The Mir Mine is the negative image (the excavation) of a geological formation known as a ‘kimberlite pipe’, instantiated when a deep-origin volcano erupts far below the earth’s surface, propelling diamonds and other material at speeds ranging from a merely impressive ten kilometers/hour to a supersonic several hundred kilometers/hour. These volcanic eruptions occur so much deeper than typical volcanoes that they do not form large above ground deposits, though they do often create ‘tuff rings’ surrounding a depression filled with ejaculated material.
The story of the discovery of the Mir Mine is fascinating, with geologists tramping through the taiga along a trail of volcanic bread crumbs and steel tools that become so brittle in the Siberian winter that they snap like matchsticks, ripe for a retelling by a Russian John McPhee (Epstein’s account is essentially geopolitical and only incidentally cultural geography):
The search for diamonds focused on the Siberian plateau in Yakutia province that lay between the Lena and Yenisei rivers, which Russian geologists concluded resembled geologically the “shield” of South Africa. Both formations had remained stable for cons of geological time, and neither had been deformed or “folded” by convolutions of the earth. Since kimberlite pipes had been found on the South African shield Russian geologists theorized that they might also exist in this Yakutian shield. The first party of diamond prospectors flew into Yakutia in late 1947
The expedition was ill-prepared for the punishing environment, however, and after suffering astounding privations on the tundra, it had to be abandoned. Moscow ordered the search to be continued, regardless of cost, and the following spring more geologists were flown into the wastelands of Yakutia. They were better equipped, with X-ray diamond detectors and other sophisticated prospecting gear, and they found a few microscopic diamond traces-but no pipe.
Finally, in 1953, a young Russian geologist named Larissa Popugaieva, working in her laboratory in Leningrad, noticed that the prospecting samples from Yakutia contained an increasing percentage of tiny blood-red garnets called pyropes. Since she knew such garnets had been found in kimberlite ore formations in southern Africa, she proposed that prospectors, rather than searching for diamonds, follow the trail of the garnets. She then joined the diamond-hunting expedition in Yakutia, and intrepidly tracking the garnets, managed to find their source near the Vilyul River Basin within a matter of months. It was a volcanic pipe mine she named “Thunder Flash.” Unfortunately, however, the proportion of diamonds in the ore in Thunder Flash was not high enough for feasible production.
Dozens of geologists, all looking for traces of blood-red garnets, then began scrutinizing the banks of the Vilyul River for more volcanic pipes (which the Russians call trubkas). In the spring, of 1955, another young geologist, Yuri Khabardin, came across a fox’s hole in a ravine with blue earth. He found that it had high diamond content, and excitedly began sending a message over his shortwave radio. It said cryptically, “I am smoking the pipe of peace.” In Moscow, the prearranged code was immediately understood to mean that the geologist had discovered and tested a kimberlite pipe
Before the Mirny pipe could begin producing diamonds, engineers in Siberia had to find ways of overcoming the incredibly harsh conditions at the mine site. During the seven month-long winter in Yakutia, they found that steel tools became so brittle that they broke like match sticks, oil froze into solid blocks, and rubber tires shattered like fragile crockery in the sub-zero temperatures. Moreover, when the summer came, the top layer of permafrost melted into a swamp of uncontrollable mud.
Despite these natural impediments, engineers turned Mirny into an open-pit mine. Jet engines were used to blast holes in the permafrost, and enormous charges of dynamite were used to excavate the surface rock and loosen the underlying kimberlite ore. The entire mine had to be covered at night to prevent the machinery from freezing.
By 1960, huge steam shovels were loading the ore into trucks, which had to transport it some twenty miles to a separation plant (the permafrost at the site of the mine could not hold the weight of the plant). More pipes were later discovered on the very edge of the Arctic circle. To service these mines in the “pole of cold,” as this region is called by the Russians, the Russians erected an entirely new city, Aikhal. According to the descriptions in Russian periodicals, Aikhal stands, like some giant centipede, on ten-foot-high steel legs. Each of these steel legs is Imbedded into the permafrost to prevent the city from sinking into a quagmire of mud during the summer thaw. Even in winter, when the temperature falls to 80 degrees below zero, giant pumps cool the air beneath the buildings to prevent the heat of the buildings from causing any melting in the permafrost. All the buildings are interconnected by elevated passageways and wrapped in a heavy shroud of translucent plastic. Aikhal is, as one journal puts it, “a completely enclosed working environment.” This herculean effort had a single purpose: the production of diamonds.