The De Beers have long been known as the heirs to the incredibly lucrative diamond cartel, but what is less known is how the De Beers now have a rival for those riches: Russia.
With the discovery of diamond pipes in Siberia by a young geologist by the name of Yuri Khabardin, Russia began exporting an amazing number of gem quality diamonds. Up until this point, the Soviet Union had been completely reliant on the South African De Beers diamonds to produce precision parts, draw out fine wire and to grind out machine tools and armaments.
Effectively, the West had complete control over whether or not the Soviet war machine could continue to exist and grow. Finding diamonds in Russia was of the upmost importance. In the spring of 1955, Yuri Khabardin found a foxhole with a high proportion of diamond content in northeastern Siberia. This became the first and largest Soviet diamond mine, Mirny Mine, fully 1200 meters across and 500 meters deep.
Because of the incredibly harsh climate, the Soviets had to use quite imaginative techniques for extracting and processing the ore. In the subzero weather, oil would freeze into blocks, steel tools became so brittle that they snapped like twigs, and rubber tires shattered. They blasted through the frozen permafrost with jet engines and dynamite, but during the short summer the permafrost would melt into a quagmire.
To prevent the machinery from freezing, the entire mine had to be completely covered every night. Huge steam shovels carried the ore to the processing plant, twenty miles away on more solid ground that could hold the weight of the plant. At the processing plant, water could not be used to flush away the excess kimberlite ore as in other mines because it would freeze.
Instead, the Soviets crushed the ore down to size and then searched the whole mass of ore with X-ray sorting machines. At another mine, Aikhal, the Soviets built an entire city on 10-foot-high steel poles sunk into the permafrost. Even in winter, giant air pumps cool the air underneath the buildings to prevent the permafrost from melting and from the buildings sinking.
The result of these mammoth efforts was an insane amount of diamonds. In 1978 alone, the Soviet Union delivered 2.5 million carats of uncut gem diamonds to De Beers, or the equivalent of a quarter of the world supply of diamonds at the time. The cut gem diamonds that came out of Moscow, Kiev and Sverdlovsk, called “silver bears,” were amazing little diamonds with very interesting properties. They were practically the same size, and weighed about two-tenths of a carat each. Each diamond had a distinctly octahedron shape.
The perils of Siberia’s wasteland are not the only perils associated with Siberia’s diamonds. Because of the richness of the Siberian pipes—about four carats per ton as opposed to the typical 0.8 carats per ton from South African pipes. While this is great news for the Soviets, the diamond industry, and De Beers in particular, shudders at the possibility of a Russian flood of the diamond market that could cause the price of diamonds to plummet as the carefully maintained illusion of the rarity of diamonds would be shattered. The joy Russia has found in their liberating discovery of diamonds in Siberia comes with danger and a threat.