Nature's blessing - Petsamo's curse Image size 19 Kb

Petsamo is a textbook example of the Soviet Union's catastrophic impacts on the environment, the result of ruthlessly exploiting natural resources heedless of the consequences. Since Russia inherited the Soviet mess, it has only worsened.

The two mining communities in the Petsamo region, Zapolyarnyi and Nikel, would make ideal sets for a horror movie. Dense smoke belches from antiquated smelters, killing vegetation for miles around and irritating eyes, noses and mucous membranes.

The communities are little more than large villages, but their cemeteries are big enough for fair-sized cities. The people who work there pay a high price in terms of health. They know the risks, but have little choice. They cannot go elsewhere, because there are neither jobs nor housing to be found.

Image size 11 Kb Dilapidated residential buildings in Zapolyarnyi. Many of the dwellings are empty.

During the Soviet era, people were sent to work here for a few weeks at a time. The incentive was high wages. Incomes remain high by Russian standards. Workers in Petsamo earn about 4,000 roubles a month, four times the national average. Before the rouble was devalued in August 1998, that was worth nearly $700. Now it comes to less than $200.

Petsamo differs from the rest of Russia also in another important respect: the workers there have actually been receiving their wages. On the other hand, the company that now owns the Petsamo operations, Norilsk Nikel, has failed to pay taxes to the State. Nor has it invested in new equipment to reduce the harm that the environment is suffering. Experts calculate that it would take about $200 million to reduce emissions from the facilities to Western levels.

Norilsk Nikel is one of the world's largest producers of nickel. How it passed into the ownership of Onexim Bank is one of the shadiest chapters in the history of Russian privatisation and insider dealing. In December 1995 Onexim arranged the sale of Norilsk in a way that effectively excluded from the "auction" any interests likely to bid more than the bank itself.

Shattered idyll

The original inhabitants of Petsamo were Skolt Sami, a people who lived a life in step with the cycle of nature. They alternated between summer and winter villages, herding reindeer and fishing for salmon in the River Paatsjoki and the Arctic fjords. The bleak, remote area did not interest the outside world much until vast deposits of metal were discovered there.

Finland acquired Petsamo under the terms of a peace treaty signed with the Soviet Union in the Estonian city of Tartu (Dorpat) in 1920. It had originally been promised to the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1864, in exchange for the Siestarijoki (Sestoreck) area on the Karelian Isthmus. The Czar had transferred Siestarijoki to Russia proper because a rifle factory was located there.

Petsamo was an important asset for Finland, because its port remained ice-free all year round. Exotic place that it was, it became a popular tourist attraction, because summers along the fjord there were surprisingly warm.

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The natural environment around the mining communities resembles the aftermath of a forest fire.
The idyll was shattered when nickel was found. Finland lacked the money to develop a mine, but British capital was willing and eager. In contrast to the generally depressed state of the Finnish economy in the 30s, Petsamo was a boom town. People worked there day and night, and also partied as though the end might come at any time. They did not have to wait long to be proved right. With another major war looming, everyone wanted nickel.

In the twists and turns of the Second World War, the mine ended up in German hands. When the area had to be handed over to the Soviet Union, the Skolts and their reindeer were relocated in Finnish Lapland. That meant the loss of both their homes and their traditional way of life, because migrating between summer and winter villages became a thing of the past.

No foreigners were allowed to visit Petsamo during the Soviet era. In addition to the miners, the population there consisted of military personnel guarding the world's biggest concentration of nuclear weaponry around Murmansk. The border between Norway and Russia is still the only direct land interface between Nato and Russia.

Environmental Surveillance: The Story of Nikel
Map of Petsamo and surroundings