MIRNY: Diamonds are forever, and so is the permanently frozen ground of Yakutia in northeastern Siberia, home to huge diamond deposits that ensure Russia’s supremacy in world production of the luxury stone. In the city of Mirny, the sun shines almost continuously during the region’s white night season in early July, with temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius. But the summer does not last long. Yakutia is known for having the coldest winters on the planet, which drag on for nine dark months.
This region — rich in oil, gas and precious metals — is also home to 11 out of 12 mines belonging to Russia’s Alrosa group, the world’s largest producer of rough carats.
The majority state- and local government-owned company employs most of Mirny’s 35,000 inhabitants and contributes around 40 percent of the wider region’s budget in taxes.
Alrosa, which has been criticized by some locals for alleged environmental damage including polluting water supplies, has a reputation for secrecy but is now making efforts to demonstrate some of its work.
In Mirny, a gaping hole of massive depths — the abandoned mine “Mir” — stretches out into the city. It is more than a kilometer in diameter and 525 meters deep, or nearly two Eiffel towers placed end to end.
Oleg Popov, the director of Mirny’s diamond sorting center, shows off a billiard table covered in shiny stones.
“There are 14,000 carats worth around $9 million on this table,” he said.
“Each stone must be sorted by size,” said Irina Senyukova, leaning on stones in the nearby sorting room.
To reach the next diamond deposits themselves, visitors board a 20-seater Antonov plane and head north, across the taiga, to Nakyn, where Alrosa operates two open-pit mines and is planning for a third out in the wilderness.
The most productive mine, Botuobinskaya, is currently only 130 meters deep, but the company plans to dig down 580 meters.
The operating mines will be exploitable until 2041, the company hopes.
Inside the mines, the temperature drops to -55 degrees Celsius in winter, which requires an increased use of explosives to extract diamonds.
“The climate has an impact on our machines, but they are adapted to the extreme conditions,” said Mikhail Dyachenko, deputy chief of the mine, standing on the edge of the precipice and wearing a safety helmet.
“Man will adapt to anything, most of the miners are natives of the region. They know this climate well,” he added.
Trucks go down the mine slowly, spiraling down thin dirt roads dug into the rock. The descent can last up to an hour.
In each ton of ground, there are around 6.2 carats of diamonds. After sorting, the rough diamonds are transported on secret flights to be sold around the world.
Some are flown to polishing centers in Moscow and Smolensk, a city in Western Russia.