Russian Impact Diamonds

Popigai crater.  Source
Popigai crater. Source

In 2012 Russian geologists told the world that there are “trillions of carats” of high-grade industrial diamonds in northern Siberia near the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

It is credible, because this treasure sits near the ancient Popigai impact crater.

Impacts of big space objects provide enough heat and pressure to instantly convert the mineral graphite into diamond.

These Popigai diamonds were first discovered in the 1970s but not officially reported until the 1990s for reasons that are complex and tied into the overall history of 20th century Russia.

The Popigai Impact

Some 35 million years ago, an 3- to 5-mile-wide object struck the Earth near what is now northern Siberia, above the Arctic Circle and not far from shores of the Laptev Sea.

An animation showing the impact, and subsequent crater formation. University of Arizona, Space Imagery Center via Wikipedia
It went something like this. University of Arizona, Space Imagery Center via Wikipedia

In the first fraction of a second, says geologist Lee Keenan (bullets and link added):

  • A transient cavity about 8-10 km deep was excavated through the 1.5-km-thick sedimentary rock cover and into the Archean graphite-garnet gneisses
  • Peak pressure was about 624 GPa
  • Impactor and surrounding target rocks were vaporized
  • A vapor plume and vapor-melt cloud were ejected
  • 99% of the impactor was vaporized and 1% was incorporated in meltrocks
  • About 1750 km3 of molten rock formed; about half of it was ejected
  • Shock metamorphism created shatter cones, PDFs, coesite and stishovite, and diaplectic glasses
  • Shock pressures transformed graphite to diamond within 13.6 km of ground zero

That’s right. It made trillions of carats of diamonds in a fraction of a second.

In the first few minutes after the impact, according to Dr. Lee:

  • Bedrock was shattered into blocks that were forced downward, outward, and upward, at supersonic speeds, to form the allogenic breccias
  • Fusion of gneiss formed sheets of meltrock [precursor of the tagamite] that covered most of the cavity/crater floor and flowed radially out to form annular ridges and streams of meltrock into and over the allogenic breccias
  • Explosion cloud of fragmental ejecta, vapor, and melt [similar to a pyroclastic flow] formed suevite almost simultaneously with tagamite flows
  • Rebound of cavity floor into a central peak squeezed melt layers into upper layers of suevites and possibly to the surface as flows
  • Subsidence of central peak formed annular rings [antiform and synform pair], thus creating a peak-ring complex crater or a multi-ring crater
  • Ejected blocks fall at least 70 km beyond the crater; some diamonds were blown 150 km to the east
  • Centrifugal bottom-flow material of allogenic breccia and tagamite sheets overtaken by suevite clouds and material intimately mixed

Eventually, he says, material that had been ejected fell back to earth. Parts of the impact area took thousands of years to cool. Over time, the ejecta blanket eroded away, while the roughly 62-mile-wide crater was partially filled in by sediments.

The white line is the border between Krasnoyarsk (left) and Sakha (right)
Thirty-five million years of Siberian weather is rough on a crater. The white line is the border between Krasnoyarsk (left) and Sakha (right)

Today the Popigai structure is the fourth largest known impact crater on Earth. Its huge diamond fields weren’t found until the 1970s…a-a-and the Soviets immediately classified the information.

Why did they do that? To answer that, we have to look at the history of diamonds in Russia. It’s short – most of the key events happened during the Soviet era.

Events before World War II

The Imperial Crown of Russia boasts almost 5,000 diamonds. Let’s just pause and admire that for a moment.

This is a replica.  For some reason, its keepers in the Kremlin don't allow 4,936 real diamonds to be publicly displayed.  Source
This is a replica. For some reason, the crown’s keepers in the Kremlin don’t allow 5,000 real diamonds to be publicly displayed. The theme for “Mission: Impossible” should be playing in your head now.Source

Back in the 18th century when this beauty was made, the world’s diamond centers were in India and Brazil. Indian diamonds were used – there isn’t a Russian diamond on it.

Rather ironically, first the Czar and then the Communists would exile citizens to precisely the northern Siberian region that now supplies most of Russia’s gold and diamonds. It has been known at various times as Yakut, Yakutia, and Sakha, and I will use Sakha, its modern name, throughout.

As best I can tell from a brief scan of online resources (see list below), the history of Russian diamond discoveries and production happened along these general lines.

The Popigai crater sits on the border between Sakha and the region to the left, which is Krasnoyarsk. Source
The Popigai crater sit up near the Arctic Ocean, much further north than most of Sakha’s diamond fields. Source

From the end of the 19th century through the beginning of the Soviet period, there was prospecting ongoing in Sakha.

This remote region was one of the last to fall to the Communists, in 1922, after see-sawing back and forth between Communist and White Russian control.

Gold was found there around this time, in the Aldan region. Stalin then encouraged an Alaskan-style gold rush.

He wasn’t doing it out of good will. If you got “sent to the mines” in the Stalinist era, it was to the gold mines of Sakha. They had been begun and worked by free labor, but the KGB took over.

The Aldan gold rush was also a training exercise for various mining specialists. By 1927, there was a lot of mineral exploration as well as gold prospecting going on in Sakha.

A kimberlite.  Source
A kimberlite. Source

In the 1930s, geologists told Stalin there could be diamond-bearing kimberlites in Siberia similar to those in South Africa. The search for them went on into the 1940s.

Then came World War II, followed by the Cold War.

The diamond embargo

Geologists were still looking for Siberian kimberlites in the 1940s, but by now the USSR was racing to become an industrial power on a par with the West.

Industrialization required industrial diamonds to use on steel and other alloys. In 1946, Soviet technicians visited Britain’s Rolls-Royce operation to get engine samples and training. The British also supplied industrial diamond tools, and Soviet engine production began in 1947.

