Vorkuta, Kirovsk, Gukovo, Norilsk, Cherepovets, Magnitogorsk… These Russian cities have one thing in common: they are among the 335 monocities that have largely contributed to the industrial expansion of the Soviet Union. Following its collapse and facing dramatical changes in their economic and social conditions, those territories are searching for a new momentum.

I first heard about Norilsk while watching the trailer of Melting souls, a documentary recently released in France, which explores the daily life of the inhabitants in one of Russia’s most remote city. Founded in 1935 to develop the rich nickel-copper-palladium deposits discovered locally, Norilsk’s everyday routine is since then intrinsically tied to the activities of its industrial corporation, Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of nickel, palladium and platinum. Built above the Arctic circle, subject to extreme climate, this city is one of the single-industry towns of Russia, areas that are now being carefully monitored by the federal government.

Founded, for most of them, in the 1930s mainly in Siberia and the Urals region, monocities symbolize the golden age of Soviet industrialization driven by Stalin. Their decline starts with the fall of the USSR and continues during the political-economic transition of the 1990s, which has had a major impact on the Russian industrial landscape. Heirs of a complex history, these territories are now questioning their past urban identity as well as their ability to imagine a sustainable and resilient future.


History and urban identity

Norilsk Nickel celebrated its 80th anniversary in July 2015. The decision to create the company was taken in the early 1930s by Stalin as part of a broader strategy of conquering the Russian far North, to develop the rich deposits of nonferrous metals that would ultimately be used to fuel the war economy. This city-forming enterprise is thus formed in 1935 together with Norillag, the gulag that will build the first settlements in the surroundings[1]. From 1935 to 1955, around 500,000 prisonners will extract the mineral and shape the city we know now. The gulag will not close until 1956, following Stalin’s death and the abolition of forced labour by the Soviet authorities. Norilsk acquires official city status at the same time and prisoners’ barracks will be gradually transformed into accommodation (more or less temporary) for workers. The city will remain closed to foreigners until the 1990s.


Norilsk’s story is far from unique. Gulag prisoners contributed to build many mining and / or industrial cities, such as Magadan, Chelyabinsk, Kirovsk and Vorkuta – whose concentration camp was one of the largest in the Soviet Union – where a great strike broke out among the prisoners in 1953. 53 of them were killed. 105,000 prisoners were released from the Vorkuta camps between 1953 and 1958. The gulag city gradually became a factory town with its own institutions. If the prisoners’ contribution is essential in the development of these cities, the history of their construction is not part of the official memory. One of the people interviewed for the documentary says that “the city is built on a bone field, but we do not talk to our children about it”. It is rather presented as “the city of precious metals”.

Following de-Stalinization and new labour requirements, a wave of voluntary immigration began, based on the communist youths and demobilized soldiers. These new residents enjoyed social benefits and were pictured as pioneers in a hostile zone by the Soviet imaginary. In Norilsk for example, the winter lasts 9 months, including two of polar night. The city is connected to the rest of the country only by boat or plane, no road allows access to it. Living there is part of the Soviet ideal of man mastering nature in the service of industrial development.


Monocities design also aims at materializing the “socialist city”. Magnitogorsk, planned as the center of Russian steel industry located in the Urals region, is one of the examples. Its development was one of the priorities of Joseph Stalin’s five-year plans in the 1930s to showcase the industrial successes of the new regime. Celebrated as “the steel heart of the motherland”, the city is built on the model of a linear city, built along transport routes and juxtaposing a line of industrial buildings and a line of green zone and a residential line. This concept of Sotsgorod – developed by the Soviet architect Nikolaï Moulakine – emphasizes the need for a short distance between home and workplace, with specific spaces located in relation to prevailing winds, to prevent the industry from polluting residential areas. The urban area was planned and organized to maximize production time, the workers living in the residential strips closest to their factories.

Until 1991, not only the economic activities but also the social life of these cities would be managed by city-forming enterprises. In Kirovsk, a city created in the Russian Arctic following the discovery of apatite-nepheline deposits, the local company called “Apatite” controlled, in addition to its activities of extraction and production of fertilizers, the entire city’s social infrastructure, including housing and communal services, retail trade and catering, healthcare, sport and cultural facilities, through its own company’s subdivisions[2]. In Norilsk, the house of culture, the theatre, as well as the swimming pool were also provided by Norilsk Nickel. Until USSR’s collapse, these companies have played a major role in defining local social policies. Their involvement towards local communities, by organizing camps or sponsor sports activities, has contributed to emphasize interdependence between them and the local population.


Laborious transition

Single-industry towns were hit hard by the political-economic transition that started in 1991.  Privatization of state-owned enterprises, international competition and deindustrialization of the Russian territory have led to drastic reductions in the numbers of people employed by these conglomerates, leading to a large part of the population moving away from these cities.

In Vulkovo, the Vorkoutaouagol conglomerate, acquired by the metallurgical giant Severstal in 2003, employed only 7,000 employees in 2016, against 45,000 in 1967. In 2018, the city has only 56,088 inhabitants compared to 70,548 in 2010 and nearly 200,000 in 1989. Parts of the city are now abandoned, as shown in this photo-documentary. It may remind us of Detroit’s blight, the American most emblematic company-town which was built for 2 million inhabitants at the peak of its glory, and which houses only 700,000 people further its declared bankruptcy in 2013.

