IN 1945, the Soviet Union, despite its status as a recognised global super power, desperately needed to rebuild its war-ravaged economy. In light of this, Joseph Stalin decreed that the discovery of industrial diamonds (or kimberlite) – used in oil and gas exploration, the creation of precision mechanical parts and various other industrial applications – within Russia’s vast borders was of the highest priority.
The Soviet Union had been totally dependent on the worldwide diamond monopoly of De Beers for its industrial diamonds, but a looming international embargo threatened the region’s supply.
Stalin knew the situation required urgent action, and the Soviets embarked on a bullish and widespread exploration program: sending out numerous geological teams to locate a local, more dependable supply.
Diamond mines had never been established in the Soviet Union prior to Stalin’s campaign, but in June 1955 – against all odds, and after 10 years of aggressive exploration – a young geologist named Yuri Khabardin discovered a fox hole in a ravine in Eastern Siberia. After determining the high diamond content of the area, he sent the following message over his shortwave radio: “I am smoking the pipe of peace” – a pre-arranged code phrase that indicated he had found kimberlite and determined, through testing, that it was mineable.
For his discovery, Khabardin was summarily awarded the Lenin Prize, the highest honour bestowed in the Soviet Union. The kimberlite pipe he discovered would become the focus for the Mir (or Mirny) – meaning ‘peace’ in Russian – mine, which in turn became instrumental in the Soviet Union’s economic recovery. Following Khabardin’s discovery, ecstatic Soviet planners facilitated an accelerated program to retrieve the much-needed industrial diamonds. Mine development began in 1957, but the logistics of establishing a mine and associated infrastructure in the extremely harsh Siberian conditions were extraordinarily difficult. Seven months of winter, with temperatures that dipped to 80 degrees Celsius below zero, meant that traditional mining techniques were useless. Steel tools became so brittle they broke like matchsticks, oil froze into solid blocks and rubber tyres shattered in the extreme cold. In summer, the top layer of permafrost melted, turning the ground into an unmanageable swamp.
Incredibly, Soviet engineers were able to fashion Mir into an open pit despite these impediments. They used jet engines to blast holes in the permafrost, and huge amounts of explosives to excavate surface rock and loosen the kimberlite beneath. The entire mine had to be covered at night to prevent the machinery from freezing. In addition, the swamp-like ground meant that the diamond separation plant had to be located on stable ground more than 32km from the mine.
Against all odds, the mine began production in 1960. In early 1962, the Russians decided to sell their gem diamonds – which they originally treated as a by-product of industrial diamond production – to international diamond powerhouse De Beers. Within a few years, the Mir mine was reportedly producing an astounding 10 million carats (2000kg) of diamonds per year, of which a considerable amount – about 20 per cent – were gem quality.
Diamonds soon became the greatest Soviet cash export to the Western world. In 1968, Mirny Diamond administration head Viktor Tikhonov said, “we call ourselves the country’s foreign exchange department”.
The upper layers of the Mir pit, down to about 340m, were reported to have an average diamond content of about 4 carats per tonne of ore, which was substantially higher than any of De Beers’ mines in South Africa.
Mir’s rapid development worried De Beers, which had worked hard to create a worldwide monopoly on diamond production and distribution. The company was forced to buy larger and larger shipments of high-quality Russian diamonds in order to control the market price. For De Beers, Mir was an enigma for a number of reasons. First, the mine’s enormous output was not consistent with the relatively small size of the mine. For example, De Beers’ Finsch mine in South Africa was almost twice the size of Mir at this point in time, yet in 1978 it would produce only 2 million carats to Mir’s 10 million: a feat considered even more incredible in light of the Siberian conditions.
Second, Mir’s output constantly accelerated in time instead of tapering off at depth, which is the case for most kimberlite pipes. Production went from 10 million carats in 1970 to 16 million in 1976, baffling De Beers’ analysts: each year they predicted a diminishing Russian supply from Mir, and each year they were wrong.
Finally, in 1976, De Beers requested a tour of the Mir mine to satisfy its curiosity. The Soviets agreed to the De Beers visit in exchange for an inspection of De Beers mines in South Africa. Every night for about a week, the De Beers delegates – led by executive Sir Philip Oppenheimer – were treated to opulent dinners and meetings with leading Russian geologists, mine managers and engineers. These alleged delaying tactics worked: by the time the De Beers delegation arrived at
the Mir mine, some 3000km from Moscow, they only had about 20 minutes to inspect the mine and associated infrastructure before they were on a return flight back to the Russian capital.
What they learned in that short amount of time only served to deepen the mystery of the Mir operation. For example, Oppenheimer was astounded by the Mir treatment plant, which did not use water to separate the ore from the diamonds. Mir engineers had explained that intense temperatures made it impossible to prevent the water from freezing; therefore, the ore at Mirny was first crushed by machines to a standard size before being fed through a sequence of x-ray sorting machines.
Oppenheimer also found it hard to understand how Mir was able to produce such vast quantities of diamonds usingits limited earthmoving equipment and other machinery. In 1978, Mir would deliver more than 2.8 million carats of gem diamonds to De Beers – almost one quarter of the world’s supply.
The mystery of the Mir mine’s extraordinary output was never resolved. It was the first and largest diamond mine in the Soviet Union, with a surface operation that lasted 44 years. At 525m deep with a diameter of 1200m, it remains the second-largest excavated hole in the world.
The mine finally closed in 2004, but will be known for far more than being the world’s largest open pit diamond mine. Due to the wind currents produced at its depths, Mir was able to ‘suck down’ passing helicopters, leading to an enforced ‘no fly zone’ around the pit.
Mir’s usefulness could be far from over. In 2010, innovative Russian architectural studio AB Elis proposed the rehabilitation of the mine into a garden city shielded from the harsh Siberian conditions. Called Eco-city 2020, the project has been designed as a groundbreaking expression of highly dense urbanism that can accommodate more than 100,000 people coexisting with the natural environment.
By Reuben Adams