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Sperrylite from the Talnakh orefield, Norilsk region: eastern Siberia, Russia.

One of the most exciting specimens on display at the 1986 Munich Show was a sperrylite from the Talnakh orefield, Norilsk region. In the years since then, additional sperrylite specimens have occasionally been collected in the Oktyabr mine and sold on the Western mineral market, including some that rank among the finest known examples of the species. The Talnakh orefield is also the type locality for 33 species including many platinum-group-element minerals.


The mines of the Talnakh (Ta[pi]Hax) (4) orefield in the Norilsk (HopN[pi]bCK) region of Siberia exploit some of the world's largest deposits of nickel, copper, cobalt and platinum-group elements. Prior to the discovery of the Talnakh sperrylite specimens, the only significant sperrylite crystals known were a very small number collected in the 1920s from a now-exhausted occurrence on the Tweefontein Farm in South Africa (Spencer, 1926; Cairncross and Dixon, 1995; Wilson, this issue), and some lesser crystals from the type locality at Sudbury, Ontario (Wells, 1889; Penfield, 1889; Walker, 1895; Goldschmidt and Nicol, 1903). Consequently it was quite a surprise in 1986 when the Russian collector Vladimir Pelepenko first exhibited a miniature matrix specimen with good crystals of sperrylite from the Norilsk region. His exhibit of Russian minerals at the 1986 Munich Show (Munchner Mineralientage) was the first such showing following the lowering of borders and restrictions under the Soviet Union's new philosophy of glasnost--"openness." There followed a flurry of activity in the sales of Russian mineral specimens to the newly accessible Western market, including small numbers of Talnakh sperrylite specimens that appeared regularly during the 1990s. These specimens are highly valued by mineral collectors today, especially in view of the fact that the locality has not produced any new specimens since about 1997.


The Talnakh orefield is located at the foot of the Talnakh hills, approximately 25 km north of the city of Norilsk on the Putoran Plateau, Taymyr Rayon, in the Central-Siberian Krasnoyarsk Kray, Russia (longitude 69[degrees]45'N, latitude 88[degrees]35'E). The Norilsk settlement was granted city status in 1953, becoming the northernmost city in Siberia and the second largest city located above the Arctic Circle in the permafrost zone (the largest is Murmansk). Norilsk also has the distinction of being the northernmost city in the world with a population of over 100,000 (estimated population as of 2008 is 230,000). Talnakh, its satellite city about 40 km away, harbors a population of 70,000. There is no overland road or highway leading into the Norilsk/Talnakh area; access is solely by air and sea. A railroad links Norilsk with the Yenisei River port of Dudinka, and from there a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers leads interference for ore ships transporting the ore and concentrates via the Northern Sea Route to European Russia.


During the Cold War, Norilsk was designated as a "closed city" by the Soviet government because of the strategic importance of the metalliferous deposits, and because an inter-continental ballistic missile complex was located nearby. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Russian government was willing to open the city to outsiders; but the residents of Norilsk, wanting to protect their jobs by keeping out foreign laborers, voted in 2001 to keep the city closed.

Because of air pollution from the large smelting and metallurgical facilities located very near the city, Norilsk is considered to be one of the ten most polluted cities in the world. Not a single living tree exists within 50 km of the Nadezhda ("Hope") smelter. Kramer (2007) estimates that 1 percent of the entire global emissions of sulfur dioxide come from this one city. Heavy metal contamination near Norilsk is so severe that it is now economically feasible to mine the soil for the high concentrations of platinum and palladium that have been deposited from pollution. The Blacksmith Institute (2007) estimates that 4 million tons of cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, arsenic, selenium and zinc are released into the air every year by the Norilsk facilities.


A total of six major deposits have been discovered in the Norilsk district; thus far only three (the Norilsk-I, Talnakh and Oktyabr deposits) have been commercially mined. Ore is enriched at the Talnakh and Norilsk Concentrators. The Talnakh Concentrator processes ores mined at the Oktyabr and Talnakh deposits, producing nickel, copper and pyrrhotite concentrates. The Norilsk Concentrator processes all disseminated and cuprous ores from the Oktyabr and Talnakh deposits, as well as reserved pyrrhotite concentrates to produce nickel and copper concentrates (Norilsk Nickel, 2008).

