Written by Jehron Baggaley
During its time as a global superpower, the Soviet Union mastered the art of keeping secrets, both from the international community and, frankly, its own public. A cosmonaut died? No he didn’t. Nuclear disaster? What are you talking about?
With the help of strict information policies, threats of imprisonment, and, well, the KGB, the USSR did everything it could to make sure that people didn’t know any more than they absolutely needed to. One of the most fascinating ways they stemmed the flow of information was by constructing entire secret cities, each with its own, classified purpose, including nuclear research and bioweapons manufacturing. These secret cities were kept completely hidden from the world for decades – they didn’t appear on maps, they weren’t talked about, and they never allowed visitors. It’s a similar idea to the United States Area 51, but instead of just being a military base these cities had tens of thousands of permanent residents. You wouldn’t be let in to such a city without explicit government permission, and if you happened to be a resident of one and left for any reason, you weren’t allowed to speak to outsiders at all about the inner workings or even existence of your top secret town.
The official name for these types of settlements is ZATO, a Russian acronym that means “closed administrative territorial entities.” And to make life a bit more bearable when you’re essentially cut off from the rest of your country, these cities were the only places in the Soviet Union that had access to banned goods, including imported food and even clothes from the global market.
When the USSR collapsed and its constituent republics became independent, many of these ZATOs were discovered or declassified. Some of them, especially the ones in Russia, still hold their original purpose to this day, though they are now known as ‘closed cities’ as their existence is no longer a secret, and it’s hypothesized that there are even a few more that have yet to be found. Today we’re going to go over a few of the most interesting soviet secret cities, covering everything from a bleak, arctic mining town with acid rain to a city that boasts one of the most radioactive locations on planet earth.
No one in, No one out
In the final action scene of the movie Tenet, the huge, climactic battle is fought in an abandoned Siberian closed city called Stalsk-12. While Stalsk-12 itself isn’t an actual place, the name that the writers chose for it was indeed spot on – Most closed cities were given a number at the end of their designated name, which was often just the name of another, nearby city to further mask their existence. One great example of this is city of Ozyorsk, formerly known as Chelyabinsk-65, and even earlier as Chelyabinsk-40.
Chelyabinsk 40 was founded in 1947 at the onset of the cold war, constructed by 40,000 gulag prisoners. Not just any prisoners, though. Due to its highly classified nature, only the most trusted prisoners were supposed to participate in the construction, this meant no German POWs, no Ukrainians, and no violent criminals. But because the demand for labor was so high and the deadlines so short, these rules weren’t always followed. Once finished, the city housed the employees, and their families, of the nearby Mayak plant, which became one of the first places on earth, along with a plant in Washington, to produce weapons-grade plutonium specifically for use in atomic bombs.
Once the plant was ready for production, the workers at Chelyabinsk 40 were given the utmost urgency to produce as much fissile material as possible so that the country could catch up to the United States, who had gotten the lead on atomic weapon development. So, for the first ten or so years, Ozyorsk put its resources entirely into maximizing production, and didn’t want to stop even when they ran out of underground storage for the waste. Instead of stopping production until more storage vats were completed, they dumped most of it into the nearby Techa River, contaminating both the water and the 40 villages downstream that relied on it. This practice was eventually stopped when everyone realized how incredibly radioactive the river was becoming, and the danger it was posing to the tens of thousands of people living downstream, but instead of moving on to a proper disposal method, they just moved on to dumping the waste into small, nearby lakes. The most toxic of these, by far, is Lake Karachay, which was designated as a perfect dumping site for any waste they deemed “too hot” for the underground storage vats. By 1990, Lake Karachay was measured to be so unbelievably radioactive that standing near it for just under an hour was enough to give a human a lethal dose of radiation. It has since been filled in with thousands of concrete blocks, but the risk of the site contaminating the ground water will always be a fear in the area. However, as awful as this sounds, it’s nothing compared to what happened in the year 1957.
As mentioned earlier, the Mayak plutonium plant had a single purpose: pump out as much plutonium as possible. It had been hastily built, many of the researchers weren’t all that experienced in the atomic field, and lots of safety precautions were overlooked in favor of maximum production. This all came to a climax on September 29th, 1957, when a failed cooling system was left unrepaired, and the subsequent build-up of heat caused one of the storage tanks to explode.
The tank that exploded was an underground, stainless steel vat containing 80 tons of highly radioactive liquid waste. Despite being buried a whole 8 meters, or 26 feet, underground, the explosion, equivalent to a detonation of 70 tons of TNT, ripped through the building above it, launched 90% of its liquid waste into the air, and sent a massive column of thick smoke that rose for more than a kilometer into the sky. This column of radioactive smoke reportedly flickered red and orange, and the dust began falling down on all the nearby workers at the plant.
