With many of us experiencing life in isolation for the first time, we’re turning our attention to those far flung places where people live solitary lives all year long. In this edition we’re heading into the remote Siberian winter to explore the world’s northernmost city, Norilsk!

Located 1,800 miles northeast of Moscow, Norilsk (population around 175,000) is buried deep in the Arctic Circle. There are no roads or railways in and out of the city, the only way to Norilsk is by air, and when the water isn’t frozen, by boat. Surrounded by vast Siberian wilderness, “this is where the last wild mammoths died”, explains Norilsk scientist Vladimir Larin.

But what Norilsk does have is one of the world’s largest deposits copper, nickel and palladium, a scarce platinum-group metal used in mobile phones that is currently more expensive than gold.

Norilsk didn’t exist until the 1920s. But when Soviet metallurgic mining began on a vast scale, the remote outpost grew, first as a harsh Gulag, and then as an industrial city.

Gulag prisoners mining in Norilsk.

The riches being mined around Norilsk saw thousands flock to a city two hundred miles inside the Arctic Circle and where the winter nights never end. It also saw Norilsk become one of the world’s most polluted cities, where average life expectancy is ten years shorter than anywhere else in Russia. Blighted with constant acid rain, sulphurous smog, and a river that often turns blood red with pollution, Norilsk has developed a notorious reputation.

Perhaps that is why no foreigners are allowed in Norilsk without written permission from the FSB, Russia’s security service.

But the SGE is getting a unique look at life inside the cut-off outpost, through the camera of urban explorer Svetlana, found on Instagram as @lanasator. Come with us we venture into the Siberian wilderness and a bleak Soviet-era industrial city that one inhabitant described as being, “put here by force. It is like a survivor….you came, you worked, you froze.”

Society for Gentlemen Explorers (SGE): How did you come to be interested in urban exploring?

Lana Sator (LS):  I’m 31 years old, now living in Moscow, but originally I’m from smaller industrial town called Podolsk (about 10-15 km from Moscow). Because of watching industrial landscapes inside of Podolsk and around, I started to be interested in urbex about 15 years ago. With this urbex interest I have already visited almost all of Russian regions and more than 30 other countries. I prefer abandoned areas connected with science, industries or military history, also I enjoy socialist modernist architecture of 1970-1980s.

SGE: What made you want to go visit Norilsk?

LS:  It is the northest city populated more than 150k. It was built near some mountains that contain both coal, copper and materials for construction…. far from anything else that can be reached only by aircraft almost all part of the year. There are some black pages in its period between the 1930s-1950s, because a lot of prisoners worked at quarries and factories.

Also there was an interesting moment in Norilsk life when in 1950s they stopped using free labour of prisoners and had to start paying for job, the result profit of producing was near null. There were real plans of the Soviet government to stop everything there and take away all citizens. It could become a great ghost town, but fortunately there was success in looking for more minerals for continuing producing. So Norilsk is alive still today and looks great.  

SGE: What is it like to live in the city today?

LS: I spent just three weeks there in March (I was planning more than a month, but got scared that the airport could be closed till summer because of situation with the Coronavirus, it could be hard to live in such isolation without ability to go outside) and this time is the best for visiting Norilsk, I think. They have two totally dark months in winter (polar night) and two totally sunny days in summer (polar day), it could be hard for those who usually have nights and daytime everyday.

Their summer is short and wet, with a lot of mosquitoes. Really, there are a lot of children outside, that look happy. Becoming students, much part of them will leave motherland for studying, and just a small part will come back. I think that it is hard to continue living in the North after you have tried it in the South. There are high prices for food and public transport (comparing with not so isolated areas of Russia), but “norilchane” (Norilsk citizens) have high salaries.

SGE: Looking at photographs of Norilsk, it appears one of the bleakest of Soviet industrial cities. But Lana Sator manages to produce beautiful photographs amongst the breezeblocks, belching chimneys and barren landscape. From the endless snow tundras, to inside the many abandoned buildings that have been destroyed by permafrost thawing.

LS: It was really fantastic feeling. True winter looks amazing and absolutely clean, harmoniously. In Moscow I hate snow because it always transforms into wet dirt. But in Norilsk the snow is so huge, deep, soft and pure, streets are white, everything is white!

LS: During exploring abandoned places you don’t need to look for strange entrances over the roof or from underground, you don’t need to unlock anything, – you may just walk over the snowdrifts and get inside empty windows of 2nd or 3rd floor.

SGE: We read about the pollution problems in Norilsk. Is that something you can sense when you visit?

LS: Nope, some people told me that there is some gas in the air and it smells, but I cannot feel it, tried but cannot. Also I heard that in summer the landscapes look dead and empty, there is almost no grass and trees, many polluted ponds and rivers with strange coloured water, – but in winter you see just snow everywhere. It is hard to notice pollution under the snow.

SGE: What do the people of Norilsk like to do in the long winters?

LS: In the city center there are some museums, cinemas, sport centers. And outside skiing and snowboarding areas, – the city looks progressive and I don’t think that there are any problems with spending free time. In summer there’s popular hiking, fishing, boating etc.

SGE: Norilsk currently mines nearly half of the world’s palladium, which has begun to be used in car exhausts to convert toxic gases into water vapour. With prices and demand soaring, Norilsk continues to thrive, despite its bleak character.

LS: If the tickets to Norilsk are not such overpriced (about ~$500 for two-way) it could be a great place to spend vacation or weekend. For a strange reason Norilsk has reputation as a scary and dirty city, but in winter time (from October to June, heh) it looks clean and comfortable. And what about me, now I can call myself a real fan of this place.

For those who love exploring old Soviet-era buildings, perhaps none are quite as striking as those found in Norilsk. Cut off from the rest of Russia, and surrounded by mines, some working, others abandoned, daily life in Norilsk’s long winters is hard, but continues.

You can find much more of Lana Sator’s adventures in Russia on Instagram, that includes wonderful photographs of abandoned places, military installations, Soviet art, and much more! All photos ©Lanasator unless otherwise attributed.