Norilsk Deposit

Copper-nickel deposits were known to exist in the Taimyr Peninsula as far back as the 16th century (Kunilov, 1994); there is archeological evidence that an active smelting industry based on Norilsk ores existed at a settlement on the Taz River. Nevertheless, the economic potential of the deposit was not appreciated in modern times until 1919, when an expedition led by Nikolai Urvantzev came across the Norilsk-I orebody outcrop; he likened the ore to that found at Sudbury, Ontario. The first adit was opened around 1923, and the settlement of Norilsk was founded as exploration continued (Freidin et al., 2007).



In 1935 the Council of Peoples' Commissars of the USSR passed a resolution "On Building the Norilsk Combine," and charged the Commissariat of Home Affairs (i.e. the Soviet security services, later known as the KGB) with developing the project. To provide the necessary labor force, Norilsk was established as the center of the Norillag system of Gulag labor camps. Thus ground was broken in 1936 for what was to become Russia's largest mining and metallurgical complex, located nearly 2,000 kilometers north of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. According to the archives of Norillag, 16,806 prisoners (mostly political prisoners) died in Norilsk between 1935 and 1956, under conditions of forced labor, starvation and intense cold (Federal State Statistics Service). Fatalities were especially high during the war years of 1942-1944 when food supplies were particularly scarce. Unknown but significant numbers of prisoners continued to serve and die in the mines until around 1979.


The first copper-nickel matte was produced in Norilsk in 1939. By the beginning of World War II the Norilsk Combine included a small metallurgical works, facilities for producing oxygen and coke, a machine shop, a temporary power station, three open-pit coal mines, three metal mines and others under development, plus sandstone and limestone quarries, a railway, an airport, and a port on the Yenisey River at the old town of Dudinka (founded in 1667). By 1953 the Norilsk Combine was producing 35% of the Soviet Union's total nickel output, 30% of its cobalt, 12% of its copper, and 90% of its platinum-group metals.


The Norilsk Combine operated the mines until 1989 when it was reorganized as Norilsk Nickel, a "State Concern for Non-ferrous Metals Production." In 1994 Norilsk Nickel was privatized to a Russian Joint Stock Company, and shares were sold to over 250, 000 private investors. The Russian government, however, held the majority of the shares until they were transferred to Uneximbank in 1997 via a mortgage auction (McGlasson and Moore, 2001).


Today the Norilsk-I deposit is worked by the Medvezhy Ruchey ("Bear Creek") open pit and the adjacent Zapolyarny underground mine. The Norilsk-I deposit is the type locality for the following species:
Manganoshadlunite  (Mn,Pb,Cd)[(Cu,Fe).sub.8][S.sub.8]
Nickelhexahydrite  (Ni,Mg,Fe)[SO.sub.4].[6H.sub.2]O
Stannopalladinite  [Pd.sub.5][Sn.sub.2]Cu
Talnakhite         [Cu.sub.9][(Fe,Ni).sub.8][S.sub.16]
Vysotskite         (Pd,Ni,Pt)S
Zvyagintsevite     [(Pd,Pt,Au).sub.3](Pb,Sn)

Talnakh Deposit

The Talnakh Cu-Ni deposit, 27 km north of Norilsk, was discovered in 1960 by the Norilsk geological prospecting expedition. The initial mine, called the Majak or Mayak ("Lighthouse") mine, was constructed by the youth wing of the communist party (the Komsomol). On April 30,1964 the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R. created a decree that accelerated the development of the Talnakh Cu-Ni deposit with the stated goal of producing 77,000 tons of rich ore per year from an underground mine. The first three shafts at the Majak mine were completed ahead of schedule, allowing for mining operations to commence on April 22, 1965--Vladimir Lenin's birthday. The Majak 2 mine, the second mine in the Talnakh deposit, was renamed the Komsomol mine in 1965, in commemoration of the successful efforts of the Komsomol youth group.


Much of the work at the Majak mine concentrated on prospecting for new ore deposits, whereas the Majak 2, now known as the Komsomol mine, was focused more on the development and utilization of new mining technologies and equipment. The Komsomol mine reached projected production expectations by 1975.

