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Who exactly is the transformation of Nikel being carried out for?

RUSSIA / Historically speaking, Nikel is a "monotown" – a city created and run by a city-forming industrial company with one sole purpose: to exploit industrial labour.


For us humans, our relationship with change is complex and often delicate. Some changes are easy to accept, perhaps because they are insignificant, but even changes that we consider good and valuable can appear challenging. When it comes to changes in one's surroundings, for example those that are sudden and fundamental like in the city Nickel in Russia, the question arises: what does the change mean for those for whom it is made?

Nickel's many identities

Nikel is a special place: The mining town located on the tundra on the Kola Peninsula just above the Arctic Circle, borders Norway and is only 50 kilometers from Kirkenes. In addition to being a border town, Nikel is also historically a so-called monotown – a town created and run by a town-forming industrial company with one sole purpose: to exploit industryor labor. First established by the Finnish board with Canadian nickel industry technology, Nickel ended up in the hands of the Soviet Union in 1944 after a peace treaty was signed with Finland. Soviet planned economy and rich occurrence of a strategically important metal made Nickel a leader in the industry. It helped that the town developed, that the workers were paid well enough to stay in the area despite the harsh climate, and not least, that the wealth of the Pechenganikel Mining Combine increased. But the more productive the company was, the more polluted the surrounding area became.

"Soviet clouds of death"

In response to the extreme pollution, neighboring Norway started a major environmental campaign to stop "the 'Soviet' clouds of death". But this changed when the Soviet Union collapsed. The market was no longer controlled by the state, Pechenganikel was privatized, and the environmental damage from the smelter steam could no longer be removed by the post-socialist Nikel.

Nkel. Photographer: Kirsti Stuvøy

Decades of negotiations brought the company's new owner Norilsk Nickel faced with a dilemma that had to be resolved: should Nickel's smelter continue to employ a good proportion of the population and provide financial security in everyday life, or should it be shut down to stop the serious pollution? Almost 30 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 2020, Nornickel announced the closure of the smelter.

World of New Possibilities

As a result of the city's cornerstone company shutting down production, several economic and political actors stepped in to remedy the sudden loss of jobs. They wanted to create a new vision of Nikel as a more independent, competitive and attractive market-driven city. Nornickel took on most of the work and carried out, among other things, the World of New Possibilities idea competition. Pechenga Municipality's development agency Second School was also kept running to promote the creative efforts of its citizens.

A master plan on diversifying Nikel's economy, densifying the city and developing the tourism sector.

As a result of the cooperation between municipal and regional authorities, new small businesses, events, creative projects and a "beautified" Nikel began to emerge. It culminated in Second School and the consulting agency URBANpro creating a master plan on diversifying Nikel's economy, densifying the city and developing the tourism sector. The aim was to make Nikel a leader in sustainable development in Russia. Several projects were considered for the reuse of the smelter area, including ideas for new industry and eco-tourism. However, the transformation of Nikel changed significantly in March 2020.

An isolated Nickel

Like most other places in the world, the covid-19 pandemic changed life in Nikel significantly. The borders to Norway were no longer open to the local population – unless they had dual citizenship. It not only affected the everyday life of the residents of the border area, but also the international cooperation that many in Nikel had greatly appreciated. Frequent visits by friends to Churches in Norway and cultural exchanges were replaced by online communication, while large projects and businesses aimed at international trade had to be restructured or closed down. Even those who didn't care much for Norway ended up missing the opportunities that life at the border offered. The city, which thrived on both industrial production and foreigners, ended up losing both in a short time.

Then, on February 24, 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Thus, the border town's official cooperation with Norway and the rest of the world was frozen indefinitely.

The future

Nickel's bouquet of identities, which has been maintained for decades, is once again subject to reshaping. At first, as a Soviet monotown, it had little environmental responsibility or competition. Then as a post-Soviet border town, Nikel removed itself from its industrial roots, and is now trying to reap the benefits of international cooperation and a possible, unique role in the Arctic.

However, the changes in Nikel so far have not met the residents' expectations. Unemployment is still a big problem. The competition for public grants for changes puts the responsibility for the economic development of the city on the citizens rather than the governing local political authorities. The beautification of the urban space, although most residents enjoy it, is seen as insufficient without proper access to health services, heating and water. If change for the residents should mean gaining security in everyday life, we repeat: who is the realignment of Nikel being carried out for?

The border between Nikel and Kirkenes finally opened in mid-July 2022, becoming a highly celebrated event among the local population. While the master plan and some of its projects are already well under way (Nornickel has been exempted from sanctions), residents wonder if they will get the bright future promised to their hometown. Can Nikel shed its Soviet monotown identity and be resurrected as a sustainable, attractive and thriving border town?

Elina Turbine
Elina Turbina
Turbina is the recipient of a Habitat Norge master's scholarship 2021.

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