On the Edge of the Snow: Life in the Northernmost Settlement in Russia
Author and editor for the Siberia: Joining the Dots project. Lives and works in Krasnoyarsk. Studied journalism and Art History. Graduated from the School of Cultural Journalism funded by the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, is taking a FotoDepartament course, Overcoming Photography. Studies at the School for Research and Text of the Russian Culture Fund. Published her work on Colta.ru, Gorky, Seans, Siburbia.ru, Siberian Forum, and many other media outlets. Works as a journalist for RBTHtravel.
Freelance photographer from Krasnoyarsk, majored in Engineering. Contributes to the Siberia: Joining the Dots project. Participant of the exhibition Siberia. Poles at the museum complex Peace Square in Krasnoyarsk and the State Center for Modern Art in Tomsk.
— There are no cinemas or mobile Internet, buses, coffee shops, supermarkets, or outdoor advertising. Every single person here has seen polar night and the green iridescence of the Northern Lights, knows what to do if they encounter a polar bear or how to react to a storm warning, and anticipates Arctic poppies and a scheduled flight. This is Dikson, the northernmost settlement of Russia.
Dikson is habitually called ‘the edge of the world’: it is located in the north of Krasnoyarsk Krai, in the Yenisei Gulf on the Kara Sea, the outskirts of the Arctic Ocean. The distance between Dikson and the nearest big cities, Dudinka and Norilsk, is 500 kilometers of uncivilized tundra. Access to the settlement is restricted, and you can get there only with a special pass, and only on an old AN-26 plane, which flies from Alykel Airport once a week, if there is no blizzard or fog. For the locals, everything that is not Dikson is the ‘mainland’. The ‘mainland’ has Siberia, wild taiga, roads, the usual change of day and night. ‘On the edge of the world’ there are stilt houses, “Have you seen the Arctic Fox chase the dog in the yard?”, wild tundra, open to all the winds, and endless ice, the Arctic.
Dikson is 102 years old, but its history is more than a biography of a lonely dot on the administrative map of modern Siberia. It is the story of people and states encountering the Far North, and it is much longer than a century. Back in the 11-12th centuries the Pomors, people from Veliky Novgorod, traveled to ‘all ends of the great sea-ocean’ looking for new industries and trading partners among the Samoyedic peoples. In the early 17th century, Mangazeya, the first Russian fortress city beyond the Polar Circle, became a base for the colonization of the vast territory in the north of Siberia: merchants and
On August 15, 1875, Swedish geographer and seafarer Nils Nordenskiöld entered a ‘convenient harbor of a small island in the Yenisei Gulf’ on the hunting vessel, Preven. “I hope that this harbor, which is now empty, will soon turn into a gathering spot for many ships, which will facilitate relations not only between Europe and Obsk and Yenisei river basins, but also between Europe and Northern China,” Nordenskiöld wrote in his diary, and then named the harbor Dikson (for Oscar Dikson, who sponsored his polar expeditions) and put it on his nautical charts.
Fur tribute exacted from the indigenous peoples of Siberia in Imperial Russia
In the 20th century, the North was for the USSR a place of trade and field development, exile and scientific research, and of course, the construction of new Polar cities and settlements. Among them, Dikson was the ‘capital of the Arctic’, where meteorologists and builders, teachers and hydrographers, military and polar pilots, radio operators came from different parts of the Soviet Union to ‘civilize the North’. Nowadays, this Arctic settlement, just as many northern settlements in Russia, is going through very difficult times. In the 1980s, the ‘golden years’ of Dikson, it had a population of 5,000 people. Currently, according to the official statistics, there are less than 600 people living there, but the locals claim this number is no more than 500.
People here have a habit of saying ‘on Dikson’, not ‘in Dikson’: historically, the settlement started from the island in the Kara Sea, and later expanded to the Taymyr Peninsula. That’s why Dikson has two parts, the island and the mainland, divided by a 1.5 km strait. In 2009, access to the island was restricted, and now it is almost uninhabited. People moved to the mainland, the streets are empty, the wind knocked out the windows and doors in the abandoned houses, the empty school #2 has only hare tracks on the snow-covered floors. The only places where there are still lights on are the hydrometeorological station and the airport.
There is more life in the mainland part of Dikson. There are people and snowmobiles in the streets, shops are open, there is a school gym, a library, and a church. However, there are more and more boarded-up windows and closed doors here as well, and only several monuments to the polar explorers and ships in the harbor that serve as reminders of the former greatness of the “gates of the Arctic.”
The network of polar stations, a geophysical observatory, a port of the Northern Sea Route, Marine Operations Headquarters, a network of coastal airfields, polar explorers clubs, a fish factory, an art gallery — all of it is now only in the local history books, the archive copies of the Soviet Arctic, and the memories of people who came to make a home in the harsh Far North. A border post, an airport with no heating, a hydrometeorological station, a boiler and a diesel heating house, a school, a local administration, a library and several shops — that’s all there is for today.
And yet, people live in Dikson. They hunt in the tundra and fish, teach their children to draw and solve equations, write dictations and take Unified State Examinations, collect archive photographs and bake bread, look after the boilers and follow the wind speed, live through the polar night and greet the first sun. Here in Dikson, every abandoned winter hut, every closed door and every gaping doorway or an illuminated window is history. The history of exploring the Northern Sea Route, the story of ‘conquering the North’ in the USSR times, but most importantly, the individual story of a family or a person.
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