By early 1988 the Majak mine, the Komsomol mine and a third mine named the Skalisty ("Rocky") had been consolidated into a single mining complex. In 2003 this mining complex was designated collectively as the Talnakh mining Administration. The Talnakh deposit is the type locality for the following species:
Godlevskite            [(Ni,Fe).sub.9][S.sub.8]

Kharaelakhite          [(Pt,Cu,Pb,Fe,Ni).sub.9][S.sub.8]

Majakite               PdNiAs

Manganoshadlunite      (Mn,Pb,Cd)[(Cu,Fe).sub.8][S.sub.8]

Nickelboussingaultite  [[(NH.sub.4])sub.2]Ni[[(SO.sub.4])sub.2]

Palarstanide           [Pd.sub.8][(As,Sn).sub.3]

Palladoarsenide        [Pd.sub.2]As

Plumbopalladinite      [Pd.sub.3][Pb.sub.2]

Polarite               [Pd.sub.2]PbBi

Shadlunite             (Pd,Cd)[(Fe,Cu).sub.8][S.sub.8]

Taimyrite              [(Pd,Cu,Pt).sub.3]Sn

Talnakhite             [Cu.sub.9][(Fe,Ni).sub.8]S.sub.16]

Telargpalite           [(Pd,Ag).sub.3](Ti,Be)

Thalcusite             [Tl.sub.2][Cu.sub.3][FeS.sub.4]

Urvantsevite           Pd[(Bi,Pb).sub.2]

Vyalsovite             FeS Ca[(OH).sub.2] Al[(OH).sub.3]

Oktyabr Deposit

The Oktyabr deposit was discovered in 1965, near the bank of the Kharaelakh River at the foot of Medvezhja ("Bear") Mountain. At first it was called the Kharaelakh deposit, but in 1967 it was renamed in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution (of 1918). Drilling on 50 X 50-meter and 100 X 50-meter grids down to a depth of 3,000 meters was undertaken to delineate the orebody and provide estimates of ore grade (Naldrett, 2004). Construction work began in 1969, and the first section of the mine was opened in 1974. Today the Oktyabr mine is the largest in the Talnakh orefield and accesses the richest ores. The mine has eight underground levels from 500 to 950 meters in depth, and produces 50% of the platinum recovered from all of the Norilsk Nickels mines. Stopes are completely backfilled with concrete produced in an underground mixing plant; a total of 34 million cubic meters of stoping has thus far been backfilled in this way.

The remarkable lenticular orebody proved to be up to 50 meters thick in places. Its zoned structure is characterized by a sequence of ores composed of base-metal sulfides of the pyrrhotite and chalcopyrite groups in varying proportions, with magnetite, a number of rarer sulfides, silver-gold alloys and a surprisingly large array of more than 20 different platinum-group-element minerals (Genkin et al., 1981).

The platinum-group-element mineral assemblages from the Oktyabr deposit are of two general types. The first type is associated with ores in which pyrrhotite-troilite exceeds chalcopyrite which in turn exceeds pentlandite. The minerals occur as metacrystals, veinlets and polymineralic intergrowths of sperrylite [PtAs.sub.2], the atokite-rustenburgite series [(Pd,Pt).sub.3] Sn, paolovite [Pd.sub.2]Sn, and domains of [Pd.sub.2](Sn,As), [Pd.sub.5] [As.sub.2] and [(Pd,Ni).sub.5][As.sub.2]. Assemblages of the second type form zoned intergrowths of Pd(Pt)-Sn-Cu minerals with silver-gold alloys in chalcopyrite-cubanite ores. Species found there include sperrylite [PtAs.sub.2], froodite [PdBi.sub.2], and majakite PdNiAs. Urvantzevite [Pd(Bi,Pb).sub.2] is found primarily in the talnakhite-cubanite ore. Stannopalladinite [Pd.sub.5][Sn.sub.2]Cu, taimyrite [(Pd,Cu,Pt).sub.3],Sn and polarite [Pd.sub.2]PbBi, among others, have also been found in the Oktyabr ores (Genkin et al.,1981; Distler et al., 1999; Genkin and Evstigneeva, 1986; Barkov et al., 2000).