The engines eventually ended up in MIG fighter aircraft. Source

In 1949, a tiny placer deposit of diamonds was found in western Sakha, not enough to exploit but large enough to keep the Soviets searching for kimberlites.

On October 25, 1950, Chinese troops entered North Korea.

Two months later, US President Truma told all departments involved in defense to take measures “to prevent the flow to countries supporting the Communist imperialist aggression of those materials, goods, funds and services which would serve materially to aid their ability to carry on such aggression.” Defense and State recommend tightening of existing restrictions as well as UN sanctions against China, preclusive buying (initially of industrial diamonds) and preventing sale of Soviet bloc gold on free market.

It’s a little difficult to pin down much factual information about a US-led embargo on industrial diamonds. It is widely reported that there was an embargo, but some say that it was only given lip service while the West still sent diamond tools to the Soviet Union.

I’m inclined to agree with the former because of this March 1954 National Intelligence Estimate, which recommends continuation of such an embargo.

Gold isn't the only thing you might find in a placer deposit.
Gold isn’t the only thing you might find in a placer deposit.

Diamonds discovered!

Whether the Soviets just continued ongoing efforts or were forced to intensify their search for diamonds because of an embargo, the search for kimberlites continued and soon was successful.

In 1953, commercial amounts of placer diamonds were found in western Sakha.

In 1954, the first kimberlite pipe – christened Dawning – was found there.

At the USSR’s invitation, a representative of the De Beers diamond cartel visited the country and concluded the first sales agreement between the Soviets and De Beers.

On June 13, 1955, geologists found the Mir kimberlite pipe. Two days later, they discovered another one – Udachnaya.

The Soviet diamond mining industry, designed for and by engineers and other members of the elite, emphasized industrialization. It was never part of the gulag system.

Development of the Mir mine (sometimes called Mirny) began in 1957. In that same year, De Beers secretly arranged exclusive purchasing rights to all Soviet diamonds – an agreement that survived formal severing of relations between South Africa and the Soviet Union in the 1960s during the international backlash against apartheid.

Closeup of a diamond saw blade.  Source
Closeup of a diamond saw blade. Source

The first Soviet factory for diamond tools opened in 1958.

The following year, the USSR needed an estimated 6 million carats of industrial diamonds to pursue its industrial goals, but by the 1960s, the Mir mine was producing 10,000,000 carats of diamonds per year. Its production would increase yearly until 1989.

This caused De Beers some problems. Their plans to maintain control of the world diamond market hinged on a model where kimberlite production and diamond quality peaked for a few years and then fell off.

The Soviets just kept producing more and more diamonds, and at least 20% of them were of gem quality. De Beers couldn’t buy them all.

In the late 1960s, the Soviets sold diamonds directly to the United Kingdom for hard currency. In 1971, an estimated 2.7 million carats of diamonds were exported to Western markets. Top De Beers executives and geologists attempted to visit the Mir mine in 1976, but were delayed and only had 20 minutes for an inspection there.

By the 1970s, despite environmental concerns, Western Siberian oil and gas production was in full swing. The Soviets were producing 10.5 to 12 million carats of diamonds per year and secretly selling about 22% of that to De Beers, who launched the “eternity ring” ad campaign in the US with them.

Yes, American ladies wore Siberian diamonds during the height of the Cold War.
Yes, American ladies wore Siberian diamonds during the height of the Cold War.

And then diamond-crusted permafrost was found at the Popigai impact crater.

I think the Soviets classified that news just to keep the good times rolling. The Popigai diamonds weren’t going anywhere, after all. And no one yet knew that the country itself would soon disappear.

The 1980s and 1990s

On December 23, 1980, the largest Mir diamond was found: 342.5 carats. It was prosaically named the “26th Congress of the CPSU.”

High energy prices in the 1980s allowed the Soviet Union to stockpile diamonds. In 1990, the country signed a public five-year agreement with De Beers, which loaned them $1 billion, secured with diamond stockpiles.

A year later, the country collapsed.

The Sahka region was cushioned from the worst of the economic and political chaos because of its diamonds, the rights to which it argued for and kept.

The Mir mine stayed open, though its surface operation closed around the turn of the 21st century. I have seen different dates for its closing, but it definitely was out of business by 2011.

The Mir Mine.  For scale, check out the buildings at the top.
The Mir Mine. For scale, check out the buildings at the top.

The Popigai diamonds

Reportedly, no Popigai diamonds have yet appeared on the market. The news headlines about them seem to reflect a Cold War sort of dichotomy, with grand Russian claims and a exaggerated disinterest from the West.

Who knows what’s actually going on with them right now.

Dr. Keenan Lee notes that the Popigai diamonds aren’t like those found in kimberlite. They take the same shapes as the original graphite, including twinning and cleavage.

Ideally a diamond should show no birefringence, an effect of stress, but many natural diamonds are weakly birefringent, according to the Gemological Institute of America. In contrast, some of the Popigai diamonds show strong birefringence.

A Popigai diamond showing strong birefringence.  Source
An impact diamond showing strong birefringence (right). Source

Russian experts say that the recently announced Popigai impact diamonds have unique chemical and structural properties that make them more valuable than the synthetic industrial diamonds now widely in use.

Skeptics note that extraction and transportation costs will make them an overly expensive alternative.

Given the difficulties that were overcome to discover and exploit Siberia’s mineral wealth, I’m not going to write off the current Russian claims just yet.

At least the Popigai impact diamonds, first discovered in the 1970s but not officially reported until the 1990s, thanks to the Cold War as well as international intrigue and finance, have provided us a fascinating look into the overall history of Russian diamond discoveries and production.



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