Arctic Muslims

By Robin Paxton
May 11, 2007

NORILSK, Russia — Mukum Sidikov’s grandfather left
Norilsk after surviving the labor camps of Soviet
dictator Josef Stalin. 

Sidikov, caretaker of the world’s most northerly
mosque, retraced his grandfather’s footsteps in search
of well-paid work in the Russian Arctic.

Now he estimates the city is home to about 50,000
Muslims — just under one-quarter of the region’s
population of about 210,000. Most are from Azerbaijan
and the Russian republic of Dagestan and work as
traders or construction workers.

But as pay levels no longer compare so favorably with
other Russian cities and Norilsk restricts access for
foreigners, Sidikov says fellow Muslims no longer come

“The population is getting smaller. People are
leaving,” said Sidikov, 40, an ethnic Uzbek born and
raised in Kyrgyzstan.

The Nurd Kamal mosque stands exposed on the edge of
modern Norilsk, where temperatures drop 50 degrees
Celsius below zero (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit).
Polar winds whip its golden roof and snowdrifts pile
against the turquoise walls in winter.

The Nurd Kamal mosque, residential buildings and smelters in the arctic city of Norilsk last month. - Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

The Nurd Kamal mosque in Norilsk. - Denis Sinyakov / Reuters
“People work for pennies. They come here and lose
their health. Every second person is ill,” said

A city built on one of the world’s richest metals
deposits, Norilsk’s first smelter was built by Gulag
prisoners in the 1930s and today three plants send
smoke thick with sulphur into the air.

The city was last year named among the world’s 10 most
polluted places by independent environmental action
group The Blacksmith Institute. Its main employer,
Norilsk Nickel, is investing heavily in cutting

There are over 20 million Muslims in Russia,
approximately 14 percent of the country’s 140 million
population. The Central Asians and Dagestanis are
likely to be Sunni, while those from Azerbaijan are
most likely to be Shia. There is no antagonism between
the sects in Norilsk and many Soviet Muslims are not
among the strictest practitioners of Islam.

“There are many Muslims, but few come to the mosque.
They work all day and in the evening they are tired,”
Sidikov said.

The mosque, opened in 1998, was built by Mukhtad
Bekmeyev, an ethnic Tatar and Norilsk native now
residing in the Black Sea city of Sochi, nearly 4,000
kilometers away. He named the mosque after his parents
and will pay for its restoration this year.

Sidikov, clean-shaven and wearing a green skullcap,
left the Kyrgyz city of Osh to find work. He served in
the Soviet army in Moscow and lived in two other
Siberian cities before arriving in Norilsk seven years

High wages relative to the rest of the country
attracted workers from across the Soviet Union to
Norilsk as the city’s mines and smelters grew.

Sidikov says an average monthly wage of 25,000-30,000
rubles ($962-$1,154) is no longer enough to live
comfortably. Not only Muslims are leaving: Norilsk’s
total population is dropping by about 5,000 people

Non-Russians, mostly from Azerbaijan and former Soviet
republics in Central Asia, have found Norilsk a more
difficult place to enter since 2002 after travel
restrictions on foreign citizens were restored. They
now need special permission to visit Norilsk. 

While Norilsk Nickel and its outgoing Chief Executive
Mikhail Prokhorov have unveiled a plan to retain the
city’s skilled workers and attract new faces, Sidikov
says nothing specific is being done to help Muslims.
But Norilsk’s Muslims, he says, have integrated well
into the wider community and suffer little

Over generations, some arrivals from Russia’s Caucasus
regions have converted to Orthodox Christianity,
residents say. 

Sidikov keeps the mosque open late every evening for
those still wishing to study the Koran. About 500 to
600 people typically show for Friday prayers. 

“Muslims should come to the mosque at least once a
week. We don’t get that here.”


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