Orbital View: The Gaping Maw of Mir

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
(Daily Overview / Satellite images © 2015 DigitalGlobe)

John Metcalfe, over at our sister site CityLab, compiled a stunning set of satellite photos that include “refugee camps, environmental horror, Florida housing projects, and fields of lovely Dutch tulips.” Above is the Mir mine in Siberia, the largest open pit diamond mine in the world and the second largest pit overall, behind the Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah. From a brief but fascinating history of Mir:

After WWII, the Soviet Union required large quantities of industrial diamonds in order to rebuild its shattered landscape. The problem for the Soviets was that the diamond industry at the time was almost entirely controlled by DeBeers. What this came down to was the simple fact that should DeBeers decide to embargo the Soviet Union, whether for economic or political reasons, the Soviets would have to at least somewhat bend to DeBeers’ will.

Some of Stalin’s geologists informed him as early as the 1930’s that certain areas of Siberia closely resembled, geologically, the kimberlite-rich regions of South Africa. This information prompted Stalin after WWII to send out teams of geologists to the areas of Siberia that held the greatest chances of having kimberlite pipes. The active quest for Russian diamonds began in 1947 and came to fruition within the next ten years.

The Soviet Union’s quest for diamonds was not conducted primarily out of a desire for saleable minerals. The original reason for the search for diamonds in Siberia was due to a material need for industrial diamonds. Industrial diamonds are required for a number of mechanical operations, such as drilling, abrasive grit, precision cutting and other digging machinery. After WWII, Stalin was determined to complete the Soviet Union’s transformation into a world industrial leader and power equal to the United States as quickly as possible. ...

Knowing that [geologist Yuri Khabardin] had finally discovered what the entire geologic expedition had been searching for he quickly and excitedly radioed back to his superiors the code for a viable diamond discovery: “I am smoking the pipe of peace.” It was from this code that the Mir or Mirny Mine (‘Mir’ being the shortened form) received its name, as Mirny is Russian for ‘peace’.

The Mir Mine officially opened in 1957. The kimberlite pipe that fed the Mir proved to be smaller than the pipe in the Premier Mine in South Africa, but this did not slow down the determined Soviets. They not only opened the mine quickly, but they also took every measure to pull out as large a quantity of diamonds from the pipe as possible. They did this despite the less-than-hospitable environment and conditions that surrounded the operations at the Mir Mine location.

The area of Siberia is one of the most inhospitable regions in the world, a fact that did not make optimum conditions for diamond mining. For example, the Siberian winter lasts for seven months out of the year. This meant that for seven months of the year, the mine operators had to deal with temperatures that were so low as to freeze the rubber tires of the vehicles, causing the tires to break. In addition to this, the oil that was needed to fuel just about everything would freeze, and even the steel being used to build the riggings would snap. The summer months would not make things much better as the land was covered in a sheet of permafrost. This permafrost would become mud as the temperature rose, turning the entire mining operation into a land of sludge.

These absurd conditions did not deter the Soviets, however. … Utilizing jet engines, the Soviets would burn through the layer of permafrost to get to the soil beneath it. Where the ground was too solid or too frozen for jet engines, they would use dynamite to blast holes from which they would then work outward from. They also discovered fairly quickly that they could not build the diamond mining processing plant directly on the permafrost, as it was too soft for such a large building. This resulted in the need to build the plant twenty miles away from the mine itself.

Later on, when more mines were opened in the area, a city was built to service the needs of the mines and those who worked in them. The mining city of Aikhal was itself no simple creation. Due to the permafrost of the area, the entire city had to be built on a series of steel poles, so that it would not sink into the mud when the summer months arrived. ...

By the 1970s, when the Mir should have been producing smaller and smaller quantities of diamonds, the Soviets were producing an increasing quantity of gem diamonds in their sales to DeBeers in London. These diamonds were all of a uniform size and shape and were dubbed ‘Silver Bears’. While DeBeers could not understand how the Soviets were producing such a large quantity of gem diamonds of such uniform size, and supposedly from one mine that by DeBeers surveys should not be capable of such diamond production, they were, nevertheless, pressured to purchase them all lest the Soviets simply dump the diamonds on the open market, thus flooding it and bringing down diamond prices.

DeBeers went as far as arranging for a visit to the Mir Mine in 1976, sending Sir Philip Oppenheimer to see the Mir operations. The Soviets kept Sir Philip in Moscow for much of the visit, claiming that weather conditions were holding up the trip to the mine. By the time the visit was made, the time allotted for the trip by the Soviets allowed for only a twenty minute tour of the Mir. Unsurprisingly, this visit did nothing to shed light on the mystery of the Mir’s diamond production.

The mystery of the Mir Mine’s diamond production may never be known to western officials. With its closing in 2004, the Mir will be known as more than simply the world’s largest open-pit diamond mine, a mine large enough to suck down passing helicopters due to the wind currents produced within its depths.