When two Auschwitz officers came into the gas chamber to remove the pile of dead bodies, they noticed three men sitting in a corner playing cards. “How come they survived?” one officer asked. “They are from Dzerzhinsk,” the other answered. Or at least, that is how the joke goes. A bit edgy – I know.
Dzerzhinsk, situated in Russia, is one of the world’s most polluted towns. Its population has a life expectancy of only 42 years, making it even lower than the poorest countries on Earth, and close to the life expectancy of humans in the hunter-gatherer period.
In the summer of 2015, I decided to travel to this notorious place. A suspicious smell of sulphur dioxide welcomed me from the first moment. On and off, the smell became better or worse during my four-day stay. The town made an impression on me, and contained architecture that was typical for most middle-sized Russian towns I visited: a lot of buildings which the Russians call “Khrushchyovka”, referring to the infamous grey and dull Soviet apartment blocks built during Khrushchev’s reign.
The city itself doesn’t have much to offer. Its main point of interest, the Shukhov Tower on the Oka River, standing alone near an empty forest, makes for a slightly sad and rather scary sight. During my aimless wanders around the city, I got into a quarrel with a family living together in a very small one-room apartment, only sharing one bathroom between them. A beautiful young girl was blowing kisses from a window on the second floor as a symbol of appeasement, turning the situation into a lovely scene.
One afternoon, in the pouring rain, I set course to “the black hole,” as the locals call it. The name is quite accurate, as it refers to a small lake known for being one of the most polluted water bodies in the world. It’s dirty, smelly, and black. After crawling under a fence with a sign saying “STOP! Dangerous area”, the place is quite easily reachable. Walking a few metres onwards, the deplorable state of the lake becomes clear. The composition is rather sad, resembling a poison waste swamp full of chemical barrels. The concentration of phenol in the air near the lake exceeds the norm by more than a thousand times. In the water, it exceeds the norm by more than a million times.
My first night in town, I stayed with a CouchSurfer, and we went to go explore some abandoned buildings in the nearby forest together. The next day – with a slight hangover, of course, since we simply had to drink to celebrate my arrival – we tried to reach the “white sea”. The “white sea” is yet another nearby site composed of discarded chemical waste. It took us about an hour to find a road that wasn’t blocked by big concrete walls to reach the place, and we still had to go past obstacles on foot.
Even from the distance of a kilometre, we could already tell we were going in the right direction: the smell was simply awful. After we arrived, the fumes became nearly unbearable, and my companions instantly decided to walk back to the car. When I stepped onto the black and sticky “sea”, the blubber turned blue underneath my feet. As I was inhaling the toxic fumes at this point, I quickly felt a detaching dizziness combined with an unpleasant nausea. It even felt as if my ears were muted a bit, as though I had been drugged.