Mining began in the Norilsk area in the 1920s. The government of the USSR created the "Norilsk Combine" in 1935 and passed control to the NKVD at that time. In 1943 Norilsk produced 4 thousand tons of refined nickel and in 1945 hit the target figure of ten thousand tons. Mining and metal production continued first with Gulag forced labour, later with much volunteer labour, owing to the comparatively good wages offered.
In 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union a joint-stock company was created: RAO Norilsk Nickel. Two years afterwards control over the deeply indebted company, that was bleeding cash at a rate of about two million dollars a day amid falling nickel prices, was given to a private company called Interros. By the time the privatization was completed in 1997, the company became profitable and the workers were paid. Nowadays average pay is over a thousand dollars per month and workers enjoy two to three months of vacations; nevertheless, working and living conditions in Norilsk remain harsh.
Starting in 2002, MMC Norilsk Nickel began purchasing gold mining assets, which were spun off in 2005 as Polyus Gold.
In 2003, the company took control of Stillwater Mining Company, the only US producer of palladium. Stillwater operates a platinum group metals (PGM) facility in Stillwater, Montana in the USA.
During 2007, Norilsk has acquired a host of mining and metallurgical assets abroad, transforming itself into a multinational with operations in Australia, Botswana, Finland, Russia, South Africa, and the United States. The key deal was completed on June 28, 2007, when Norilsk Nickel acquired about 90 per cent of Canada's LionOre Mining International Ltd, the world's 10th-largest nickel producer at the time. This takeover (valued in $6.4 billion US) is the biggest acquisition by a Russian company abroad so far. It makes Norilsk Nickel the world's largest nickel producer.