Today the Oktyabr deposit is exploited by three mines: (1) the Oktyabr mine, (2) the Komsomol mine, and (3) the Taimyr mine. The Oktyabr deposit is the type locality for the following species:
Argentopentlandite    [Ag(Fe,Ni).sub.8][S.sub.8]
Bismutohauchecornite  [Ni.sub.9][Bi.sub.2][S.sub.8]
Borishanskiite        [Pd.sub.1+x][(As,Pb).sub.2]
Cabriite.             [Pd.sub.2]SnCu
Ferroskutterudite     [(Fe,Co)As.sub.3]
Maslovite             PtBiTe
Paolovite             [Pd.sub.2]Sn
Putoranite            [Cu.sub.9][(Fe,Ni).sub.9][S.sub.l6]
Sobolevskite          PdBi
Tatyanaite            [(Pt,Pd,Cu).sub.9][Cu.sub.3][Sn.sub.4]
Telargpalite          [(Pd.Ag).sub.3]Te
Thalfenisite          [Tl.sub.6][(Fe,Ni,Cu).sub25][S.sub.26]Cl


Specimens of sperrylite from the Talnakh orefield have been known at least since 1986, when Vladimir Pelepenko exhibited his specimen at the Munich Show. The 1990s saw sporadic but regular appearances of sperrylite specimens on the Western market. However, since 1997 there have been no new discoveries of sperrylite crystals, and dealer stocks of raw specimen material awaiting preparation have been dwindling. Consequently fewer sperrylite specimens have been available at shows in the U.S. and Europe.

This scarcity is also in part the result of strengthened security around Norilsk; there are now laws in place that make it unlawful to remove or even own specimens of precious metals. Norilsk is like a state within a state, and everything there, including sperrylite, is considered to be the property of Norilsk Nickel. Taking sperrylite specimens out, even to other Russian territories, is therefore regarded as theft by local authorities (i.e. by Norilsk Nickel), and it is furthermore forbidden to export sperrylite specimens outside of Russia. These laws were established to combat the smuggling of platinum and palladium by organized thieves, and unfortunately the comparatively harmless mineral dealers are caught in the same net. In 1998 a Russian mineral dealer was imprisoned and beaten for attempting to leave from the local airport on a flight to Moscow with sperrylite specimens in his possession. Since then there has been a further tightening of security by Russian authorities against anyone attempting to take sperrylite specimens out of the region.

Legal hindrances aside, additional finds are unlikely in the near future because platinum mineralization occurs in the lower areas of the orebody and these lower areas are not scheduled to be mined until 2012 or later.


The deposits of the Talnakh orefield are associated with gabbrodolerite sill complexes interpreted as a sub-volcanic conduit system associated with olivine-bearing differentiated mafic intrusive bodies and an extensive Permo-Triassic flood basalt sequence known as the Siberian Traps (Naldrett and Lightfoot, 1995). This ore zone covers an area of approximately 1 X 3 km, at an average thickness of 20 meters. The deposit typically contains 27.4% copper, 2.5% nickel, 35.2 grams/ton palladium and 8.8 grams/ton platinum in the copper-rich zones (Naldrett and Lightfoot, 1993). Reserves are estimated at 555 million metric tons of ore containing 2.7% nickel, 8.1% copper and 160 million ounces of platinum. In addition, the elements Os, Co, Au, Ag, Te, Bi, Sn, Zn, Fe, Ti, Sb, As and S are recovered in commercial quantities from the ore.

Although it is accepted that the Norilsk deposits are not of meteoritic impact origin like the deposit at Sudbury, Ontario, researchers have been debating and evolving their views of the precise origin of the deposit (see, for example, Czamanske et al., 1995; Diakov et al., 2002; Naldrett, 2004 and 2005), in order to account for its complex geochemical peculiarities. Circulation of magma through the system of sills and chambers over millions of years, complicated by the presence of feeder pipes to surface volcanism and a major fault zone, appears to have permitted the concentration of sulfides and especially of the platinum-group elements. Magma ascending from a deep reservoir circulated through the chambers and sills of the system, enlarging them through thermal erosion, and then plunged back down to the reservoir. Naldrett et al. (1992) estimated that the amount of platinum-group metals in the deposit must have been concentrated from a volume of magma 200 times larger than that represented by the mass of the intrusions as they exist today.

The intrusions are surrounded by an intense metasomatic and metamorphic aureole that, in many cases, extends farther into the country rock than the thickness of the intrusions themselves, providing further evidence that the magma was not merely stagnant and cooling, but rather was continuously circulating and bringing renewed heat to bear on the contact rocks over a long period of time. The unusual ore minerals occur disseminated throughout the local volcanic country rock in veinlets and are concentrated especially in the aureoles surrounding the intrusive bodies. These aureoles are the most economically important of the various types of orebodies (Tvrdy and Kolesar, 1995; McGlasson and Moore, 2001; Naldrett, 2004).


