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Saturday 21 September 2019

Photo Essay

Diamonds in the rough

Life at the frozen edge of Russia’s giant diamond mines

By Carlos Folgoso Sueiro

Some 5,000 miles east of Moscow, deep in the Siberian wilderness, there is a small republic that exists purely thanks to the discovery of diamonds. Five times the size of France but with a population of less than a million people, the Sakha Republic produces 28% of all world’s rough diamonds, helping to make the Russian Federation the largest diamond producer in the world.

The Mir diamond pit, one of the largest in the world, opened here in the 1950s – and spawned an entire town to serve it, called Mirny (meaning “peace”). It is an example of what Russians call “monogorods” – towns that exist to serve just one major factory, or industry. In the Sakha Republic, more than 50% of the population work directly or indirectly for Alrosa, the world’s biggest diamond producer.

But life in Sakha, also known as Yakutia, is hard. Workers endure 7-9 months of winter and prolonged periods of extreme cold in which temperatures can drop to -50°c. This photo essay explores the loneliness and isolation many diamond workers face, and the challenge of trying to establish life in such hostile regions so close to the Arctic Circle.

A man returns back home after parking his car in a warehouse on the outskirts of Mirny, the centre of the Sakha Republic, Russia.

A view of the Markha river in the Mirninsky district. In winter, the rivers are completely frozen, and cars use them as roads on the long journeys between remote urban centres.

Not far from Mirny airport lies an old 74-200 VostSibAereo airplane which crashed in 1996. In early spring when the snow melts, kids come here to practice parkour. 

A man waits for the bus to take him to Platform Number 3, or P3. Around 50% of Mirny’s residents work for the Alrosa mining company, in some form or another. The company also runs an airline, hotels, sports centres, theatres – and participates actively in local political life.

This man suffered a suspected epileptic fit in the early morning while he was walking on Tikhonova Street, in Mirny city centre. When the ambulance arrived, doctors founded an almost empty bottle of Vodka inside his jacket. 

Ivan (19) poses close to his home in a suburb of Mirny, near the Mir open pit. Ivan is a Siberian hip hop singer nicknamed who goes by the name of Asap-Kartas, and hopes to one day leave the town in search of music opportunities.

A view of the industrial road which leads to the Mir open pit.

The Mir open pit. It is 525 metres (1,722 ft) deep and 1,200m (3,900 ft) in diameter. It is one of the largest excavated holes in the world.

Cossack lessons take place each week in Mirny, and include instruction in physical exercise, weapons training and Orthodox religious lessons. 

Wasiliy Vasiliyev Ilych (31) sleeps on his wife in a car ride from Yakutsk to Mirny. He works as a mining engineer for Alrosa. The trip can take around three days in winter.

Caterpillar trucks travel to the Nyurbinsky kimberlite pipe in the early morning. The pipe has been mined since 2001 and is one of the richest diamond deposits in Russia, according Alrosa.

The Komsomolskaya open pit, located a few kilometres north of Aykhal town, is uniquely rich for diamond mining. It has a higher proportion of whole crystals whose features results in a higher than average price-per-carat diamond.

Alrosa miners place a containment grid inside international underground mine. In August 2017, a flood occurred as 151 people were inside. Eight people are still missing.

An Alrosa operator repairs Grinding Mill No 1 at processing plant No 14. The plant has three such mills. Each drum is 10.5m in diameter, and each processes 550-750 tons of ore per hour. They can grind up to 12 million tonnes of ore per year, and are the largest of their kind worldwide.

A diamond miner underground.

An Alrosa miner walks across the bottom of the Komsomolskaya open pit, located a few kilometres north of Aykhal town. To dig into the permafrost, dynamite must be used, and diamonds are extracted using a dry crushing process. Water, usually used in mining, would just freeze this far north. 

Zarnitsa open pit is located very close to the Arctic Circle, in Udachny (which means “lucky” in Russian, and was the codename for the area in Soviet times). Zarnitsa was discovered in 1954 and became the very primary diamond deposit in the Soviet Union, but it has an extreme subarctic climate. Winters are extremely cold, with average temperatures reaching −43.6 °C, making the working conditions extremely hard.

