The Norilsk Apparatura

8 Dec

Lev Toshin did not have a clear idea of what he was hunting for or what he might uncover when he flew to the Siberian mining and metallurgical complex of Norilsk, the largest on the planet.

He was a scholar in the area of the history of science and technology. The new center of interest was the birth and development of this city with polluted air that produced 50% of the world’s palladium and 30% of its nickel. His particular topic of interest was the initial stage of construction and operation of Norilsk back in the period of 1935 to 1953 in the age of Stalin. What secret projects had existed in that dark, hard era of repression and warfare?

Lev looked down from the window of the jet liner that carried him. He was aware of the fact that Norilsk was the largest city over 100,000 population in the world. Within the Arctic Circle, it was second only to Murmansk. The summer that now prevailed would last but six weeks, while the total polar night could be expected from the end of November to the end of January. The average winter temperature outdoors fell to -25 degrees Celsius, not at all an inviting prospect.

A plant manager who was also a metallurgist, Yuri Petrov, had already agreed to act as Lev’s guide and mentor during his investigation of old records and documents in the industrial archives of Norilsk.

The historian looked forward to exploring the technology of a past era full of fear and oppression.

Yuri Petrov, a giant who towered over the short scholar, seemed to recognize Lev as soon as he entered the airport building. He approached, introduced himself, and shook hands with the visitor.

“Welcome to Norilsk, my friend. I hope you are not discouraged by today’s terrible smog. We are called the world’s champion site in terms of industrial pollution. Even the cities of China fall far behind our beloved hometown,” said Petrov with a unhappy laugh.

Lev took a few minutes to locate his luggage at a designated station. Juri helped him carry off one of his heavy cases, and the pair went outside to the manager’s auto.

As they drove into the city, Lev asked his guide a question.

“I am eager to get to work as soon as possible. When can I take a look in the general archive and make a survey of what is available?”

“Your ambition is commendable, indeed,” smiled Juri at the wheel. “I have arranged access for you as soon as tomorrow morning. A night sleep will do you good after a flight from St. Petersburg. Your hotel is the best one we have here in Norilsk.

I’m awfully sorrow that there was nothing I could do about the ghastly air pollution we suffer in the polar summer. You will have to get used to it, the way we residents have.”

Lev recalled having read that no tree grew within thirty miles of the metal refineries but thought it best not to mention such a stark fact to his host.

The two men ate dinner together in the dining room of the Norilisk Hotel and then discussed the details of what was to be available for the researcher to use.

“You are fortunate that Norilsk Nickel has inherited the archives of all the state-owned mining and refining units that operated here during the Soviet era. They should provide a full picture of what was going on in technological areas. We also have many of the records from the labor camps from which most the labor came in the war period and immediately after. Those were extremely hard times, but our industries were built and gave us a foundation from which our present economy could rise.” He gave an ironic sigh.

“I look forward to surveying documents that have not been seen from the day that they were set down,” declared Lev. “My hope is that they shed a strong light upon that now distant past.”

Lev read all the papers that remained preserved about the construction and early operation of the mining-refining complex out of which grew the city of Norilsk. He traced the history of the extraction and working of the ores that contained nickel, copper, cobalt, platinum, and palladium during the industrialization drive under state ownership and complete control in the tumultuous 1930’s, and how that period of political purges and policing had offered an enormous supply of forced labor from the Soviet prison camps. The statist system had continued through World War II and into the post-war decade.

The historian unconsciously drifted from a focus on technological methods and how they changed to a burgeoning interest in the conditions of the work force from the Gulags.

The death of Stalin in 1953 was the occasion of a nonviolent uprising in the mines and factories. In May of that year, 20,000 unarmed worker-prisoners marched and demonstrated. Striking started and rebel flags arose over the Gorstroi factory. The rebellion lasted sixty-nine days, ending in early August. Mass insubordination spread in the labor camps, the majority of whose inmates were Ukrainians. The authorities granted amnesty to the common criminals, but the majority of the labor force consisted of political prisoners who received no mercy. The latter continued with hunger strikes that were suppressed by force.

On this matter of the ending of the uprising, Lev stumbled upon a police document that presented him with a fascinating mystery term.

Control over the strikers was achieved with the use of what was called “the apparatura”.