Platinum-group-element minerals found in the Talnakh orefield (Distler et al., 1999), in addition to those listed above as type species and various as-yet unnamed species, include:
Braggite            (Pt,Pd,Ni)S
Cooperite           (Pt,Pd,Ni)S
Geversite           [Pt(Sb,Bi).sub.2]
"Guanglinite"       [Pd.sub.3]As
Hollingworthite     (Rh,Pt,Pd)AsS
Insizwaite          [Pt(Bi,Sb).sub.2]
Iridium             Ir
Isoferroplatinum    [Pt.sub.3]Fe
Isomertieite        [Pd.sub.11][Sb.sub.2][As.sub.2]
Kotulskite          Pd(Te,Bi)
Merenskyite         [PdTe.sub.2]
Mertieite-II        [Pd.sub.8][(Sb,As).sub.3]
Michnerite          PdBiTe
Moncheite           [PtTe.sub.2]
Nigliite            PtSn
Palladium           Pd
Plumbopalladinite   [Pd.sub.3][Pb.sub.2]
Rhodium             Rh
Sopcheite           [Ag.sub.4][Pd.sub.3][Te.sub.4]
Sudburyite          PdSb
Tetraferroplatinum  PtFe
Tulameenite         [Pt.sub.2]FeCu
Vincentite          [(Pd,Pt).sub.3](As,Sb,Te)
Vysotskite          (Pd,Ni)S

The exotic sulfides which, in massive form, constitute the bulk of the ore include:
Mooihoekite  [Cu.sub.9][Fe.sub.9][S.sub.16]
Putoranite   [Cu.sub.18][(Fe,Ni).sub.18][S.sub.32]
Talnakhite   [Cu.sub.9](Fe,Ni).sub.8][S.sub.l6]
Thalcusite   [Tl.sub.2][Cu.sub.3][FeS.sub.4]

At least 280 mineral species had been identified from the district by the mid-1990s (Distler et al., 1999; Genkin et at, 1981; Tvrdy and Kolesar, 1995).



Overall, about 98% of the platinum occurs as discrete crystals of platinum-group-element minerals, whereas most of the palladium occurs in solid solution in pentlandite, in concentrations up to 1,600 grams per ton. The exceptions are seen in the Oktyabrsky mine, where about 50% of the palladium is incorporated into platinum group-element minerals, and the Norilsk deposit where the figure is closer to 95%. Other platinum-group elements (rhodium, ruthenium, iridium and osmium) occur exclusively in solid solution in pyrrhotite and pentlandite (Naldrett, 2004).


Sperrylite [PtAs.sub.2]

Sperrylite was first described by Wells (1889), based on material collected by the American chemist Francis L. Sperry (1861-1906) at the Vermilion mine, Sudbury district, Ontario. Sperry was chief chemist with the Canadian Copper Company of Sudbury at the time, and Wells named the new species in his honor.



The Tweefontein Farm in South Africa produced sperrylite crystals up to 2.6 cm in the 1920s (see Wilson, this issue), but this size record was surpassed in the 1990s by sperrylite discovered at Norilsk in well-crystallized cubes modified by octahedron and pyritohedron faces that reach over 4 cm on edge. Other forms appear to be present as well. Crystals are commonly elongated and may be cavernous on one side. Among the finest specimens is the one currently in the Rice Northwest Museum in Hillsboro, Oregon. Another world-class sperrylite specimen shows crystals up to about 4.5 cm (of which 3.5 cm are visible) and a third specimen is known with a crystal cluster measuring 4.5 X 5.5 cm. A 4-cm sperrylite crystal cleavage in matrix has also been seen. But crystals of such dimensions are altogether exceptional; sharp crystals even in the 3 to 7-mm range are quite rare on the specimen market and are highly valued by collectors.

Sperrylite is tin-white to gray in color, and crystals typically have a brilliant luster similar to that of carrollite crystals from the Congo. There is no discernible cleavage, and the fracture is conchoidal. Norilsk sperrylite crystals are brittle and many have microfractures visible along the crystal faces. The fractures render them fragile, and some crystals have been known to fall apart even after the most careful work to free them from matrix.

