Nansen memorial disembarks on Taimyr

This girl lives in Dudinka. The Taimyr Peninsula is home to five different groups of indigenous peoples.

DUDINKA: Joint Norwegian, Russian expedition arrived in Siberia, repeating the voyage Fridtjof Nansen made in 1913. Today, the Taimyr Peninsula is where traditional indigenous peoples life meets the severe consequences of the industry in Norilsk, Russia’s most polluted city.


It is hard to believe you are on a river when sailing the northernmost stretch of Yenisey. It is wide like an ocean; no land is visible in the horizon on any side. Starting in Mongolia, Yenisey is together with Ob and Lena one of the three Siberia rivers that flow towards the Arctic Ocean.

The voyage onboard “Professor Molchanov” bringing the Nansen Memorial Expedition from Dikson to Dudinka took two days. 

Dudinka is the final destination for most of us; only a little group sails further upstream the river towards Krasnoyarsk. Just like Fridtjof Nansen did in 1913 when he disembarked from the cargo vessel “Correct” and continued up Yenisey. 

Read all blog post from the Nansen Memorial Expedition.

In late August 1913, Fridtjof Nansen and Jonas Lied’s cargo expedition from Norway to Siberia arrived here in the Yenisey River. Their voyage had finally proved that a maritime trade route between Norway and Siberia was possible. In Yenisey, Nansen and Lied’s vessel “Correct” unloaded her cargo to the river-barge “Turukhansk” and got other goods in return aimed for Europe. 

In his book “Through Siberia” Nansen wrote: “On board on of the barges there were two camels from Mongolia, and two bears from the Siberian forests (a third bear had been killed en route), a wolf (a second had been hung, and a third had escaped), and then there was a roe deer. These animals were bound for Europe to be sold. In addition, Christensen had a pregnant pointer bitch on a leash, so the menagerie was complete.” 

Sailing with cargo to and from Dudinka is another world today compared with what Nansen and his companion Jonas Lied met when they arrived a hundred years ago. The port of Dudinka is an impressing cargo- and container port with tens of huge cranes lined up. This is the major port of Russia’s mining and metallurgical company Norilsk-Nickel. With its own fleet of modern ice-breaking cargo-vessels, Norilsk-Nickel ships out nickel, cobber and other non-ferrous metals from Dudinka. Towards Asia and Europe, east and west. 

Dudinka is a brilliant geographical location for shipping from Siberia to the world markets sailing the Northern Sea Route. 

The town has 22,000 inhabitants. In addition to the Russians, Taimyr Peninsula is home to five groups of indigenous peoples; the Nenets, Evenkis, Dolgans, Nganasans and the Ents. The two last are extremely small-numbered; heading for extinction. There are just 862 Nganasans and 227 Ents left, according to the head of the local indigenous peoples museum we meet in Dudinka.

We meet younger representatives of the indigenous peoples at Taimyr College. The school is sponsored by big industry. Director Vera Cherkasova is proudly showing the TNK-BP sponsored test equipment for drilling. Onshore petroleum is growing business on Taimyr, like in most parts of Western Siberia. 

It is, however, Norilsk-Nickel’s giant mines and smelters in Norilsk that makes Taimyr famous and infamous worldwide. Famous for being the world’s largest producer of nickel and one of the largest on palladium, platinum and cobalt. Infamous for being worst-on-dirt in the circumpolar Arctic. 

Norilsk is not only on the top ten list of most polluted cities in Russia; it is on the top one list as well.

To the indigenous peoples of Taimyr, industrialization has meant nothing but the “loss of land, heavy pollution, depletion of natural resources and destruction of their traditional livelihood which was once sustainable reindeer herding, huting and fishing.”  The above statement was printed in a briefing report from RAIPON in September last year. RAIPON is the organization for indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East.

The smell of the plants in Norilsk is well-known to the indigenous peoples of the Ust-Avam, Volchanka, Khantaiskoye Lake and Potapovo settlements, some of them hundreds of kilometers away. 

The pollution in Norilsk is hard to describe in a blog; it’s a place you need to see before believing it can be truth. The atmospheric pollution from Norilsk is around 2 million tons annually according to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency.  

Driving bus from Dudinka to Norilsk across the tundra, I could see the first smoke in the horizon just where the “Norilsk 40 km” sign is placed. The town with its 170,000 inhabitants has three huge smelters. One in each corner of the triangle shaped valley. Just to make sure the smoke covers the skies downtown. No matter from where the wind blows. 

Not much has changed to the better regarding the ecology in Norilsk since I was here last time, 22 years ago, some few days before the coup in Moscow. In fact; pollution is worse than I remember. At that time, the country was named USSR, the factories were state own and the slogans read “Metal to the Motherland.” Today, Norilsk-Nickel is private own and I have a feeling the slogans could read “Let’s fill our pockets with turbo-cash money.”

Created in the early 30ies, Norilsk was the center of the Norilag system of GULAG labor camps. During the 21 years from 1935 to 1956, some 300,000 prisoners built the town and the plants. Officially, 16,806 of them died here under the condition of forced labor, starvation and intense cold during winter periods. 

The history of the Norilag camps has a prominent display at the top floor of the local museum, and many memorials are placed around Norilsk today. 

Like Dikson and Dudinka, Norilsk is also a closed city for foreigners. Our team of Norwegians in the joint Russian, Norwegian Nansen Memorial Expedition is a rare exception. Why Norilsk is closed for foreign visitors is not difficult to understand. This isn’t something Moscow wants to show the rest of the world.

Norilsk is surrounded by partly dead forest, partly lunar landscape for tens of kilometers; dead nature stretches for hundreds more. We drive to Talnakh, a mining town some 25 kilometers north of Norilsk. Watching the waste dumps and dying nature, I can’t avoid thinking that Norway’s neighboring mega-polluter in the town of Nikel on the Kola Peninsula is like a botanical garden in comparison to the destroyed tundra here in Norilsk.

Last year, Norilsk-Nickel made a $2,1 billion net profit. So, if the few oligarchs that own the majority of the shares in the company really want, there are no financial problems to invest into clean technology for the plants tomorrow. The problem is that they don’t want. And that they are allowed to continue polluting. 

Private mega-wealth counts more than Arctic nature and traditional homeland of the indigenous peoples of the Taimyr Peninsula.

That’s nothing but a shame.