NORILSK, Russia (Reuters) - Mukum Sidikov’s grandfather left Norilsk after surviving the labor camps of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Sidikov, caretaker of the world’s most northerly mosque, retraced his grandfather’s footsteps in search of well-paid work in the Russian Arctic.
Now he estimates the city is home to about 50,000 Muslims — just under one-quarter of the region’s population of about 210,000. Most are from Azerbaijan and the Russian republic of Dagestan and work as traders or construction workers.
But as pay levels no longer compare so favorably with other Russian cities and Norilsk restricts access for foreigners, Sidikov says fellow Muslims no longer come here.
“The population is getting smaller. People are leaving,” said Sidikov, 40, an ethnic Uzbek born and raised in Kyrgyzstan.
The Nurd Kamal mosque stands exposed on the edge of modern Norilsk, where temperatures drop 50 degrees Celsius below zero (-58 degrees Fahrenheit). Polar winds whip its golden roof and snowdrifts pile against the turquoise walls in winter.
“People work for pennies. They come here and lose their health. Every second person is ill,” said Sidikov.
A city built on one of the world’s richest metals deposits, Norilsk’s first smelter was built by Gulag prisoners in the 1930s and today three plants send smoke thick with sulphur into the air.
The city was last year named among the world’s 10 most polluted places by independent environmental action group The Blacksmith Institute. Its main employer, Norilsk Nickel, is investing heavily in cutting emissions.
There are over 20 million Muslims in Russia, approximately 14 percent of the country’s 140 million population.
The Central Asians and Dagestanis are likely to be Sunni, while those from Azerbaijan are most likely to be Shia. There is no antagonism between the sects in Norilsk and many Soviet Muslims are not among the strictest practitioners of Islam.
“There are many Muslims, but few come to the mosque. They work all day and in the evening they are tired,” Sidikov said.
The mosque, opened in 1998, was built by Mukhtad Bekmeyev, an ethnic Tatar and Norilsk native now residing in the Black Sea city of Sochi, nearly 4,000 km (2,500 miles) away.
He named the mosque after his parents and will pay for its restoration this year.
Sidikov, clean-shaven and wearing a green skullcap, left the Kyrgyz city of Osh to find work. He served in the Soviet army in Moscow and lived in two other Siberian cities before arriving in Norilsk seven years ago.
High wages relative to the rest of the country attracted workers from across the Soviet Union to Norilsk as the city’s mines and smelters grew.
Sidikov says an average monthly wage of 25,000-30,000 roubles ($962-$1,154) is no longer enough to live comfortably. Not only Muslims are leaving: Norilsk’s total population is dropping by about 5,000 people annually.
Non-Russians, mostly from Azerbaijan and former Soviet republics in Central Asia, have found Norilsk a more difficult place to enter since 2002 after travel restrictions on foreign citizens were restored. They now need special permission to visit Norilsk.
While Norilsk Nickel and its outgoing Chief Executive Mikhail Prokhorov have unveiled a plan to retain the city’s skilled workers and attract new faces, Sidikov says nothing specific is being done to help Muslims.
But Norilsk’s Muslims, he says, have integrated well into the wider community and suffer little discrimination.
Over generations, some arrivals from Russia’s Caucasus regions have converted to Orthodox Christianity, residents say.
Sidikov keeps the mosque open late every evening for those still wishing to study the Koran. About 500 to 600 people typically show for Friday prayers.
“Muslims should come to the mosque at least once a week. We don’t get that here.”