Vorkuta, ©Tomeu Coll

In Kirovsk, North-Western Phosphorous Company (NWPC), a competitor of Apatite – which became PhosAgro in 1993 – started its activities in 2005, troubling the existing local balance. The perspective of additional mining activities initially created a more optimistic atmosphere and NWPC attracted many workers. The situation changed in 2013 when the internal restructuring plan of PhosAgro led to the dismissal of nearly 5,000 employees in two years. As for the social infrastructures belonging to the company, it had them transferred to the municipality a few years earlier, increasing pressure on an already shrinking municipal budget.

The small industrial town of Pikalyovo was the scene of protests in 2009, from workers who had not been paid for several months. The reason? A conflict on access to the resources of the former local state-owned company, that had been acquired by three private corporations, which interrupted industrial activities and stopped wages payment for 3 months. It was only the arrival of Mr Putin, Prime Minister of Russia at that time, in Pikalyovo, 2 days after the protest started, who made it possible to find a compromise[3].

Towards diversification?

Pikalyovo’s crisis has highlighted the social and economic difficulties of those aging industrial centers: failing social infrastructure due to the local budget deficits and the disengagement from former state enterprises, ageing housing infrastructure, lack of opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses, reduced mobility possibilities for local populations…Failing single-industry towns represent a potential threat for Russia’s social and economic situation. Those cities still represent around 40% of the country’s GDP and 70% of its engineering, metallurgy, mining and processing capacities as well as the defence industry.

To address these challenges, the Federal State has adopted a strategy for the development of monotowns in 2014 and has created the Monocities Development Fund with a budget of approximately 300 billion roubles ($503 million). This Fund is managed by the Russian Development Bank – VEB – of which we were lucky enough to meet a representative during the last IGLUS module in Russia. A classification of the 335 monocities have been established according to their current stable or unstable economic and social status. VEB is working with both regional and municipal authorities, which at their level, have approved investment development strategies. The overall objective is to provide the adequate conditions for those cities to diversify their economy, encourage people’s mobility and foster local innovation. A dedicated plan targeting the creation of small and medium-sized enterprises, Integrated Development of Single-Industry Towns came into force at the federal level in 2016, with a goal of creating 230,000 jobs. Tangible results of these measures are expected by 2025. Meanwhile, in the first half of 2019, the Fund will already be announcing the list of the eighteen towns with sustainable economies that no longer classify as monotowns[4].

Some of them, like Kirovsk, are moving towards the development of tourism to secure new income and create jobs. The city – already recognized as a major ski resort – has modernized its winter sports facilities. It is also willing to promote green tourism by creating a national park in the nearby Khibiny mountains. Taking into account the ecological criteria is now a must to ensure local economic redevelopment. The environmental challenge faced by those cities is huge: In Norilsk, one of the world’s most polluted cities, Norilsk Nickel still emits 1.67m tonnes of sulphur dioxide each year into the air around the city[5]. Being threatened by serious fines[6], the company plans to invest 300bn roubles (4bn€) by 2020 to modernize its infrastructure. Similarly, Magnitogorsk was ranked the third most polluted city in Russia in 2015, with the level of benzopyrene, a carcinogen that has been linked to lung cancer, in the air was 23 times the allowed amount[7]. Life expectancy in monotowns is 10 years lower than in the rest of Russia and their inhabitants are subject to much higher health hazards.


Let’s go back to Norilsk, where the same named company remains the main employer. “Your destiny is linked to the factory,” says one of the interviewees at the end of the documentary, without revealing his face. Some people may choose (with difficulties) another path and turn to art or music. All are nevertheless wondering about the future, which they hope to be bright(er) and away from the polar city. “Another illusion”. A love-and-hate relationship has gradually developed between the city and its inhabitants. Despite extreme conditions, many of them still express a paradoxical pride to reside there, between those nostalgic of Soviet golden age and a new generation of immigrants from Central Asia, arrived in the 1990s to try their luck in these recomposing territories. These new pioneers contribute to the development of the city’s service activities (retail, catering, etc.) as well as to the evolution of its urban architecture: the most northern mosque in the world was built there in the 1990s. They too must adapt to local conditions: “Only those who are brave and are not afraid to work can survive here[8]”. Another interviewee tells us that, under the Soviet Union, a banner hung on the main avenue encouraged the inhabitants in these terms: “Norilsk is a city of brave and virile people.” A spirit of conquest that may not have disappeared from the great Russian north …


[1] Norilsk, ville polaire, cité du nickel, Le Monde Diplomatique, Juillet 2016

[2] Development Challenges for a Single-Industry Mining Town in the Russian Arctic: The Case of Kirovsk, Murmansk Region, Vladimir Didyk, Center for Security Studies, ETH Zürich, 2015

[3] Reinventing cities, The Unesco Courrier, april-june 2019

[4] Reinventing cities, The Unesco Courrier, april-june 2019

[5] https://www.ft.com/content/33c5a794-47c6-11e8-8ee8-cae73aab7ccb

[6] https://www.ft.com/content/e8001869-3ce0-3b8c-93b0-36421acc60ed

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/12/story-of-cities-20-the-secret-history-of-magnitogorsk-russias-steel-city

[8] Quote from Norilsk, ville polaire, cité du Nickel, Le monde Diplomatique, Juillet 2016

This piece is the original writing of the author(s). The view points in the post is the author’s personal opinions and do not reflect IGLUS/EPFL’s viewpoints. The author(s) is the sole responsible person regarding the accuracy of the information presented in the post and will be liable for any potential copyright infringements.

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