Sperrylite occurs as fine-grained disseminations in most of the mines, but all of the known collector-quality sperrylite specimens from the Talnakh orefield were apparently collected in the aureole zone in the Oktyabr mine (Tvrdy and Kolesar, 1995; Barlow, 1996; Wilson, 2000; Larson, 2002; Trinchillo, 2008). A few are known to have come from the Majak mine as well, but they are grainy and unaesthetic; all of the good crystal specimens are from the Oktyabr mine.

Other Minerals

Paolovite occurs as disseminated blebs and microcrystals, but crystals to several millimeters are known from a single specimen (Fig. 21). Tvrdy and Kolesar (1995) noted a number of other species that occur in crystallized specimens in the Talnakh orefield, but because of the preeminence of collector interest in sperrylite, none have reached the specimen market. These include acicular cubanite crystals a few millimeters long, similar in appearance to millerite, and crude, embedded crystals of native platinum to 8 mm. From Talnakh: white pectolite "puff balls" on drusy crusts of colorless datolite; and crude, barrel-shaped black wurtzite crystals to several centimeters. From the Komsomol mine: clusters of green ktenasite microcrystals; acicular tufts of white thaumasite; tabular apophyllite crystals to 5 cm, some of them water-clear or showing growth zones; transparent, rhombohedral crystals of calcite in clusters to 5 cm; white okenite "puff balls" to 6 mm; attractive clusters of orange stilbite crystals to 6 cm; clusters of attractive pink laumontite to 6 mm; and sharp, lustrous pyrite crystals on pink apophyllite-encrusted matrix to 8 cm across. From the Oktyabr mine: honey-yellow apophyllite in thin, gemmy crystals on pink calcite to 4.5 cm. And from Norilsk: short prismatic babingtonite crystals.




Although mechanically removing matrix from around sperrylite crystals is possible, there is a great danger of damaging the crystals in the process. Where crystals are partially embedded in ultrabasic rock instead of sulfides there is no alternative. But fortunately the high hardness of sperrylite (6-7 on me Mohs scale) makes it possible to expose crystals embedded in softer massive chalcopyrite/talnakhite ore by air-abrasive techniques. It is necessary to select the type of abrasive powder carefully to assure that it does not cause even microscopic damage or fracturing to the sperrylite. A material softer than glass beads is recommended.

Some preparators prefer to begin by X-raying blocks of ore from several directions in order to locate sperrylite crystals inside and determine their orientation. The tedious process of wearing down the enclosing chalcopyrite/talnakhite slowly and carefully with the air-abrasive powder can require many hours of work. But the effort is worth it. Professionally prepared specimens show sharp-edged, brilliant sperrylite crystals and crystal clusters perched on contrasting golden yellow chalcopyrite matrix.


The Talnakh Branch of the Norilsk Museum of Settlement and Development of the Norilsk Region has three showcases exhibiting about 70 mineral and ore specimens from the district, but there is no particular classification or emphasis on rarities. Another 400 specimens are exhibited in an "ore genesis" display, sponsored by the former president of Norilsk Nickel, Mr. Prokhorov. Unfortunately the most complete collection of about 3,500 specimens from Talnakh/Norilsk and elsewhere was destroyed in a fire at the company storage facility in Norilsk in 1995.



Whether more of these brilliant metallic crystals from Siberia will emerge on the collector market remains unknown. There is certainly more of the crystal-rich zone left to be mined, but it is at a depth of 1,600 meters and will probably not be mined for at least five to ten years. The harsh Russian laws being enforced against taking sperrylite out of the area have also discouraged the preservation of additional specimens. This situation seems unlikely to change in the future.


We wish to thank Petr Kolesar, J. Tvrdy and Jeffrey Scovil for contributing photos. Tom Moore helped with translation of German literature. We are also grateful to Dr. Anthony Kampf and Tom Moore for reviewing the manuscript.


