Closed Cities – Discovering the secret Russia
As a European citizen, I’m used to travelling wherever I want without much restriction. Of course, some specific buildings or areas might be off-limits, but I had never heard about Closed Cities (Закрытое административно-территориальное образование ЗАТО in Russian) until I came to Russia.
But what do they exactly mean by close city? The concept of closed city might be better understood if we imagine a military base with different levels of security. The location of this base might be known by the general public, but access to it is subject to certain limitations. You might be able to enter with a specific permit to some areas or access might be completely banned for those not belonging to the place. In a close city, only citizens might be allowed to enter and they might as well face restrictions within the city.
It sounds like science fiction but it was (and still is) real life. And these limitations worked both ways. In many cities, the inhabitants had to ask for special permits to go out of the city and they sometimes leaving the city for some time was not even an option. Fortunately, it’s easier for inhabitants of closed cities to leave their cities in the present times, but going in is not always possible for foreigners.
Why did secret cities exist in Russia?
Although closed cities were indeed quite common during Soviet times, Russia is not the only country that had (and still has!) closed cities. To understand the necessity of this type of place during the USSR is it necessary to remember a really interesting period of history “The Cold War”.
During the cold war, both the USA and the USSR developed a huge nuclear program. The creation of closed cities is linked to these programs. It is interesting to point out that the first closed city in history was created in the USA. Bridgeland, located on the State of Washington, was also build to produce military weapons. These cities were important nuclear shields and the USSR had many of them. Almost a million people lived in this secret closed cities although, of course, they were not officially living there.
On the map above, you can see where all the different secret cities were located and what type of activities were carried out there. Many of them are already regular open cities, but around 40 of them remain close.
Closed cities in Russia
As we have already mentioned, during Soviet times may cities were off-limits. This might come as no surprise, but it could be more shocking to learn more about some of the cities which are still subject to restrictions in Russia. On the following lines, you will be able to learn a bit more about some old USSR secret cities that are still closed.
Ozersk (also known as City 40) was one of the cities that was created as a closed city for military purposes. It was founded in 1947 and it was not until 1994 it was shown on maps. It is no longer a secret city but access to it remains controlled and highly restricted. The creation of this city was the beginning of the Soviet’s Union military program. This city looked like a paradise where to live. Living in a closed town implied not only physical security but also financial stability. And these two things were very much valued by the citizens.
Nonetheless, it was not always everything bright in the city of Ozersk. The tranquillity of the city was disrupted on 29 September 1957 when the Khyshtym disaster occurred which supposed the evacuation of thousands of people that were not officially living in the area. This accident happened in Mayak, the nuclear plant of the city. It is considered a level 6 accident which makes it the third-biggest nuclear disaster in history (after Chernobyl and Fukushima). Since Ozyorsk was not marked on maps, the disaster was named after Kyshtym, the nearest known town. Needless to say that the authorities back then were not open about the incident. It was only after Chernobyl’s disaster happened that the general public knew about this nuclear accident.
Although the city is nowadays considered safe to live, the levels of radiation are still higher than usual and there some extremely radioactive places in the area. It’s a fascinating topic that would deserve a blog post for itself. If you want to know more about this nuclear disaster you can read this fantastic article on the topic.
There is also a documentary film named City 40 that can give you a better understanding of how things were in the USSR and how things are now.
It’s a closed city located in Tomsk Oblast. Founded in 1949, it was known as Pyaty Pochtovy (Пя́тый Почто́вый, The Fifth Postal). Many of the secret closed cities were referred to just by using their postal code. It was created to host the Siberian Chemical Combine which produced nuclear weapons. This company is still working and is the reason why the city remains closed.
Like for most closed cities, it is possible to get a special permit to access the city but visitors aren’t allowed to move around the city freely. The entry pass can be requested from ZATO Seversk, providing personal details, the reason and the expected date of entry. Generally, permits are given to people with relatives in Seversk or people travelling for business. So, unfortunately, is not very likely that you will be able to visit Seversk.
Previously known as Penza-19, the city of Zarachy is one of the remaining Closed Cities in Russia. The most important area in Zarechny is its nuclear plant owned by Rosatom. Most citizens have a job somehow related to the plant. Jobs are stable but the salaries not high. Therefore many youngsters are willing to leave the city. Nowadays that is possible, but in the past citizens of Penza-19 were not always allowed to leave the city. They knew things that they could not tell anyone on the other side of the wire.
Since visiting the place can be tricky, but you can discover a bit more about Zarachy here.
Living in a closed city
Most Russian closed cities were also secret. To the point that citizens living in those cities did not officially exist outside the limits of the city. When the cities where created, thousands of people were moved to these highly military cities to work. According to the documentary City 40, many of these people apparently disappeared and the new generations born and raised there were not taking into account in the official figures of the state.
You might be wondering why on earth people would accept to live in such isolation conditions. The answer to that question can be found in the living conditions they were offered. They probably had the best living conditions in the USSR. Education and health care were good and for free and they had the feeling of being both safe and important. They somehow tried to create a soviet paradise for the citizens of these cities.
On top of this, citizens were made to feel important. They were told they were “the nuclear shield and saviours of the world”. Everyone from outside was presented as the enemy (or at least suspicious). They felt safer within the limits of the city. Even nowadays, checkpoints and controls are common. But for many citizens, the benefits of living in a close city are greater than the inconveniences.
And how is it living in a closed city nowadays? I had the opportunity to briefly talk with a man who has been working and living for several months in the closed city of Snezhinsk so I will shortly summarize what he told me.
He went there twice to work for several months each time. To enter the town, he had to apply for a special permit for several weeks in advance. His job was linked to the nuclear plant, as the job of a big percentage of the inhabitants of Snezhinsk. Regarding life in the town, he described it as relaxed and safe but a bit boring since there are not many leisure time options available. As a single man, he would not consider moving there permanently but he considers the town a good place to live with a family with children. Although Snezhinsk is close to Mayak (where the nuclear disaster occurred) he didn’t seem to be concerned about the level of radiation.
If you want to hear another opinion I would recommend you to watch the following interview:
I hoped you enjoyed reading my post as much as I enjoyed writing it. Do not miss my next entries if you want to keep on discovering Russia.