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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Far From 'Mainland', Arctic Region Votes

NORILSK, Northern Siberia - Man has chosen to hold elections next weekend in this arctic enclave on the barren tundra, but the almost continuous snowstorm the locals call the "black blizzard" will have the final say.


This is how most things are decided in this frozen mining region of 250, 000 inhabitants, almost inconceivably built in the face of one of the world's harshest climates. As if to demonstrate the futility of man's effort to tame this place, the black blizzard, so named because it blows throughout the polar night, makes a plaything of the best-laid plans.


The blizzard has already forced Mikhail Novikov, the local official in charge of organizing the elections, to postpone his urgent trip 1, 800 kilometers south to Krasnoyarsk for election ballots and funds. The snowswept road from Norilsk to the airport has been closed; winds reaching 70 kilometers per hour have caused the airport to shut down.


"That's just the way we live here. You can never make any plans", Novikov, 26, said with a shrug.


In a few days Novikov planned, weather permitting, to fly a helicopter loaded with New Year's supplies of champagne, cognac and candy and 600 election ballots to the voters who live out on the tundra - workers at isolated gas exploration sites and military bases, as well as native families who live in small camps and hunt reindeer and fox.


The Yevenky people who once were this area's only inhabitants knew about the inhospitable climate formed by winds whipping out of the funnel-shaped Putorany mountain range. They gave the sites names like Kayerkan, "the uninhabitable valley", and Oganer, "a windy place where one should not build".


But Stalin, looking to capitalize on one of the world's richest supplies of nickel, copper and cobalt, in 1935 ordered thousands of political prisoners to build a settlement, mines and processing factories at the site of one of his infamous labor camps. Their children and grandchildren stayed to make the place their home under the smokestacks and spires looming out the raging blizzard like a monument to stubborn Soviet will.


"People here have respect for who they are and where they live", said Novikov in his office in the city's administration building on Leninsky Prospekt, which is adorned with two hammer-and-sickle emblems.


Norilsk natives are indeed proud of their isolated hardship, referring to the rest of Russia as the "mainland". They boast about blizzard winds so powerful that the only way to move around is by grabbing onto a rope trailed from the end of a tractor.


There are, however, constant reminders of the danger of their climate. One day last winter, a man set off from the Nadezhda metal works to the Kayerkan on foot. The blizzard blew him off the road; his frozen body was found days later out on the tundra.


Politicians seem to have got the message and are staying off the campaign trail, limiting their canvassing to interviews in the local press.


Not only have the major national candidates avoided Norilsk, ignoring its 180, 000 votes, but local candidates for the region's seat in the State Duma have been noticeable by their absence as well.


Part of the reason is that Norilsk has been included in an electoral district that includes Krasnoyarsk. Only two of the seven candidates for the seat are from Norilsk.


There are no banners or posters announcing the elections in Norilsk's streets.


Only one party, the Democratic Party of Russia, is active in the region, but it has had little effect.


When its candidate, Alexander Gorelik, made the trip up from Krasnoyarsk, only two voters came out to meet him at a rally.


Gorelik had perhaps had premonitions of a miserly voter turnout. He said that he had put up no posters announcing his arrival because "the wind would have got them".


Even if the black blizzard does not blow, there are reasons why people might not come out to vote.


Much of the population originally came from the "mainland", attracted by the promise of wages that were nearly double the national average.


But now however, they have become stranded in this inhospitable place, their high wages swallowed up by inflation.


Like many Soviet cities, Norilsk's economy is built around one conglomerate, Norilsk Nickel, a state-run network of mines and processing factories.


Metal plays a huge role in these people's lives. Their water, if not heavily chlorinated, has a metallic scent, and people run their taps for minutes until the tiny pieces of metal stop coming out.


A metallic ash-like substance sprinkles the thick ice covering streets and sidewalks in the city; the wind is heavy with a metallic dust, and the arctic air is permeated with the pungent odor of sulfuric gas.


All this was bearable when Norilsk was a boomtown, but takes on a different air during an economic downturn. and now the semi-precious minerals industry has slowed down, and Norilsk Nickel is suffering, strapped by the disappearance of government orders and the nonpayments of debts by its buyers.


As a result, workers are paid sporadically, prompting a deep-seated antipathy to the Moscow government and indifference toward the vote.


"People here have little belief that things will change after the elections", said Leonid Butkov, 47, deputy director of the Nadezhda metal works.


There is slightly more optimism at the nickel mine in Talnakh, in the mountains 12 kilometers to the east of Norilsk, where the miners have received their first paycheck in two months, which was part of a government effort to head off a nationwide miner's strike.


"Sure, we'll vote, now that they're paying us", said Yury Tkachuk, 35, although he and most of the miners and metalworkers interviewed said that they would most likely vote not for Russia's Choice, which is the largest government party and is headed by First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. Instead, a bloc headed by the economist Grigory Yavlinsky seemed to be the most popular.


The predominant feeling the week before the elections, however, was hopeless indifference.


"I am a young man, and look at me", said Sergei Gavrilyuk, 30, a worker at the Nadezhda metal plant, his voice cracking with the cough of constant exposure to the noxious sulfuric gasses that permeate the factory. "Why should I vote? I have no future".