If one were to stand on the edge of Mir mine and look down, one could easily think they were stood at the mouth of Hades itself. Over a mile across, the pit at first appears to be a giant, obliteration-of-the-dinosaurs sized crater, but on closer inspection it seems far more surreal: ledges spiraling down and around the sides of the conical chasm make it resemble a whirlpool of stone – an unnatural Charybdis to somewhere not of this earth.
Appearing not unlike The Dark Knight Rises’ underground prison, this 1,722 ft.-deep hole is in fact the site of a once-great diamond mine, aptly dubbed Diamond City due to its settlement-sized footprint. It is the forth deepest hole in the world and the second largest excavated site, out-done only by Bingham Canyon Mine. Mir mine is located in eastern Siberia, a dominating presence next to the teetering town of Mirny, which was first settled by prospectors after the deposits’ discovery in 1955. The mine is valued at £13billion, which represents the combined value of the diamonds it has already yielded and those that are thought to still remain within the stone.
Mir’s diamond deposits were originally discovered by three geologist – Ekaterina Elagina, Uri Khabardin and Viktor Avdeenko – during the large Amakinsky Expedition in Yakut ASSR. Each was awarded the Lenin Prize, Russia’s highest honour, for the discovery, and no surprise; at the height of operations, the mine produced around two million carats of rough diamonds a year. At the time, this represented 23% of the world’s rough diamonds, with the largest discoveries the size of golf balls. One of the better known prizes from ‘Diamond City’ is the Olonkho diamond, 130.85 carat and worth around £250,000.
The conditions at Mir mine are as punishing as the pit is vast. The region where it stands is subject to some of the world’s harshest weather conditions; winter can last up to seven months, when temperatures can drop as low at -40 degrees Cᵒ. It can get so cold that car tyres and steel shatter and oil freezes! If these conditions weren’t apocalyptic enough, the pit is so wide and deep that it is said to create its own air vortex, and has been thought to have pulled passing helicopters down into itself! Thankfully no fatal crashes have been caused, but the threat has been taken seriously enough that previous air-routes over the mine have been cancelled or re-directed.
Retrieving the riches of ‘Diamond City’ was gruelling work, especially in the winter months (which filled over half of the calendar year). The ice would be so thick and the rock below so hard from the cold that jet engines were used to melt and blast holes in the permafrost, and dynamite was then used to break apart the rock’s surface and loosen the below kimberlite ore. Even during the brief summers there was little relief, as the ground would turn to slush. Because of this slush, the main processing plant had to be built 20 km away from the mine.
However, the results were well worth these trials: the riches yielded by Mir mine were great enough to help transform the USSR in the wake of WW2. Under Stalin, these diamonds largely funded the re-building of the country and helped to create the global player that Russia became – a mixed blessing and curse, as they also funded Stalin’s activities and the atrocities that took place under his rule. Whilst an important site for Russia’s history and economy, one can’t help but view the shaft with a little apprehension once this haunting context is added to its already foreboding presence.
The mine is currently owned by Russian diamond company Alrosa. Whilst full mining operations ended in 2001, a series of underground tunnels continue to produce valuable results. Plans have been proposed for the site, including a dome-covered, submerged city, but whilst companies are still able to extract even a faction of the diamonds that still lurk under the stone, it seems unlikely that these plans will make it to reality any time soon!