LURED by the romance of the frozen tundra, thousands of idealistic young Communists descended here in 1956, eager to build a new Soviet society from what they understood to be virgin steppes so barren that even pine trees rarely survive in the wind-swept Siberian terrain.
But when the Communist Youth League members arrived, they discovered that construction had already begun. In fact, central Norilsk, its wide avenues flanked by mammoth pastel-colored stone edifices, was already completed: built by the sweat and blood of tens of thousands of political prisoners shipped here beyond the Arctic Circle by dictator Josef Stalin.
``We made weapons, we built houses, we dug in the dirt. We dug 20-yard-deep holes for building foundations by hand,'' says Galina Skopyuk, a soft-spoken pensioner who spent almost a decade in Political Camp No. 6 after she was deported from her village in western Ukraine at age 17 in 1945 for ``anti-Soviet agitation.''
As part of a 35-member work brigade, Galina moved daily from one construction site to another, returning late to sleep on a mattress stuffed with wood shavings in a cramped, Army-style barracks. Bars crisscrossed the windows, and after 10 p.m. the doors were padlocked. Plumbing was nonexistent, and one slop bucket was shared by 170 women and girls.
``We came home cold and wet after a 12-hour workday without lunch. We were given 500 grams [about 1 lb.] of bread, which we had to divide between breakfast and dinner, and we had soup and gruel. I never saw any meat,'' says Galina, who now supplements her pension working as a museum guide in Norilsk, about 1,700 miles northeast of Moscow. ``But we were young and strong, and we adapted. Not many of us died. We lived on the hope of freedom.''
No official statistics exist, but estimates say that between 30,000 and 35,000 political prisoners were incarcerated at any given time in Norilsk gulags between 1935 and 1956, when the last were released following Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin.
The first prisoners, known as zeks, slept in icy huts on the tundra while they built the first camps. Many died from the sub-freezing Arctic temperatures, but Stalin kept sending fresh replacements to the nickel- and copper-rich region, thrilled to have slave labor to kick-start the Soviet Union's infant nonferrous metals industry. Climatic conditions were so harsh that Stalin, who spent time in a czarist camp in western Siberia at the beginning of the century, refused to visit the region after his brother-in-law went on a geological expedition there and declared it unfit for human habitation.
At age 17, Galina had already heard plenty about Stalin in her childhood village of Biyaniye in Ukraine. Originally under Polish rule, Biyaniye was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939, occupied by the Germans two years later, and reclaimed by the Soviets following the end of World War II.
``As children we were taught to be for Ukraine, not for Stalin's regime. We were against that,'' says Galina, a sturdy, compact woman with several gold teeth whose job at the History of the North museum involves explaining the horrors of Stalin's camps - which not long ago would have been a punishable offense. ``We were just children, so we hung up banners protesting the Soviet government and collected signatures. They found us and arrested nearly half my high school class. They humiliated us and beat us, trying to make us tell them who else to hunt for.''
After a brief prison stint in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev where a People's Court found her guilty, Galina was shipped to Norilsk.
``We were forbidden to write to anyone; we could write home only once a year,'' she says, fighting back tears. ``If we received a package, they wouldn't give it to us - even photographs. Only when I was released did they give me photographs and money my mother had sent me.''
Those who broke the rules were beaten or sentenced to the dreaded solitary-confinement cell. Galina went there once, after she ``gravely offended'' a camp official because she failed to repress a laugh when he slipped and fell in a mud puddle.
``He asked me for my last name, but I wasn't allowed to give my name to officials, only to show the number stitched on my shoulder,'' she says, trying to smile at the absurdity. ``Later, they took me to the solitary cell, a cement floor with no bed and no windows, only a slot in the door. You can't sit down, you can't sleep.''
Norilsk, which today has a population of more than 270,000, supplies about 75 percent of Russia's copper and 90 percent of its nickel. But although the zeks built the region's first factories and dug the first pits, it was only with the advent of market economic reforms called perestroika in 1985 that their part in building the region was first acknowledged.
Raisa Shevelova, who moved to Norilsk from the Northern Caucasus 32 years ago, was a history teacher until 1985. ``Before then, we knew little about the camps, so I taught my students very little about them. I only taught them that they existed. I used to say that in 1956 members of the Komsomol [Communist Youth League] began building Norilsk. Now we say that the zeks began to build, and that the Komsomol just continued what the zeks had already started.''
Following Stalin's death, Galina was released in 1954, several months before the end of her 10-year sentence. His notorious henchman, Lavrenti Beria, had issued a decree offering amnesty to all non-political prisoners in the camps, which led to a prisoner uprising in Norilsk. Not long after that, the camps were closed permanently.
But Galina still couldn't go home. Branded an ``enemy of the people,'' she was issued a ``white ticket'' in lieu of a passport, which bound her to internal exile in Norilsk for another five years.
``When I was freed, it was very difficult to live with people [in Norilsk] who didn't understand me and considered me an enemy,'' she says. ``I didn't tell anyone I had been in the camps. They treated us as outsiders, as people different than they were.''
Galina returned to Ukraine only once, in 1959, accompanied by her daughter and husband, a former camp prisoner from whom she is now divorced. ``Life was too difficult in Ukraine. Everyone was working on a collective farm, and they made very little money,'' she says. ``Life was better for me here.''
These days, Galina's life is happily divided between working at the museum and visiting with her two young grandaughters. Her only complaint is the dwindling buying power of her pension. But the philosophy that sustained her in the camps gives her strength now. ``The system we have now is not bad, it's a good one,'' she says, adding that she wholeheartedly approves of Boris Yeltsin. ``But we keep waiting for something better.''