Thursday, June 30, 2016

A City in the North

When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I looked in my atlas for a place called the Taymyr Peninsula. I'd been reading about the tribal people of Siberia, and I looked for this place, the homeland of the Nenets and Nganasan people, a vast zone of permafrost on Russia's Arctic coast. some 3000 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

And then in a tiny, Italic font. I saw the word “Norilsk,” indicating a settlement on the edge of the peninsula, the name of an impossibly remote city. I wondered, briefly, what kind of place it was – was it a real city of any size? Or was it just a garrison town, a few hundred soldiers on the edge of the wilderness. Or darker, one of the many islets of the Gulag Archipelago?

I don't think I ever looked it up. I filed the name away in memory, one of the many reference superscripts for which I would never look up the footnote.

And then I saw a set of photographs by Elena Chernyshova, documenting the city of Norilsk.

The city is substantial, a place of 200,000 people. As suspected, the rich mineral resources of the region were once mined by the primarily Ukrainian victims of Stalin's Great Purge of the late 1930s, who also constructed the isolated Norilsk Railway, which shipped the platinum, nickel, and palladium from the Taymyr Peninsula to the port town of Dudinka.

Nowadays, the metals are privately managed, by MMC Norilsk Nickel, a Moscow-based company. Its smelters at Norilsk run all day, creating a full 2 percent of the world's carbon dioxide output. The life expectancy is 10 years lower than that of the rest of the Russia, and the soil has become so fouled that it could, ostensibly, be economically viable to mine the topsoil for platinum.

And whether it's due to the city's economic importance, or due to its dishonorable distinction of being Russia's most polluted city, the place is off-limits to foreigners, other than Belarussians, whose own republic, a little reliquary of Soviet nostalgia adjacent to Poland and Lithuania, likewise heavily curtails foreign visits.

This practice remains common in this part of the world. These closed cities have been deemed too valuable to the national interest, in terms of their positions as centers of mines, manufacturing, military operations, or scientific research. There is Zvyozdny Gorodok, where the cosmonauts are trained. There is Snezhnogorsk, the shipyard town on the Arctic shore, near the Finnish border. There is Ozyorsk, the birthplace of weapons-grade plutonium, site of the 1957 Kyshtym nuclear disaster, and home to the radioactive Lake Karachay, the now mostly dry lake filled with concrete to prevent the underlying sediments from shifting, where the radiation levels in the murky water are high enough to provide a lethal dose within an hour.

This sort of environmental-horror photography is a kindred spirit to the ruin porn of Detroit et al that has spawned cult interest on the Internet in the past several years. It's a tradition that I first became aware of in Godfrey Reggio's sometimes intriguing, sometimes cloying 1988 film Powaqqatsi, which opens with men carrying crushing loads of mineral-laden dirt and rock on narrow ladders out of the Dantean pit of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil.

The more modern purveyors of this subject matter primarily focus, likewise, on the grim legacy of attempts at modern industrial revolution, primarily in India, China, and the former Soviet Bloc. There are a few hallmarks. Close-ups of sweaty workers in the teeming mass, blasted scenery, the inevitable human-interest angle of laborers on their break, eating lunch or having a smoke and a laugh.

On the one hand, this brand of photography plays a role as a legitimate form of environmental and social protest, documenting lives and landscapes that would otherwise be near-invisible. What would be distant, solitary, unknowable comes across in intimate detail. 
And yet part of me cringes at the focus on the BRIC nations, as if to palliate the guilt of capitalists in the more developed world from their complicity, or to obscure the fact that the end product of all of this en-masse destruction can be found neatly wrapped at your local big-box store, ready for you to drop into your shopping cart.

Norilsk, the city in the North, is in all of us, in our jewelry, in the catalytic converters of our cars. And when I look at the rings on our fingers, in the passing of traffic, I can only a think of a metropolis caked in snow and grime, rusted mining equipment, and long-dead Ukrainians buried in the metal-laced soil.