Justin Jin | Zone of Absolute Discomfort

Country of origin: China
Project location: Russia
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2011

I made six trips over three years to the Russian Arctic region, a 7,000 kilometer area atop the planet stretching from Finland to Alaska on which Moscow bureaucrats bestowed the name “Zone of Absolute Discomfort.” The icy hinterland is wretched to live in, but just hospitable enough to allow for the extraction of billions of tons of resources trapped beneath the permafrost.

Here, three contrasting ways of life representing three centuries of Russian history simultaneously exploit resources amid the world’s harshest conditions. The extreme climate challenges indigenous reindeer herders known as Nenets; descendants of former Soviet prisoners; and energy company men seeking a rich cache of oil and natural gas under the frozen tundra.

As the final images in my series show, the Russian government is once again tempted to conquer the Far North, following Stalin’s failed experiment. In the last decade scientists discovered billions of tons of oil and gas trapped underneath the tundra, and Putin’s government commands Russian energy companies to usurp these resources and challenge gas-hungry European neighbours. It is the Nenets who must yield, as the Russian government has invested billions in energy exploration and asserted dominance over the region in 2007 by planting a titanium flag into the Arctic seabed.

Behind the geopolitics are the individuals who eke out a life in this unforgiving desert. Back in the shipping container, Andrei and Alexei grow restless, and talk about their next opportunity to “strike gold” out on the ice. When the wind stills for a moment, the two grab towels and bolt for the makeshift sauna a few containers down the road. It is powered by pure Arctic diesel.


On November 1st, 2011, photographer Justin Jin spoke with Thomas Nilsen, journalist and editor ofBarents Observer. TheBarents Observer is an online publication that provides news and background information on the Barents region, the northwestern part of Russia, including the Arctic and the northern part of Scandinavia. Thomas Nilsen has been following developments in northwest Russia since the end of the Soviet period in the late '80s, and has covered the current economic boom in the Murmansk-Archangel Russian Arctic.

JIN: The Russian Arctic seems like a geopolitical crisis in the making, where you have an exodus of the population that was left behind by the crumbling of the Soviet industry, and a new invasion of investment and technology under the Putin regime to exploit oil and gas.

You just said you had been following the trends for a few decades now. Do you see the Putin government doing the same as the Soviets, pouring in technology and pushing human sacrifice in this region, at all costs? And possibly opening the future to the catastrophe the Soviets left behind in the Arctic?

NILSEN: The Barents Observer is an online publication with the aim of providing news and background information on the Barents region, the northwestern part of Russia, including the Arctic and the northern part of Scandinavia. We publish both in English and in Russian. We are located in Norway a few kilometers from the Russian Kola Peninsula. I personally have been following the development in northwest Russia since the end of the Soviet period in the late '80s and throughout the crisis period, as we call it, especially in the early '90s until today, and the situation in the Murmansk-Archangel Russian Arctic, which is actually entering an economic boom right now.

JIN: You just said you had been following the trends for a few decades now. Do you see the Putin government doing the same as the Soviets, pouring in technology and pushing human sacrifice in this region, at all costs? And possibly opening the future to the catastrophe the Soviets left behind in the Arctic?

NILSEN: Yes, I do think we see a clear parallel between the last few years of the Soviet Union to the situation today. Back in October 1987, President Mikhail Gorbachev had his quite famous Murmansk speech, where he highlighted the three main issues that he wanted to continue in the Soviet North.

First, he wanted huge nuclear disarmaments, industrial development in the Soviet Arctic areas, and more shipping in the oceans. Second, he wanted an expansion of the mining industry. And third, Gorbachev underlined the need for the Soviet Union to have regional cooperation with its neighbors, Norway and Finland. He had a hard time with these proposals, and a few years later the Soviet Union collapsed most of the structures of society were put on hold. But what we have seen in the latest years is that what Gorbachev suggested in 1987 is exactly what is happening today.

First of all, there has been widespread disarmament in the area. Yes, there are some signs of remilitarization of the Russian north, but compared to the peak amount of nuclear weapons that were up here by the end of the Cold War, it's much reduced today. Second of all, Russia has started shipping along the northern sea route, following the climate changes and the retreat of the Arctic sea ice. They are also heavily investing in oil and gas infrastructure, both on and off-shore. We also see that the mining industry is booming in the Kola Peninsula, not far from Murmansk on account of increasing demand for raw materials in growing economies, like India and China.

What is scary is that they don't consider the environmental impact as important as we see it from here. These are far, remote areas in the Arctic, so we don't have many environmental watchdogs, NGOs or governmental institutions that can control impact of industry in these regions. This is a fear among the population up in the north. Despite the severe local consequences, news of the environmental impact will not appear in Moscow headlines.