A view of the taiga in Aykhal. Trees here grow only a few metres tall due to the permafrost, which prevents them from developing root systems. 

A view of Udachny town in the Sakha Republic. 

A Statue of Lenin presides over Lenin Square, the centre of Mirny. With seven months of winter and temperatures reaching -40°C, Mirny is a desolate place. Much of its personality is tied to its history as a closed city, where entry and exit was heavily restricted by the Russian government and local officials. 

A view of the industrial settlement of Naykin.

Children playing in Lenin Square. In the background stands the Zarnitsa Hotel, one of the few hotels in the city, which belongs to Alrosa.

These 18-year-old twins grew up in Ukraine, not far from Donetsk. In 2015, after the war broke out, their family moved to Mirny.

The canteen at the Nakyn industrial settlement. Miners and ore processing engineers live close by, and work in shifts of two weeks or one month at a time. There isn’t much around – there’s no cinema, no supermarkets and no bars. In fact, alcohol is strictly prohibited.

Workers having their their medical check-up at the Udachny underground mine. For each shift, every worker must pass a medical control to ensure their capacity to work. This includes checks on blood pressure, vision, and alcohol levels.

Mass at the Orthodox Church of Aikhal.

Rhythmic gymnastics training at the Alrosa sports centre. For the young girls who take part, training can take up to six or seven hours per day, seven days per week.

Kindergarten for the children of Alrosa workers. The company says it is pursuing a new model for social responsibility in Yakutia, providing vital services in remote regions for workers and their families. 

Udachny town in Yakutia is located 16km south of the Arctic Circle, and was founded in 1967 in conjunction with the development of the Udachnaya kimberlite pipe. Winter here is very long: in 2018, the snow first fell on July 20. To combat the gloom, buildings are often painted in bright and colourful patterns. 

Wallpaper at a local coffee bar in Mirny. 

Alina and Palina Vinnichenko (14). The twins were adopted by the Vinnichenko family, who have adopted 18 children and are devout Baptists. 

Women sorting diamonds at the Diamond Sorting Centre. These women are subjected to strict controls to prevent theft. In addition to surveillance cameras, they have to pass a scanner test and must completely undress for checks after every shift.

The central control room at the Diamond Sorting Centre in Mirny. The security measures in this building includes control cameras in each room and corridor, special dresses for people handle diamonds, and control scanners.

A view of Mirny town after sunset. On the left, a poster astronaut Yuri Gagarin, a national hero, covers the wall of the hospital complex. In the background, Plant Number 3 is visible. 

The absence of sunlight prompts many people to install ultraviolet lights in their homes, to grow plants and vegetables. From the street, it’s common to see windows emitting a bright violet light. 

A Yakutian-Russian girl watches the full moon from inside a car. Mirny’s population is approximately 50% Yakutian, 50% Russian.

The Saturday nightlife scene at the Globus nightclub, Mirny. 

Oksana (31) at home with her son Arsi (2). Oksana was born in Mirny but left to study in Saint Petersburg when she was a teenager. After 15 years, she returned to raise her son.

Ubanobur Bekusov (61) poses in his wood workshop. Bekusov was born in Moscow and after work as a sailor in Murmansk, he decided to move to Siberia. He worked as a miner for most of his life, and married here. He now lives in Almazny.

The Alrosa logo covers the wall of a building in Udachny town. 


Carlos Folgoso Sueiro was born in 1982 in Verín, in Galicia. He focuses on stories which are not at the centre of the news agenda, from his first project ‘World’s place apart'(2007-now), about a self-sufficient community living in an isolated enclave, to his most recent, ‘The violet window’ (2017-2019), which is featured above. His work has been published in journals and magazines including The Sunday Times, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The British Journal of Photography, Paris Match, L’Espresso, Sette, L’Internazionale, Corriere della Sera, Repubblica, El Mundo, ABC, La Voz de Galicia and Diario de Arousa.

Photographs by Carlos Folgoso Sueiro