What was the meaning of this language? Was it some new kind of machine, devise, or method? Lev was deeply puzzled and intrigued.

He decided to ask Yuri Petrov if he knew what the apparatura of 1953 might have been.

The two men had dinner together, as had become customary for them, in the restaurant in the Norilsk Hotel.

Lev, as was usual for him, gave a full report on the course of his research on that day. He could see the effect of his words on the face of the company manager.

“You discovered mention of some sort of apparatura in the suppression of the labor unrest in 1953? That is most interesting, but what could it possibly have reference to?”

The historian frowned. “That is the question I am asking myself over and over again. It must be some kind of mechanism or devise. But the specific meaning eludes me entirely. How can I find out what was happening that year when Joseph Stalin died and the Soviet Union came to have a new set of rulers? I recall that Lavrentii Beria was removed as head of the M.V.D. and there was a total purge of the old secret police network. The suspicion has always been that the incidents at Norilsk involving the Gulag prisoners was an important influence on Beria’s fall, along with his rivalry for power against the rest of the Party Politburo. But that is nothing more than guess work.

“How can I find out about the so-called apparatura here in Norilsk?”

Yuri thought a moment before he replied. “There is one person who can perhaps give you an answer.”

“Who is that?”

“Alexei Mirov. He was the final Soviet chief of K.G.B. activities in the late 1980’s, before the end of the Soviet Union. I believe you can still find him living in the city. He must be a very old man by now.”

Lev thanked him for the information as his hope of finding out the truth was reborn.

How was he going to locate the former head of K.G.B. operations in Norilsk? Lev continued working in the company archives for several days before a way forward occurred to him.

Since the former Soviet official had to be receiving a pension from the present government of Russia, he would go to the local office in charge of dispensing such money and attempt to get the old man’s address.

Lev found the bureaucracy in charge of distribution of state pension checks in one of the Stalinist-type cement block buildings in the center of Norilsk. He recalled how he had learned that the prisoner-designers of these giant structures had wisely planned to have them serve as shields against the arctic winds of winter.

“I have a need to find former state officer Alexei Mirov in order to deliver a certain legal inheritance to the man,” lied the historian to a female clerk in the claims and record department.

To his amazement, the strategy worked and he was granted the precise address of the retired K.G.B. chief in Norilsk.

Lev found a taxi driver who knew exactly the location of the apartment block where the residents were mostly former government employees of various types and grades. It was a simple matter for him to find the small flat where the bachelor now in his late eighties resided.

It was Mirov himself who answered the knock on the door and confirmed who he was.

“Yes, please come in and sit down. I am a very old man and no one ever visits me. All my friends are long dead and I live all by myself in these two rooms. It is good to have someone to talk with.

“You say that you are an historian? It is an honor for me to have someone of your profession as my guest here.”

The pair sat down in the front room and began to talk.

“How can I be of help to you?” asked old Alexei immediately.

Lev explained what he was after, concluding that “I have to find out about the apparatura that was used in putting down the striking politicals used in the metal complex here in 1953. At present, I have only my own suspicions that there was some sort of technological means used in the suppression of the desperate, hopeless uprising in Norilsk.”

The other suddenly seemed to be grasping for air. “You ask a difficult question for me to deal with. I was a young man at the time, only just beginning my career in government service. The matter was kept extremely secret. Our troubles here in this city came to be connected with the fall of that murderous madman Beria. No one was permitted to talk about or inquire about the horrible way those people were treated. Their end was left in total silence and you happen to be the first and only individual who has ever dredged it up out of the sewer where it was left to remain so long ago.”

The historian looked at him pleadingly. “Please, this is the moment when the truth must come out into the light of day. Russia deserves to know, the entire world must be informed about the strange apparatura that my sources only hint at.”

Alexei looked down at his worn-out carpet. “I am not proud of what we did. My shame has been with me all these years. How can I dare to remember those terrible times? The apparatura killed hundreds of its helpless victims before it was stopped and destroyed by orders from Moscow, all the way from the newly reconstituted Politburo.” He lowered his voice as if afraid of being overheard. “The security police who were guilty of permitting the apparatura to carry out an enormous blood bath were expelled, demoted, or secretly done away with. No mercy was shown to them by Malenkov, Krushchev, and our other Party superiors. It was vital that the program be halted and all traces of the apparatura destroyed. The silence was meant to be absolute. How can I, one single individual, break it now?”

