Norilsk is home to the world biggest mining and metallurgy complex, and is shut off from the world in more ways than one.
'Just think of it - 170,000 people working for one idea. And I'm trying to get to understand that idea'. Pictures here and below: Kate Baklitskaya
From deep in Soviet times, it was 'closed' to outsiders, and currently remains exceptionally hard to visit for foreigners. It appears on lists of the top ten most polluted cities in the world, and yet has no road or rail connections to the 'mainland', as the rest of Russia is known here, and the sea port Dudinka, which is 100 km from Norilsk is closed for nine months a year. Yet, intriguingly, the 177,000 people living in Norilsk - which accounts for two per cent of Russia's entire GDP - seem more contented than many others in Russia.
On a Saturday night, local photographer Nadezhda Rimskaya, 32, goes to OverTime bar to see the local rockabilly band. Nadezhda graduated from a college in St Petersburg but decided to return home and has been working here for the last four years. The concert finishes after midnight and the group of young people decide to go for a late dinner.
Luckily there are places where the kitchen remains open after midnight - for example Maxim pub. Indeed, Moscow-level restaurants and night clubs, bars and coffee shops, are increasing in Norilsk powered by the high demand, surprising as this may seem.
'Norilsk misses just two things - oxygen and the internet', says Nadezhda on her night out, referring to the general lack of oxygen in the air in the north and the absence of the high speed internet in the city. Everything else is fine here and in many ways much better than in many Russian cities. I'm honestly surprised when I hear people say that Norilsk is 'horrible'. That's just a misinformed stereotype.'
Nadezhda Rimskaya, local photographer: 'Norilsk misses just two things - oxygen and the internet. Everything else is fine here and in many ways much better than in many Russian cities'.
And indeed the existing stereotypes can really scare people off, drawing an image of Norilsk as a freezing, dark and polluted former Gulag camp. True enough, Norilsk did originate from NorilLag, the biggest Gulag labour camp set up in 1935. Inhumane work conditions, freezing cold, and a lack of food were the reasons of the high mortality rate in this Stalinist hell. The last year of NorilLag - 1953 - became the first year of Norilsk as a city.
'NorilLag is a tragic page of our city's history,' acknowledges Lada Shebeko, head of the literature section of the Norilsk drama theatre, who was born and lived all her life in Norilsk. '17,000 people died in the Gulag here. But the north was always a struggle even after the camp was abolished.
'Man coming to the empty Arctic and building a city here cannot do it easily in any case. And Norilsk accepts only the strong and beautiful souls.
'Back in those days as well as in our time, there always were and are people whom the north doesn't accept and it's good that nowadays they can leave for the mainland. But there are others who not only adapt to the north but fall in love with this land and are not willing to leave it. Our theatre invites a lot of actors and stage directors from the mainland.
'Our main director is from Omsk and the leading actors are from Krasnoyarsk and other cities. They see the opportunities for themselves here and like the company.'
'Man coming to the empty Arctic and building a city here cannot do it easily in any case. And Norilsk accepts only the strong and beautiful souls'.
Natalia Fedyanina, project curator at a local media holding, is one such professional who came to Norilsk from the 'mainland'. Working in Moscow, she got an offer in Norilsk from the Prokhorov Fund, a private charity foundation, and when it moved to Krasnoyarsk, she stayed.
'It was my deliberate choice to come to Norilsk, and I have spent already seven years here, and love it. I don't see this city as an obstacle to my professional life since I am implementing a lot of social projects here that would be impossible to do on the mainland. Like ‘Sowing project’. It wouldn't make sense anywhere but in such an Arctic city as Norilsk, that lacks greenery.
'Every time I hear something bad about Norilsk, I feel very sad as it's doesn't depict the reality here. The Gulag era is in the past and now people gladly come to work and grow as professionals here. Last year, for example, my 34 year old brother moved to Norilsk and now works as a history teacher at school. It's not a prestigious job, but here he got a chance to do what he likes, and to be paid for it. First I thought that I would need to help him to adapt, but soon he found friends and now I rarely see him as he socializes and has a life of his own.'
Natalia herself shines with joy telling about how she brings the best Moscow experts to Norilsk to give lectures, and how the citizens welcome guests from the 'mainland'.
'The only thing that felt uncomfortable for me was the lack of cultural life. You do not have the variety of the workshops or lectures here like in Moscow, so I decided to create a monthly lectures by bringing people from Moscow. And it's created big interest. We brought famous Russian designers ... and all the seats for such lectures are booked in advance.'
Natalia Fedyanina, project curator at a local media holding: 'Every time I hear something bad about Norilsk, I feel very sad as it's doesn't depict the reality here. The Gulag era is in the past and now people gladly come to work and grow as professionals here'.
Nevertheless, Norilsk will always remain among the coldest on the planet with the average annual temperature not rising above minus 10C. The winter lasts for nine to ten months a year and people who live here long enough can distinguish up to 13 shades of white.
Norilsk is also in the top five most windy cities in the world and combined with the temperatures dropping as low as minus 50C in winter, it explains why you might want to call a taxi to go just 50 meters to the grocery store and back, as people do.
