Some 5,000 miles east of Moscow and 500 miles west of Yakutsk, in Siberia, there is an area that owes its existence to the discovery of diamonds deposits and which future is uncertain because depends on the decisions of one company controlled by the Russian government.
Between 2017 and 2020 I spent four months in the Russian far east exploring the unique living conditions of an area that owns its existence to diamond mining. The project I carried out is focused on loneliness, isolation, extreme cold and mankind attempts to overcome adverse conditions when tries to establish life in remote regions.
The Russian Federation is the largest diamond-producing nation and Alrosa is the leading company accounting for 95% of the country’s production. The Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) has an area five times the size of France, but with a population less than one million produces around 28% of the world’s rough diamonds, making the diamond mining industry critical to its economy (half of Yakutia’s regional budget comes from diamond’s taxes).
Before 1955, in the area in which this project was developed, there was nothing but taiga; Ice, snow, uninhabited territory covered by forests and the few animals that could survive in such extreme climate conditions. The towns of Udachny, Mirny and Aykhal were founded in 1955, 1956 and 1962 respectively because deposits of diamonds were discovered there. Their names remained coded (Udachny is the Russian word for “lucky” Mirny for “peaceful”, and Aykhal the Yakut word for “fame”) and they got the status of “closed” towns because diamonds were a strategic sector during the Cold War. Actually are bright examples of what Russians call “monogorod” (a town dominated by a single company). More than 50% of its population works directly or indirectly for Alrosa company, which operates mining and processing facilities, holds its transport subsidiaries, hotels, real estate company, sports centers, culture palaces and participates actively in political life.
The area is close to the Arctic and isolated in the center of Siberia. There is no year-round road to the “main land” and is above permafrost.
With 7-9 months of winter suffer prolonged periods of extreme cold with temperatures reaching - 50°C and lower. Severe climate conditions make the life of people unique here. Many of them still remember the time when the towns were closed and older people are nostalgic to old Soviet way of life and communist era. With the development of communications and transport services, the local communities gradually lose their authenticity, but still the harsh climate conditions make them value friendship, mutual help and hard work.
Historically Alrosa has always insisted on its social responsibility for the people in the local territories the company explodes. According to “soviet times” economic model the company has built hospitals, theaters, financed cheap housing, provide health care, pensions, and also paid internal flights every two years for its workers, but now, the towns depending on Alrosa are feeling the change of paradigm in the company’s strategy towards a more capitalist model. The company has met the stock market in November 2011 and probably private investors are likely to push for cost-cutting and higher payouts to shareholders, potentially endangering the Alrosa’s towns way of life.
Isolation, harsh climate conditions, and the unpredictable of diamond trade are making that some people are starting to think in leave their towns and start life in other places while Alrosa investments in local social services, which were very large in the past, are decreasing in the last years. Indeed, all these towns are losing population and is not very clear what will happen when diamonds deposits will finish here. While some people assure that other natural reserves as gas or oil will be exploited in the area, others see these towns as probably future ghost towns. To define this actually sensations, local people resort to the phrase “Capitalism has also arrived here”.
Aerial view of Vilyuy River, March 04, 2017.
On August 24, 1978, the USSR conducted an underground nuclear explosion named “Kraton-3” at an uninhabited area on the bank of the Vilyuy river in Yakutia. Due to technological violations, the event resulted in a release of radioactivity and contamination of the area nearby. Kraton-3 was supposed to unearth diamond-rich ores, instead, the amount of diamonds was insignificant but the plutonium pollution of water was higher than predicted. According to the anti-nuclear activist Alexei Yablokov, the level of plutonium in the drinking water of the region 20 years after the explosion was ten thousand times higher than the maximal sanitary norm. Kraton-3 was inside the soviet program “Peaceful Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy”, also referred to as “Program 7”. All together, the Program 7 conducted 115 nuclear explosions.