NORILSK, Russia — Blessed with a cornucopia of precious metals buried beneath a desert of snow, but so bereft of sunlight that nights in winter never end, Norilsk, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is a place of brutal extremes. It is Russia’s coldest and most polluted industrial city, and its richest — at least when measured by the value of its vast deposits of palladium, a rare mineral used in cellphones that sells for more than $1,000 an ounce.
It is also dark. Starting about now, the sun stops rising, leaving Norilsk shrouded in the perpetual night of polar winter. This year that blackout began last Wednesday.
Built on the bones of slave prison laborers, Norilsk began as an outpost of Stalin’s Gulag, a place so harsh that, according to one estimate, of 650,000 prisoners who were sent here between 1935 and 1956, around 250,000 died from cold, starvation or overwork. But more than 80 years after Norilsk became part of the Gulag Archipelago, nobody really knows exactly how many people labored there in penal servitude or how many died.
The Norilsk camp system, known as Norillag, shut down in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev began to dismantle the worst excesses of Stalinism. The legacy of repressive control, though, lives on in tight restrictions on access to the city. All foreigners are barred from visiting without a permit from Russia’s Federal Security Service, the post-Soviet successor to the K.G.B.
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