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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arctic Port at Heart of Norilsk's Empire

ReutersA view of Dudinka port, which is owned by Norilsk Nickel and is situated 320 kilometers within the Arctic Circle.
DUDINKA, Krasnoyarsk Region -- Every spring, the cranes in this Arctic port are shifted several hundred meters away from the banks of the Yenisei River.

With good reason. The river rises 8 meters when it thaws, tossing chunks of ice into anything blocking its path. Annual repairs cost more than $1 million.

Dudinka, 320 kilometers inside the Arctic Circle, is the gateway to Russia's ice-bound northern shipping lanes, taking metals from the heart of Siberia up the Yenisei to the Arctic Ocean, and from there to destinations all over the world.

"And it's probably the only port in the world where the cranes have to be moved every year," said Nikolai Kostetsky, head of administration at the port.

About 4.5 million tons of goods pass through the port every year, mostly from the smelters of Norilsk Nickel, which supplies one-fifth of the world's nickel and more than half its palladium.

Norilsk, which owns the port, is building five $110 million ships. The first was launched last year and the last will be ready by 2009.

A settlement has existed at Dudinka for 340 years, but its modern existence began in 1935.

Among the first arrivals were 1,000 political prisoners exiled to Russia's frozen north by Stalin to exploit mineral resources and build a smelter in Norilsk, 80 kilometers to the east.

More than 300,000 people were held in the gulag from 1935 to 1956. Many others died from the journey.

From such grisly beginnings, Dudinka has developed into a town of 28,000 people, mostly port workers and scientists.

Buildings are painted bright blue and pink, and water pipes run above ground to avoid the permafrost.

The average year-round temperature is minus 14.7 degrees Celsius, occasionally hitting minus 60 C. It is dark for six weeks in the winter.

The port closes only for a month, during the thaw in late May and early June.

The Yenisei, five kilometers wide at Dudinka, is clear of ice for 131 days per year, and in the winter, icebreakers cut a path through the frozen water.

"When you're on the ice, you feel the vibrations," Sergei Kamyshev, a senior assistant ship captain, said as he sipped tea on the bridge of the Finnish-built Kapitan Danilkin.

Dudinka is his favorite among Russia's Arctic ports.

"The port works well. We never have any problems here, and with two weeks' rest for loading it's possible to get things done and to relax a little."

While Kamyshev relaxes in the ship's recreation room or visits the newly revamped Arktika movie theatre, 11,000 tons of copper from Norilsk -- worth more than $80 million at current prices -- is loaded for the six-day voyage through the Arctic Ocean to Arkhangelsk, on the Barents Sea.

"I love you, Dudinka," says a mural on the main street and a banner covering the entire side of an apartment block proclaims: "Town, port, destiny."

But its destiny is not clear and not everybody loves it, evidenced by a declining population.

The average monthly wage of 28,000 rubles ($1,100) is more than double the national average, but food and everyday products, shipped from thousands of kilometers away, are more expensive.

Kostetsky has worked in Dudinka for 36 years. His son has already left for relatively warmer climes, and he dreams of his native Odessa. "One day I may return to the Black Sea."