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Author Ivo Szegeny visited Norilsk and Talnakh about twice a year from the mid-1990s until 2000, and has never been underground there, but the following excerpts gleaned from his travel diary will give an idea of what such a visit is like:

Even in the dark, Norilsk fulfilled my expectations when I first visited mere in 1994--A concerto of wire, concrete, pipelines, frost, wind, ice, snow, smoke and stink. Concrete houses in various stages of deterioration stood surrounded by smoke-belching smelters in a region that can only be called an ecological catastrophe. The smelters and metallurgical plants are located all around the city, so regardless of the wind direction it brings heavy air pollution into the city. It is a kind of broken-down hell on the 69th parallel, made even worse in the summertime by hoards of mosquitoes and heavy-metal-laden dust blowing off the mine dumps.

Everything here is built on permafrost, so even the nine-story apartment buildings have to be built atop concrete pilings like legs. Entrances often look like ice caves, sometimes full of vapor or pouring out waterfalls from broken pipes (or icefalls if the pipes break in winter). Most local residents would like to move away but they can't. They used to come here planning to stay for five or ten years and make some money, but hyperinflation in the early 1990s destroyed the value of their savings, and salary checks always come three to six months late.

The climate here is harsh. Medical research studies have shown that no one can live here in the cold and inescapable pollution for more than seven years without suffering a permanent impact on their health. Locals say that the cold by itself is not as bad as the sudden changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature, sometimes falling as much as 70[degrees]F in a few hours. Because of the dry air the cold winter temperatures of--70[degrees]F are not as uncomfortable as one might expect, as long as there is no wind; but the slightest wind at that temperature changes everything. And of course it is dark in the winter: the polar night lasts for six weeks with no sunshine at all, and at other times during the winter the sun does not rise very high above the horizon. Summers are short; as the local joke goes, a miner who was asked how the summer had been in Norilsk replied that he'd heard it was nice, but unfortunately he was working his underground shift at the time and missed it.

The severity of the climate, however, tends to bring people closer together. I was invited to a wedding feast; by the third day of the celebration the music and dancing on the seventh floor could still be heard from the entrance down on the ground floor. There was food, vodka and fun that one simply could not refuse.

In December of 1994 a steam plant in Talnakh broke down, and all heat to the apartments in the area was cut off. People switched to their electric heaters, all at the same time, and the local electric transformer burst into flame. No heat, no hot water, no electricity. Many houses froze and their hot water radiators also froze solid and cracked. Temperatures fell below 0[degrees]F inside the apartments. It took weeks for everything to be replaced or fixed; the women and children moved into the kindergarten building in an unaffected part of town while the men stayed to guard their property from thieves gathering together drinking vodka in the dark. Even by March I could see 20-meter-high, 5-meter-wide rusty ice flows covering apartment buildings. As a friend of mine told me, "You can exist here, but you can't really five here."

Even for an outsider like myself, leaving Norilsk is not so easy. Waiting in fine in the cold and wind for limited-capacity buses to the airport can be brutal, and because of the unpredictable weather the airport might close at any time--for a few hours, a few days, or even a week. I was lucky that first time in 1994; my flight was delayed for only 11 hours. But ticket availability was often very limited, and tickets could not be purchased in the Czech Republic where I live, so I had to wait until arriving in Russia to buy tickets for flights onward, which made for good training in improvisation. During some of the flights I have flown on me worst airplanes in my life, but there was no other option at the time.

Since the mid-1990s the situation has definitely improved somewhat in Norilsk and Talnakh, and I could see changes taking place even in 2000 when I visited the area for the last time. The mines were paying good wages again. But I suspect the global financial crisis of the last year may have hurt the local economy.

(1) The Mineralogical Record, 5343 N. Sabino Canyon Rd., #17, Tucson, Arizona 85750 (

(2) KARP Minerals, Smetanova 789, CZ-27201 Kladno, Czech Republic (

(3) The Mineralogical Record, 4631 Paseo Tubutama, Tucson, Arizona 85750 (

(4) Transliteration notes: In Russian a suffix (-sky, -ski, -skiy, -skii, etc.) is added at the end of nouns when using diem as modifiers (e.g. Oktyabr and Oktyabrsky). Our convention here, for consistency and to avoid confusion, is to leave off the suffixes. We also choose to eliminate the apostrophe that is sometimes used as a direct transliteration of the soft Cyrillic "b" (e.g. Norilsk vs. Noril'sk).

Thomas M. Gressman (1) Ivo Szegeny (2) Wendell E. Wilson (3)
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Author:Gressman, Thomas M.; Szegeny, Ivo; Wilson, Wendell E.
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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