Issue 20 Ruins Winter 2005/06

The Dead Town

Martin Herbert

In 2004, when I accompanied a British artist to the city of Norilsk in Northern Siberia, we were only the twentieth and twenty-first non-citizens of the Russian Federation to visit that year and it was late October, deep into off-season in a place that has no on-season. Norilsk’s borders are all but closed. Between 1932 and 1953 when the area, above the Arctic Circle and accordingly inhospitable (a temperature of -76°C has been registered here), was known as Norillag and was one of the largest and most notorious of the Soviet gulag camps, this was a hard place to leave; now, for most, it is a hard place to enter. For us, however, entry was fairly easy, mainly because the artist had visited previously when its burghers were slightly less defensive (there being an unknowable substratum of reasoning that determines whether Norilsk raises or lowers its portcullis vis-à-vis the Western world) and had made contact with the head of the rescue service there, an enthusiastic hunter who stocks up for winter by embedding a half-dozen freshly shot reindeer in the ice outside his house. Nevertheless, we both arrived with several thousand dollars of bribery money secreted around our persons, bottles of bribery scotch clinking in bags, and, in my case, a solar plexus seesawing with fear of the unknown. 


Our rickety internal flight from Moscow having touched down, in darkness, several thousand miles into Siberia’s colossal negativity of tundra, my nerves were not soothed by the sight of Norilsk itself. A grid of wide, featureless avenues slashed by nostril-searing Arctic winds, with those edifices above three stories built on pilings because permafrost makes sinking foundations impossible, Norilsk feels like a kind of ruin preserved in a deep freeze, unaltered since Stalin’s death in 1953. The adjective that the few travel writers who have wanted and been allowed to visit invariably resort to in describing the place is “grim.” Once there was work here (although one could not call it “employment,” and it didn’t exist in conceptual contrast to leisure) building the narrow-gauge railroad from the port to the city: a labor in which tens of thousands died. Frozen bodies were used as ballast for the tracks, and their skeletons emerge every year during the brief thaw. Now, Norilsk’s only real industry is its nickel mine, also built by slave labor and one of the largest and most profitable in the world. As disturbing as the city is to visit, however, something lurks on its outskirts whose appellation suggests it might be worse still. When the locals refer to a place as “the dead town,” human curiosity beats apprehension hands down. Shortly later, we’re on an ice-slicked highway, zigzagging towards it. 


There is only one road here, connecting the city, the airport, and the port town of Dudinka. Along the roadway, the bare black pines that push exhaustedly up out of the tundra are dwarfish and bent, poisoned by the rotten air. The snow is blackened for miles outside the city: Norilsk, with its refineries endlessly pumping smoke into the wind like the national flag of hell, has been described as the most polluted city in the world, and there is no small irony in the fact that the nickel pulled out of its hot depths is one of the main elements in eco-friendly catalytic converters. The only habitation for endless miles of virgin whiteness, it figures as an eerie, spreading orange glow on the horizon and has one reaching inescapably for cancer metaphors. But people live here and, by Russian standards, they have money, because those who work at the mine are compensated for a life expectancy ten years less than the national average. And at one point developers decided to build a cluster of apartment buildings approximately equidistant from the airport and Norilsk—about 40 kilometers from the city. Who was it going to serve? People who worked at the airport? The airport is miniscule. This architectural black hole is shrouded in rumor and misinformation: at one point we’re given to understand it has something to do with the army, who’ve deserted it, but this is later refuted. If it’s connected to the airport, it dates from after the mid-1970s, when the latter was built. Here—as so often in Russia—information runs out. This, whatever it was, is the Dead Town, where, possibly, someone once lived. 


It comprises a huddle of horizontal, nine- and five-story concrete shells the color of weak tea or of poured concrete, checkered with stains, facing each other down: high Soviet Modernism with its lights out, empty rectangular sockets where the windows and doors should be and, hilariously, balconies for sunning oneself. (The fact that it is -28°C and I’m wearing the wrong kind of boots adds to the effect.) Out back, there is a dump of some sort, containing architectural wreckage—which helps make the buildings themselves look like paragons of uprightness, albeit on a radically recalibrated scale. At first, the artist wants to make some work about the Dead Town. What quickly becomes clear, though, is that this is a place that resists the will to transform it into “art”—because nothing needs doing to it. It cannot be slanted, it is what it is: pure morbid atmosphere. It’s a place that, because of the confluence of location and design, inevitably conjures up images of a seventy-year (1917-1989) experiment in human coercion: unhappy ghosts peopling a social project now left to rot. 


But it is not, we come to realize, perpetually uninhabited by living beings, for these ruins are a potential shelter from the blistering cold. Reindeer tracks lead up to the entrances nearest the road; we elect not to follow them. But no doubt this particular building’s interior is like those of the others, which have been systematically ransacked. There are no doors, no light bulbs. Floorboards are missing, revealing intricate icy lattices of rusted pipework. I don’t trust the stairs, but my companion goes up. Underneath the pilings outside, I find forensic remains of human habitation: drained vodka bottles, crushed and oxidized food cans containing miniature drifts of snow, a waterlogged powder-blue mattress. And a torso. A frozen limbless cylinder, the ribs furred with brown flesh. In the wrong boots, I kick it over, stagger out from under the building, and find the artist, who takes a swift look before convincing me that it must be reindeer—the remains of a wintry feast. Amazingly, it seems the Dead Town contains something still deader than itself. 


After a while, late-afternoon sunlight starts to pink the facades, which gain a faint, illusory glamour. Even without that gilding, there’s something fiercely attractive about this kind of architecture, because it’s so perfectly comprehensible in its dehumanization, its idealist sparseness. As a wreck, shrouded in secrecy, that nobody can be bothered to tear down—because real estate is not exactly at a premium here—the Dead Town can’t help but be metonymic. Yet nothing is ever that simple. For the people of Norilsk, totalitarianism is not entirely vanished. It built the mine they work in and the buildings they live in. The city was founded on death and continues to produce death, via the pollution which usually determines that few outsiders are allowed to get a view of what goes on here. But the locals are not miserable: on the evidence of the people we met, they have foreign holidays and gadgetry to compensate for their truncated life spans. Mostly they don’t want to leave Norilsk, although they inhabit buildings that, from the outside at least, look only marginally more habitable than the Dead Town. (Inside, you could be in any middle-class European home, except that the heating is cranked up brutally high.)


The Soviet system is only half-gone here, and what has filled up the other half is also far from innocent. For example, there is one good place to eat in Norilsk. It is called Kabinet (Russian for “office”); it’d be a fine restaurant wherever you put it, and it’s where we go to defrost after leaving the Dead Town. The plush and woody décor is sumptuous. The chef seems comfortable with international cuisine, although he or she’ll serve you the local fare (reindeer, pickled mushrooms, dill) if you ask. The waitresses are stunning and patrol the floors according to a rigorous and mathematically refined system of shift-work. The prices are, for the typical mineworker, prohibitively steep. Kabinet is open all day, and there are very rarely more than three people in it; often the people who are in it drive big black cars and shake hands elaborately. Everyone here can put a name to this business, and knows not to. I picture Kabinet, in fifty years’ time, as an entropic wreck to compare with the Dead Town. Then optimism fades and we ask Anastasia to bring us, пожалуйста, one more round of liquid amnesia.


Martin Herbert is a writer based in Kent, England. His critical writing has appeared in magazines including Artforum, Frieze, and Art Monthly.

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