An elderly Russian gentleman in swimming trunks and flip-flops hangs his towel on a railing and swims out into a grey, urban lake. In the background are snow-capped hills and industrial chimneys spouting smoke. This is Oleg, and he captures as well as anyone the contradictions that govern life in the Arctic city of Norilsk. “I’m proud of having taken part in building this city. Although, roughly speaking, people here are sacrificing their health. This environment, this climate, minus 45 degrees, minus 50 degrees… I love this city.”
My Deadly, Beautiful City is a short film by Victoria Fiore produced in collaboration with the New York Times Od-Doc project. Working with photographer Elena Chernyshova – whose series chronicling the daily lives of Norilsk residents, Days of Night – Night of Days, won a World Press Photo award in 2012 – Fiore made it her mission to get inside a city that has been closed to foreigners since 2011 and document the people who call it home.
‘I don’t see why people wouldn’t want to live here. There’s a really strong sense of community and of loving one another’
Having previously worked with Vice News on the conflict in Ukraine, Fiore tells me she was “really keen on giving a more sensitive view on Russia,” where she had previously studied. But why Norilsk in particular? “Oh my God,” she replies, quite rightly. “Why not?” Her film balances Norilsk’s stunning vistas – endless tundra interrupted by hulking industrial complexes – with a focus on the very human emotion that makes people want to live in such isolation.
“I don’t see why people wouldn’t want to live here,” Fiore says. “There’s a really strong sense of community and of loving one another. That might sound a bit cheesy, but that’s the way it is. There was such a community feeling that you don’t get in other places, that however ugly or dangerous it seems from the outside, it doesn’t matter. Essentially the people make it what it is, like anywhere.” Chernyshova agrees: “In every place with unusual living conditions, people develop a strong sense of community. People who go to live in other cities often say they miss this kind of relationship.” Norilsk natives often leave for five or ten years before the lure of the North proves too strong. Oleg, the hardy swimmer, frequently leaves his family 1,500 kilometres away in Krasnoyarsk in order to return to the city he helped to build.
This sense of pride provokes some odd reactions to the hazardous environmental conditions created by Norilsk’s nickel mining and smelting, with everyone from doctors to nuns insisting that the city’s inhabitants are actually healthier and longer-lived than other Russians. “To be fair, once you do live in a place that stinks of sulphur, you get used to it,” Fiore reasons. As one of her interlocutors says, “for us, this is a very native landscape.”
Chernyshova was first moved to explore this sense of “nativeness” after hearing tales of Arctic life from her mother, who spent ten years in a small far-North town. “I dreamt of going to explore these kinds of life,” she says. Perhaps it’s the dreamlike or otherworldly nature of Norilsk that most resonates in My Deadly, Beautiful City: from the hypnotic shots of industrial machines working through the polar night, to the sheer strangeness of finding life flourishing in such an unforgiving climate. “It’s awe-inspiring that all this was created by the hands of men,” one proud Norilsk native exclaims. “It’s beautiful and it’s eternal. This is where I like to be,” says another.