JIN: When you talk about oil spills and potential oil spills, you also talked about mining. I went to Nikel, and it was really shocking to see a radius of 5-10 kilometers with absolutely everything exterminated; all the plants have died and no animals can be seen. What are the biggest environmental threats from this oil, gas and mineral rush?

NILSEN: I think your photo from Nikel explains it all, a brilliant example that one photo can tell more than several pages of background information. It is important to remember that Nikel is just one of many similar places in the Russian North. And Nikel is not the worst at all; there are places in Siberia like the city of Norilsk in the Taimyr Peninsula, which are probably 20 times worse.

But the biggest challenge today is that this kind of environmental damage and severe pollution are not near the garden of the Norilsk-Nickel, owner of the combine. They don't care what's happening in the North. When we talk to the management of the plant they give the same answer today as they did 20 years ago: that they are going to solve the problem in the near future. I am sure we can interview them again next year and we'll get exactly the same answer.

JIN: When you talk about Norilsk, is it worse than Nikel because it's 20 times bigger?

NILSEN: The emission of sulfur dioxide up in Norilsk is 20 times higher than from the plant in Nikel. One of the plants in the Kola Peninsula has sulfur dioxide emissions five times higher than the total emissions of the country of Norway, and that is just from one factory, and there are many, many such factories in the Russian north.

So we can sit from outside and say it looks bad in the photos, and we can say this has dramatic effects on the Arctic environment and so on. But of course, my main concern is for the people living in that city who have to live with the sulfur dioxide and heavy metal pollution every day, and who have to see their children grow up there.

JIN: You're right; it's hard to see the people who are being affected. When I talked to them they seemed very reluctant to criticize and to point out the emissions and the pollution from the factory. I suppose because they are under pressure, or their jobs are under pressure. And I talked to people with very serious asthma cases, and they said, "No, no, it's not worse than in other cities."

NILSEN: Exactly, it's very hard to criticize the current pollution when you are living there because the town is by definition company operated, or a monogorod, as they say in Russia. There's nothing else to do there than to work in the factories, and without the factory, you wouldn't exist. On the positive side, people today earn a huge amount of money, so with the exception of the air pollution and the health effects, people have a good life in Nikel today compared to the early 1990s, when there was both air pollution and no salaries.

JIN: So do you think in 20, 30, 50 years the Arctic is going to be a boom area full of good things, or is it going to be laid waste like the Soviet Union laid waste to so many parts of the Kola Peninsula?

NILSEN: Well, what we do think is that the new mining industry coming to the area will invest in new technologies because it is more profitable to have a good, clean operating factory. Hopefully it will not be a repeat of the industry that was built up in the Soviet North after the Second World War. But I wouldn't say within 40, 50 years - this is happening as we speak.

JIN: That brings me to the question I really wanted to ask you. I would like to continue this project, and focus on the amount of technology, money and human effort that Russia is investing in oil and gas. What would be the most interesting things worth exploring journalistically?

NILSEN: One of the interesting things happening is the development of cold climate technologies to enter new areas in the frozen part of the Russian north. You can see it partly in your photo of the Prirlazlomnoye oil platform, in the harbor of Murmansk.

That platform was originally in use in the North Sea between Norway and Great Britain, and was then sold to Russia. They have rebuilt the platform and strengthened it in order to operate in ice-covered waters.

You also see it in the shipping industry; transportation will increase along the Northern Sea route from Europe to Asia. There are not that many ice-breaking vessels that could be used today, so they need to build a new fleet to exploit this shortcut to the markets in Asia.

JIN: Is the biggest one the oil industry?

NILSEN: That brings me to one of your photographs of the three workers smoking in the bathroom and on the wall is written "No Smoking."

Russia is a place where what is said and what is done are very often two different things. Shtokman Development company will build and design the Shtokman natural gas field, and they said that by October 2011, at the latest, they would present the investment cost for this huge natural gas field in the Bering Sea. October 31st passed, and of course, nothing happened.

JIN: Is there somewhere where things are done in a hidden way, and not publicized?

NILSEN: There are examples of that within the private investor sector, where companies are looking for access to new raw materials and they don't want to go public with it before they start digging. We do know there are international mining companies that are very eager to open mines there again, but we don't talk about it, because they want to be secure before they go public with it.

JIN: How would you characterize the Russian conquest of the Arctic? How is it different from other countries' conquest of the Arctic?

NILSEN: It is very important to remember that half of the Arctic belongs to Russia. Most of Russia's resources and therefore, the country's future economy is located in the Arctic. Because of these natural resources Russia will always have a high profile in the Arctic. If you look at northern Canada, for example, there are almost no people living north of 60 degrees, while in Murmansk, which is above the Arctic Circle, there are more than 300,000 people living there. Russia views the Arctic differently for Russia it is a bank for the future income of the country.