctic Circle and that makes it one at the world’s northernmost city in the continuous permafrost zone. Permafrost is the ground or rock that gets iced permanently because the surrounding’s temperature is below freezing point. Norilsk is covered with snow up to 270 days a year with the highest temperature around 30⁰C and the lowest touches -53⁰C, so you can imagine how cold it is there during the very long winter. The summer is short and warm, and the lighting around the city is excellent because it is relatively dim or dark there most of the time of the year.

2. Built from a labor camp

Situated between the West Siberian Plain and Central Siberia Plateau at the foot of Putoran Mountains, Norilsk’s land is one of the largest nickel deposits on Earth. In 1935, a mining complex was built as Gulag labor camps. This was where the prisoners of the Gulag concentration camp got forced to work at the mine.  In 1953 the government granted it a town status. It is safe to say that the whole town is meant to be industrial from the first place and provided as a field of work. About sixteen thousands prisoners died in the forced labor under the condition of starvation and extreme cold from 1935 to 1956. The mine is still a dangerous place to work in, but since 2013 the number of fatalities has been reduced by 60%.

3. Highly polluted

Looking at the condition of the town that is full of factories and mainly operates as a heavy metal mining, the air has become very polluted and responsible for the happening of acid rain and smog. The soil is heavily stained by platinum and palladium that the surface could contribute for the city’s economy as mining. Every year, about four million tons of copper, lead, arsenic, nickel, selenium, zinc, and cadmium are released into the air. The nearby river, Daldykan, is contaminated by the waste from the smelting plant that the water becomes red and impossible to be consumed. When the factory is operating and the chimneys release smoke into the air, it gets hard for the people to breathe. Life expectancy of Norilk’s inhabitants is 10 years lower than the Russians in general due to the bad and far from ideal living condition.

4. Cut off from the rest of Russia

The only way to reach Norilsk is only through the air because there is no road or railway getting in to or out of this city. The whole place is treated like an island because of the environmental condition that can’t be opened for public. There are two airports that serve the city; Alykel and Valek. The freight transport is through the Arctic Ocean or Yenisei River. Only commuter workers or people with importance who have passed the long regulation are allowed to enter the city. Internet connection is limited by satellite and quite slow.


5. Beautifully designed

If you look at Norilsk from afar, through pictures floating around the internet, you won’t know that the city is heavily polluted. Blue clear sky on the background, neat rows of buildings, monuments, old establishment that are well maintained, view of landscape, layers of snow that seems like a thick, soft comforter – they are deceiving. Yes, Norilsk is beautiful, but wait until you breathe the air. Don’t think of the city as a scene from a post-apocalypse movie, because it is well built. It has a theater, a zoo, a museum, an art gallery, a cultural center, an entertainment complex, also a sport arena. There are also religious buildings like churches, cathedrals, and a mosque. Looking around the city you can almost say that Norilsk is just like any other small town that functions normally.

6. The residents love it

You might be thinking that it is hard to live in a place as toxic as Norilsk, but actually people who live there love their town deep into their hearts. So deep that they would deny that the air that they breathe could harm them. It could be the propaganda or maybe they just fall in the comfort of Norilsk after living there for so many years from generation to generation. It is even said that many of them would return to Norilsk after giving a try to leave it for a period of time.


if there is an analogy about how Norilsk, it is probably like one of those abusive relationships people can’t walk out of because they already feel like there is nowhere else to go or no one else could understand them better than their violent partner. It might sound sad but maybe feels different from the residents’ points of view. Some people call Norilsk a giant freezing hell looking at the quality of air and water there and how the possibility of developing cancer is twice higher than the rest of Russia.

Travelers who plan to go and explore Siberia would most likely miss Norilsk because it is hardly a tourist attraction. The 6 facts about the town we have seen above hopefully have explained enough why it is beautiful but too toxic to be visited by foreigners.

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