Crumbling Siberian city holds horde of Russian diamonds

The eastern Siberian city of Mirny may have only 40 000 inhabitants, but it has something else that long kept it off any map—the giant Mir diamond mine that is one of Russia’s best-kept secrets.

It is still quite difficult for foreigners to set foot in this city of wooden barracks and hastily built apartment houses without an official invitation from Alrosa, the world’s second-largest diamond producer.

And with the nine-month-long winters and temperatures that can plunge to minus 60 degrees Celsius, tourism is not a likely prospect.

Foreigners who do turn up without authorisation are likely to be interrogated by the Federal Security Service—especially about their interest in diamonds—and abruptly escorted out of the region.

Mirny is nestled in Yakutia, a region the size of India (three million square kilometres) straddling the Arctic circle.

More importantly, Yakutia is rich in kimberlites, vertical volcanic shafts where diamonds formed three billion years ago.

“The first diamond deposit in Yakutia was discovered about 50 years ago, and since then extraction has grown quickly,” explained Alexander Nichiporuk, the general director of state-controlled Alrosa.

Mir (Peace) was the first such deposit to come into operation, and has long been Russia’s pride. Since 1958, over $17-billion worth of diamonds have come from this dig, which is 1,3km in diameter and about 500m deep.

Now the crater is filled with clear green water, as technical constraints have prevented open-air mining at Mir since 2001. The deposit awaits rebirth in 2009, when an underground mine is due to be opened.

Several kilometres away, an underground mine called International is already in operation.
Nearly 900 miners work in round-the-clock shifts to extract the precious grey green mineral, which is then hauled off by trucks in loads weighing about 100 tons to a complex that extracts the diamonds.

Once pried out of their stone bed, raw diamonds are sorted behind armoured doors in Alrosa’s laboratories.

The smallest are exported to India, while the largest go to Antwerp, the centre of the world diamond trade, before being cut and delivered to jewellers.

In a chamber about 700m underground, chief engineer Alexander Vasilyevich gives orders to his men, his features distinct under his white mining helmet.

Vasilyevich says he appreciates “the more modern equipment and information technology” that did not exist when he joined the company 30 years ago.

Still, the pervasive smell of gas reminds him that “this mine is no less dangerous than the Kuzbas coal mines” where he once worked.

Despite the difficult conditions and extreme climate, many are drawn to the diamond mines by salaries averaging over $1 000 a month—a considerable sum for the region.

But Mirny’s broken roads and crumbling houses show how little the town’s natural riches have brought it, with the exception of a few colourful buildings that serve as Alrosa’s offices and a spa hotel offered by the company.

After the tour of the International mine, mine director Alexander Kisichin proudly calls it “Russia’s richest” deposit. But asked how many carats it holds, he only smiles.

“By Russian law, that’s a state secret,” he says.—AFP

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