“You must, for the sake of the historical truth of our national memory, so that nothing similar is allowed to happen in the future. What was the mechanism used by this mysterious thing called the apparatura of Norilsk?”

The elderly man suddenly shot to his feet. “I was successful in taking a single photograph of it that no one ever knew of. I have preserved it all this time. Let me get it so you can see what the monster looked like. I never found out the exact metallic compound that its outer shell was composed of. But I did overhear talk about a brain device that was highly radioactive.”

“Radioactive?” said Lev with surprise.

“There was work at that time on the application of rare metals for the purpose of constructing what we now know as robotic bodies that approximate human ones. They were meant to substitute for human warriors on future battle fronts. I know that our laboratories here in Norilsk were ordered to work on the creation of body shells made of nickel and platinum, and that palladium and rhodium were to be used for the controlling mechanism that directed the large, solid body.

“But something what awfully wrong. The apparatura went wrong and it slaughtered scores of strikers before brought once again under control. The invention just went beserk, all of a sudden.

“Then it was destroyed and intentionally forgotten, erased from all the records. No documents about it were allowed to survive the times.”

“All you say sounds incredible,” noted Lev, “but I am compelled to believe it and I cannot explain why.”

Alexei left the room and went to a storage trunk in the rear of his flat, returning after a few minutes with the photograph he had promised to show his visitor.

“Here it is, and you can take it with you. I no longer wish to keep it with me. My time is limited, that I know for certain. We are at present in a different age. There is no longer the factor of fear as there was for so long. Let people learn what they can for our horrible mistake way back then.”

The scholar took the small picture, placed it in his outer-coat pocket, excuse himself, and left carrying his new find.

The historical investigator stared for hours at the photo, trying to define what it showed. A man-like robot? A cyborg construct? A mechanical manikin with some kind of radioactive controller? Something that the world had never duplicated or reproduced since the experiment back in 1953?

Lev decided that he needed help with this problem, and that the best person to advise him was Yuri Petrov of the Norilsk Nickel Complex.

So, he called and made an appointment to see the busy industrial executive. He went to the executive offices with a degree of trepidation, not sure of how much the man knew or suspected about the apparatura and its strange, secret destruction as an uncontrollable menace, a mad murderer of humans in the past.

Lev stared at the man who was his directing guide in this metallurgical city. What was he going to say now? wondered the one who had uncovered a bigger topic than he had anticipated at the start.

“Let me be very frank with you. I know that is what you want, and you will hear nothing but the truth from my lips.

“This new, extended project of yours was totally unexpected by me. I want to be fair and just with you, so I will tell you what you must do as exactly and forcefully as I can.

“Leave Norilsk immediately and never return here. Do not take any notes or documents with you, and never write or publish what you have learned about the failed experiment in 1953. That is over and past, and must be forgotten for all time. I myself will keep this photograph and see to it that the graphic reminder is destroyed.

“If you should ever make accusations against me or anyone else, I promise to deny everything and stigmatize you as a madman.”

He looked fixedly at the face of Lev, waiting for some reply.

“There was an advanced robotic creature, then?”

“Yes, but only a limited, select few of us who have had K.G.B. connections and training have been told anything specific about the failed apparatura of the Stalin era. Like many other things in that grim period, it has been kept in the darkness, away from public knowledge. Despite all the revelations about that period, it must remain permanently buried.”

“But why?” plaintively asked Lev.

Yuri Petrov seemed to look away, then around his office as if looking for hidden recorders of some sort.

“The apparatura was highly radioactive because of its rare metals, especially the large amounts of Cesium and Praseodyminium inside its brain. That was probably what made the construct run off into madness and kill so many of the strikers.” He stopped and gazed into Lev’s eyes. “Will you give me your word that nothing will ever be said or written by you about the subject of the apparatura and its radioactive brain?”

What could Lev do or say at this point, under the circumstances?

He nodded his head and spoke a simple yes.

The visitor rose and shook hands with the executive of Norisk Nickel, then took his leave and walked out of the office.

Am I going to comply with the word I gave? Lev inquired of himself.

Don’t bet on it, he answered. I may turn out to be preparing a rude surprise for those who want me to keep my mouth shut.


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