Black snow

A journey through the Arctic I once called home

I am returning to Norilsk—it has been 17 years since I left this city in the Arctic Circle behind. Anxious and full of expectations, I burst into tears when the aeroplane finally lands. I feel whole for the first time in many years. I am home.

A couple of days pass as if in a dream as I soak in every familiar detail that used to be a part of my past. The city seems frozen in time: every street I walk, each corner I turn—I was here just yesterday. Only yesterday, I walked home from school, holding on to the icy railing of the bridge with white frost on my eyelashes. Here are the icicles that we used to knock down and eat like candy, and there, the cemetery in which my great-grandmother lies and the nickel factory where my dad worked his entire life. 

There, we would jump into piles of snow from the roof of the blue garage with the peeling paint. There is my house on the hill we call “The Mountain.” Right in front of it, I see the same large snowdrift. In the springs of my childhood, I would lie on The Mountain watching the northern lights shimmering red, purple, and green, and then turning into a blue ribbon. 

On my way home from school, I liked to stop at Nature, the only pet store in the city. I would spend hours watching the lorises that found their new “home” in Nature. Looking into the windows of the small shop, its porch always covered in snow, I would imagine a warm, yellow country, unlike ours, full of beautiful flowers and little monkeys. 

In May, we spent our physical education classes skiing across the tundra. My friends would swoosh past me on their plastic skis, laughing at my old wooden Soviet ones, and leaving me far behind. One day, I decided to grease my skis, and, that day, I was the fastest. I was flying. Clouds of snow rose from underneath me. The wind blew through my hair, turn after turn. White tundra, flat tundra, desert tundra. Before long, I found myself sitting in the snow sobbing: I had lost my sunglasses and was snow-blind. All I could see was the empty whiteness and northern wolves. They looked me straight in the eye. Disorientated, it was the smell of gas from the nickel factory that led me home. 

As my memories wander through this frozen city, the hope of regaining a sense of “home” evaporates. Houses falling apart, dilapidated façades, broken benches, a couple of trees that have not yet been killed by the industrial winter, garages submerged in permafrost, sun-blocking gas fog and stretches of snow covered with slag from the nickel factory—black snow. 

I pass the Yenisei shop where we used to buy milk-powder ice cream and eat it on frozen streets, where it never melted. I buy a cup of ice cream and the taste of old milk powder remains on my lips. 

An icicle falls from the roof and breaks into a thousand pieces. The choking gas from the factory drives my thoughts home. A strange spectrum of emotions sweeps over me: I am at home and yet, I feel like a stranger. I want the places to mean what they used to, but they are no longer mine. Although it has never been any different, it is the only home I had. This is no longer my Norilsk and, today, I no longer belong here. 

Tomorrow I am leaving. “Well, I guess that’s it, we will not see each other again,” says my friend Boris. We spend the last evening in silence rolling on the snow-covered tundra and drinking hot juniper tea. 

The aeroplane takes off, and I am no longer crying. As we fly over white land, I spot a reindeer running and my heart breaks at the sudden realisation that I may never return. This place will forever remain the home I left behind. But only in romanticised memories will I stay in my small industrial city, beyond the Arctic Circle.

Photography by