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Inside Russia’s diamond mines

Emma BurrowsJuly 29, 2016

In the far north-east of Russia, a whole town of people dedicates their working lives to finding diamonds. Russia is the world's largest producer of diamonds by volume and Mirny is its ‘diamond capital'.

Image: DW/E. Burrows

Mirny is so remote that the people here refer to the rest of Russia as ‘the mainland.'

Located in Russia's far northeast, 4,000 km from Moscow, the main route in and out is via aircraft. In winter, when temperatures can drop to below -50 degrees centigrade, ice roads appear allowing supplies to be brought in overland.

The town itself is built around a giant hole in the ground. It is probably Mirny's most distinguishing feature. Diamonds were discovered here in the 1950s and as the diamond mine grew, so did the town around it. The city has primarily been financed from the proceeds of the quarry - which grew to be 1.2km wide and 525m deep.

Mirny Diamantenmine
Mirny mineImage: DW/E. Burrows

It is a remote, inhospitable place. Until June this year there was still snow on the ground. "In Mirny," one person told me, "for ten months of the year, it is winter."

The attraction here is definitely not the climate or the location, but the higher wages which attract people from other Russian regions and former Soviet states.

"Life has forced me to come here"

On a bench in the sunshine in a small park, a group of three men sits drinking beer. All of them have come to Mirny to work in the diamond mines. They say they work every day for three months; then they go home for a month before returning.

"He's from the Urals," one of them points at the other, "and he's from Rostov (in southern Russia.)"

"Life has forced me to come here," he says. "The wages here are a bit better than elsewhere. You can earn more money to take home to your family, but when you get home, it all just goes in one month."

Mirny Diamantenmine
Miners relaxing in MirnyImage: DW/E. Burrows

"It's hard without them, but I won't bring my wife and children here. Why should I bring them to this frozen place when they can enjoy the sun in the south?"

More than a kilometer below ground, miners work round-the-clock, churning out rock which hides diamonds worth millions of dollars.

"In the mines, I think it's all hard work," says Nurlan Adelbekov, a miner who operates a machine more than 10 meters long which smashes up a rock and collects it before it is hauled above ground.

"We spend so many hours working below ground. It's shift work and really physically hard. It's a family tradition, though, my dad worked in the mines, and I like it because I know exactly what to do here."

Above ground, the rock Nurlan digs out of the ground is processed to reveal the diamonds hidden inside.

Nurlan Altynbekov
Nurlan Altynbekov, minerImage: DW/E. Burrows

In a nondescript building in Mirny, rooms of women are at work, bent over huge bowls of diamonds, sorting them into glinting piles. Russia is the world's largest producer of diamonds by volume, and the workers pour over buckets of stones – meticulously sorting them by color, shape and size.

Nina Nikonovna oversees part of the work. She is from a tiny village in the countryside near Mirny and started working in the factory when she finished school aged 17.

"I am proud that I was born in this country where there are such riches from the natural world," she says.

"In 53 years here, so many stones have been through my fingers, and I think, perhaps in your country, beautiful people are wearing these diamonds," she tells me.

Nina Nikonovna
Nina Nikonovna, diamond supervisorImage: DW/E. Burrows

Diamonds worth millions may pass through their fingers, but workers in Mirny survive on more modest sums.


Wages in the town are much higher than the Russian average, but the food is more expensive because almost everything has to be flown in. Food prices have been pushed higher as the Russian rouble has devalued and the economy has been plunged into crisis.

The crisis has also affected the government which recently sold a stake in the diamond miner to plug a huge hole in its budget. It had to settle, however, for a price almost $90 million less than it wanted ($813 million/732 million euros) as, according to analysts, investor appetite was affected by poor political relations between Russia and the West.

"If the [share] price had been higher, we all know the outcome of the privatization might not have been so positive," said Aleksey Kalachev, an analyst at broker Finam in Moscow.

"If they had not sold all the shares offered, the privatization would be considered to be a failure. So, formally, this has been a success, but informally it would have been good to get more. The situation in Russia at the moment though is difficult."

The difficulties in the economy mean ordinary people, as well as the Russian government, have also been forced to look for alternative forms of income.

As we clamber aboard a transport helicopter in Mirny for the two-hour flight north to the mine of Nakyn, the town's isolation becomes evident. The buildings are clustered around the rim of the giant quarry which itself is the only other feature on a landscape which includes forest as far as the eye can see.

On the flight is a woman with a small suitcase, traveling to Nakyn to work as a supervisor in the factory. "The pay is higher there," she shouts above the noise of the helicopter's engine, "that's why I go."

As suddenly as Mirny disappears into the expanse of taiga, the diamond quarries of Nakyn appear out of the forest. There is almost nothing here: people fly in to work in for two week periods before leaving again. They work 12-hour shifts and live in communal accommodation, purpose built near the quarry.

In the canteen, Alexander Fritzler, an engineer, says he came to Nakyn because of the money.

"I came here because I had problems affording housing," he told me. "I'm from Mirny, and there housing is really expensive, the prices are comparable to those in Moscow. Working here means I only have to rent a flat in Mirny for two weeks, rather than for a month."

Workers in Nakyn and Mirny seem to be making a trade-off working in Russia's diamond mines, working long hours in isolated places in exchange for higher wages and the chance to provide a better life for their families.

"I don't think about the diamonds"

Underground, Nurlan Adelbekov says he does not think about the cost of the diamonds he mines, nor the fact that one of them could be worth more than he would earn in a lifetime.

"We dig out the rock and the diamonds are inside that. Some of them are really expensive, but I don't think about that," he says.

"For me, the most important thing is to do my work well and go home to my family."