The Soviet Union was known for its doublespeak, but when Moscow bureaucrats called the 7,000-km area of the Russian Arctic the “zone of absolute discomfort,” they were speaking the truth. Temperatures in the settlements of the far north, which spans from Alaska to Finland, can dip below –45°C in the winter. Living conditions are wretched, which is one reason Stalin used these towns as gulags. Descendants of some of the prisoners still live in these Arctic communities. Among the people who seem adapted to the conditions are the indigenous herders known as Nenets, who live in tents called chums.
Yet there are billions of tons of oil and natural gas locked beneath the permafrost—a fact that has drawn a new wave of workers to the Arctic, as the photographer Justin Jin documents. It’s not an easy place to work as a photographer—Jin once got frostbite from the cold metal of his camera pressed against his face—but the material is worth it. “The Arctic is like a blank sheet on which you could see all the tensions of Russia played out,” says Jin, who has worked in Russia for years. “You have the extreme expanse of space, the endless nature, the riches trapped in the tundra. It’s all the contradictions and juxtapositions of Russia.”
Justin Jin is a documentary photographer based in Belgium.
Bryan Walsh is TIME’s Foreign Editor.