'It's not as cold as you might think', comments Natalia. 'I personally have just one warm sweater here. As the climate is not as humid as on the mainland. Honestly, I was freezing more in Moscow than in Norilsk. Yes, there are times when the temperature drops down under minus 50C and there's no other way to move around the city but by car, but it doesn't last long.'
Nadezhda also prefers the Arctic climate too, in her case, St Petersburg's. 'My son who is 5 years old was always getting a cold in St Petersburg and his nose was running constantly, so that I even had to give him antibiotics, though I'm very much against them.
'But here because of the low temperatures, and almost no humidity, he feels much better and almost never gets sick. The viruses do not live in such low temperatures.'
Raising children in the most polluted Russian city is another question: but it seems most mothers are not rushing to leave Norilsk because of this problem.
'Pollution is concentrated in the 'old city' - the industrial part of Norilsk, where no one lives right now,' says Nadezhda. Since the residential city was moved away from the industrial part in the 1950s, the ecological situation doesn't feel so bad, especially in winter when the fumes rise up in the sky. In summer the situation is worse. You can actually smell the plants's fumes but most people leave the city for the mainland in summer. I make sure that my son spends three or four months on the mainland and we live here only during the cold time, so he gets to see a proper summer and enjoy it.'
Still, last summer temperatures in Norilsk reached a record of 32 degrees C in a heat wave that highlighted the changing climate, and left Norilsk as warm or warmer than the Mediterranean.
'Maybe Norilsk doesn't go through its best times now and the buildings might look shabby but it's not the exterior that matters here. The north has been and will always be about people. Strong, devoted and kind, they know what support and humanity means, and not from books and movies'.
Despite the grave ecological situation, and the high amount of sulphur dioxide in the air, locals take grave exception to Norilsk being referred to as the Russian Chernobyl.
'The ecological situation in many big cities in the world is far worse than in Norilsk,' says Elena Anpilova, 56, the deputy principal of School Number 1, who raised her two daughters - now aged 24 and 27 - here. 'I personally cannot breathe when I go to Moscow. At least we live in a very windy city which doesn't allow for the fumes to settle, but rather blows them away.
'Needless to say: any mother would take her kids away from the city if it was as polluted as the media often says.
'Yes there are official statistics like the emission of almost 2 million tons of pollutants into the atmosphere by industrial enterprises of Norilsk, which is 5 times more than any other industrial city in Russia and it is horrible, but actually you have to come and see the city by yourself to judge on the situation here. Once you see the kids playing in the school yards and the moms strolling around with their babies, you will never compare Norilsk with Chernobyl.'
The ecological situation is something that does need to be addressed more in Norilsk but meanwhile the city lives it's life and does it's best to create a comfortable situation for people who choose to conquer the North.
The city is home to Norilsk Nickel, the world's top producer of nickel and palladium, and also in the top ten copper producers. The company is associated with business tycoons Vladimir Potanin, Oleg Deripaska and Roman Abramovich.
'I always say that we are like a polar bear that molts,' says Lada Shebeko. 'Maybe Norilsk doesn't go through its best times now and the buildings might look shabby but it's not the exterior that matters here. The north has been and will always be about people. Strong, devoted and kind, they know what support and humanity means, and not from books and movies. Norilsk accepts only such people into its family for whom money is not everything.
'Norilsk is not an airport where people wait for the plane to a better life. Those who do take it this way leave fast.
'Norislk will live as long as the people who think of it as a home stay here, and I'm glad to see that with all the working opportunities open to the younger generation, many choose to live here rather than quit for another life elsewhere.'
'Yes there are official statistics like the emission of almost 2 million tons of pollutants into the atmosphere by industrial enterprises of Norilsk, which is 5 times more than any other industrial city in Russia and it is horrible, but actually you have to come and see the city by yourself to judge on the situation here. Once you see the kids playing in the school yards, you will never compare Norilsk with Chernobyl.'
Norilsk and its port Dudinka are two of 46 Russian cities that remain officially 'closed' or restricted outsiders, Russians as well as foreigners. Neither of these two are formally closed, unlike 33 towns and settlements linked to the Defence Ministry and ten connected to nuclear production.
Still, getting permission to come here is cumbersome. Canadian film director Francois Jacob, 35, had to battle for several years with authorities to travel to Norilsk to make a documentary.
'This city is like no other in the world,' he said. 'I've seen industrial cities but they have one mine or three mines, not 13 mines. Just take a cab and go around the city. You'll be fascinated. It's ginormous. All the Russian nickel and cobalt comes from here. If these places shut down, there will be no iPads or iPhones or most of the things you use daily.
'Moreover the city is of great importance to the military industry. And as there are no roads leading to Norilsk, the enemy can bomb the airport and the port and there will be no way to supply the country with nickel.
'That's why it is effectively a closed city. I've been dreaming of coming here for several years. To see what the life is here, how people live as all their lives are connected with the nickel plant.
'There is no-one in the city who's life is not connected with the nickel production in this or that way. Just think of it 170,000 people working for one idea. And I'm trying to get to understand that idea.'
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