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19 Aug, 2010 09:19

Northern city of Arkhangelsk – from ships to diamonds

Once the country's only sea port, now Arkhangelsk is recognized as the capital of northern Russia with a budding industry and a great historical past.

Arkhangelsk has a coastline of three Arctic seas, and because of its location it was extremely important in the 17th century as Russia’s first and only seaport, as well as its first sea route to the West. The region became extremely wealthy because of the sea trade and monasteries, which were very much involved in the business of trading salt and woods. The first Arctic expeditions were also outfitted and seen off here.

However, Arkhangelsk wasn't always known as the “Gateway to the Arctic”. In the 1920s it was called the “national hard-currency shop” as its rich timber and paper-pulp industries yielded the lion’s share of the Treasury's hard-currency earnings.

The twenties were a controversial part of Arkhangelsk’s past, mainly due to the fact that its industries flourished thanks to tens of thousands of prison inmates forced to work in the north during Stalin's time.

Yet Arkhangelsk did make a more positive and lasting mark in history when Peter the Great founded Russia's first shipyard there and it became the heartland of the country's fleet.

An RT crew visited a ship repair plant in the region, which has also recently started making vessels.

The facility was set up in the 1950s especially for repairing and retooling Soviet warships and submarines.

In the nineties, however, the Soviet government radically cut the number of defense contracts and the plant's output fell.

They had no choice but to diversify, and went into diamond cutting.

“Diamond cutting was one of the alternatives,” said Evgeny Gladyshev, press officer of the shipbuilding factory. “The idea of cutting rough diamonds in the direct vicinity of the diamond field looked attractive.”

The diamond field is named after the local scientist and poet, Mikhail Lomonosov.

Back in the 17th century, he said that there were diamonds in the region, but the gems weren't found until much later. A pit opened in 1982 and the first diamond was extracted just five years ago.

Extraction isn’t such an easy task in a water-rich region. The field is located smack in the middle of a marshland amid rivers and springs. As a result, engineers had to build an eight-kilometer-long canal to divert the water flow.

“I don't know of any other diamond fields where the extraction conditions are so complicated,” chief engineer Igor Ivanov told RT.

Their work is like looking for needles in a haystack. In every truckload of rocks, only two or three diamonds can be found.

“Most world deposits produce transparent or barely colored gemstones,” said Andrey Fomin, Senior geologist from Lomonosovsky Mining and Processing Complex. “Here, we find intensely colored diamonds – green, yellow, and even pink and blue.”

One site in Arkhangelsk is 100 meters deep and it produces about half a million carats worth of diamonds each year. This is just the beginning, as they plan to go deeper into the earth where the soil is richer and where there are a lot more of those precious stones known as a woman’s best friend.

Aside from diamonds, there are a number of foreign companies based in Arkhangelsk, and one of the foreign businessmen working in the region is Darcy McGary.

“Our company is in the pipe-coding sector for the oil and gas market and we are excited about the future development of the Arkhangelsk region and we greatly look forward to working with our Russian partners,” McGary told RT. “Arkhangelsk is strategically placed for the Arctic Circle, the ports are open all year around, so supplies are easily accessible, and it is quick to get to the oil and gas fields.”