So while doing some research to satisfy my usual fascination with Arctic or otherwise Northerly places, I had to ask myself, “What’s the Northernmost large city in the world?”. To my surprise, it was not Murmansk or Archangelsk, Russia, which lay pretty close. It was a city of about 175,000 people in the Siberian end known as Norilsk.

I would not suppose that a city which expanded for the purpose of supplementing Soviet Gulags would resemble a Siberian Paris, but this place really does seem to take the whole Pyongyang kind of flavour to good, utilitarian heights. The buildings are built, I have read, with narrow alleys in between in order to protect city dwellers from the intense winds that often befall the entire place. Aww, how sweet, you put your citizens in a Soviet Gulag but are concerned the winds may be unsafe for them. And they said the USSR was a heartless behemoth of a totalitarian state.

Apart from the fact that even the architects themselves were forced to design the city against their will (so much for the good graces of the Politburo on that whole wind thing), the city has got to be one of the most treeless places I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if this is because it’s difficult to grow lots of trees in an Arctic tundra biome, or because, again, utilitarian minimalism is the motif Stalin’s people were going for.

Okay, so you’re thinking, “What a hellhole”, right? Well, not quite. There’s no evidence the Russian Federation is doing anything to force the city’s residence to continue to live there, and the city maintains tens of thousands of people. It is true that the young, who host a monthly dance party to experience a taste of modernity, generally wish to leave. But that’s not all that different from what you see in many other parochial places. Young people generally don’t do parochial, they want New York City, Moscow, London…you know…hip cities.

No, I’m afraid the factors that make this city unpleasant are its pollution levels. At this time, only Russians and Belarussians are allowed to visit without going through the FSB for a special permit. I suspect it is because of the pollution, rather than political factors, that the Russian government has enacted these limits on outside traffic.

^And this isn’t exactly what tourists envision as their ideal getaway.

But nonetheless, the city holds some interesting traits. Some of the Norilsk buildings, like in many other Russian cities, employ the neoclassical style that can give a redeeming quality to even a Gulag town like this one.

It is, of course, the blatant coldness with which the city was mapped out (as was the case in many Stalinist era infrastructure), that we are reminded was not designed to impress the West as St. Petersberg was.

Not a tree in sight^, or even grass. And that is considering Slavic cities tend to be loaded with trees. The abound in the sidewalks, sides of cafes, they even grow out of sidewalks. I’ve been to Slavic countries, I know.

So with that, why not tell me what you think. Would you visit this place out of curiosity if you had the chance?


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