But, somehow, someway, the majority of workers at the plant didn’t notice the severity of the explosion. No one was killed in the immediate blast, and everyone started to head home after work, taking the buses back into Chelyabinsk 40, their clothes, skin, and cars laced with the radioactive material, spreading the deadly particles into the closed city. Once scientists noticed the spike in radiation, the city went into lockdown mode, and everything was scrubbed at various checkpoints in a frenzy to minimize exposure. Thankfully, the Mayak plant had intentionally been built downwind from the city itself, so the majority of the radioactive smoke column didn’t head for the population center. Still, however, the cloud moved hundreds of miles away from the city in the other direction, eventually spreading over a large area of the Ural mountains, exposing an estimated 270,000 people to the fallout. Thousands of farms, reservoirs, and fields were so polluted that they had to be destroyed or abandoned, and those affected have since been shown to have sky-high rates of infertility, cancer, and birth defects.
Make no mistake, western countries noticed this sudden release of radiation, and reports of the mysterious incident circled around the world, well, except at home in the USSR, but everyone just assumed that it was an accident involving weapons testing. And because of the nature of the closed city, no one else in the Soviet Union had any idea what had happened. Eventually, 18 years later, the truth came out from the writings of a dissident Soviet scientist, Zhores Medvedev, who described the incident and the following horror of victims’ skin falling off their faces and hands from the radiation. After his story was verified, it turned out that he had actually exaggerated a lot of the gruesome details of radiation exposure, but the core of his account of the disaster, and what caused it, checked out.
This event was later called the Kyshtym disaster, named after yet another nearby city, and is to this day in the top 3 deadliest ever nuclear disasters in history, behind only Chernobyl and Fukushima. It’s also possible that the Mayak plant was responsible for another accidental release of radiation, this time the isotope ruthenium-106, in the year 2017 when small amounts were detected over Europe. Officially, the source is unknown, but both German and French investigative teams reported that it must have originated in the south Ural mountains, conveniently right where the Mayak plant sits. Officially, Russia denies any connection to their plant, but investigation was difficult because a few of the researchers weren’t even granted access into the closed city, even those who were Russian.
Interestingly, despite the city’s terrible track record with nuclear material, Chelyabinsk 40 had one of the Soviet Union’s highest standards of living by the 1960s, with a 5 day work week, paid time off, and even a resort for the most valued workers. By the time the city was renamed Chelyabinsk 65, life expectancy was consistently higher there than in the rest of the country, and, on average, residents owned several times as many appliances and cars compared to the average citizen outside the town. In 1989, the city voted on whether or not to remain a closed territory, and the overwhelming majority were in favor of staying closed. In fact, nearly half of the scientists said they would outright leave if the city opened up. There was, and still is, a lot of pride among the workers for carrying out such an important job, and with so many intelligent people concentrated in one place, good education is also a bonus, especially if you want to study English or physics.
Today, Chelyabinsk 40 is now known as Ozyorsk. The closed-off town no longer continues its original purpose of plutonium production, but now specializes in recycling decommissioned nuclear weapons and spent fuel. It has a population of about 80,000 people, though its numbers have been declining over recent years. And despite the concrete blocks mentioned earlier, the polluted Lake Karachay is still one of the most radioactive places on planet earth.
The Top of the Earth
To get to our next closed city, we’re going to head deep into northern Russia. So far north that we arrive deep in the arctic circle, and its here, inside the continuous permafrost zone, that we find Norilsk.
It would be an understatement to say that Norilsk experiences long, cold winters. Winter on average lasts from early October all the way to May, and for nearly two of those months the sun does not rise above the horizon at all, a phenomenon known as polar night. For 240 days of the year the city’s temperatures are in the negative, and snow covers the ground for up to nine months. The only time the weather is sometime warm is during the short, mild summers, which generally last for only around a month.
So you’re probably wondering – why would anyone in their right mind build a city in such a place? Well, the answer actually takes us back over 250 million years ago, to the eruption of the Siberian Traps. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn in a Geographics episode, but basically, these eruptions were one of the largest in the last 500 million years, and ended up releasing over a million cubic kilometers of lava. These eruptions brought up huge amounts of various metals, either to the surface or close to it, making the land under Norilsk the absolute metallurgical jackpot. The ground is loaded with platinum, palladium, cobalt, and copper, though its most abundant metal, by far, is nickel, with the city sitting on top of the largest nickel deposits ever discovered on planet earth.
Construction of Norilsk began in the 1940s with the intent of building a massive railway station for an upcoming rail line that would cross northern Siberia. This railway got cancelled though, but the city had already begun to expand as its vast metal reserves were discovered, and it began transforming into a mining town. Just like the last city we covered, Norilsk was also built by gulag prisoners from two nearby prisons, most of whom were Ukrainians that had been arrested for affiliation with nationalism, but also a fair number of men from Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, and Estonia, arrested for similar crimes. Most of these men had been sentenced to 25 years hard labor, and, considering the freezing, arctic hell they would be living in, this was merely a death sentence for many.
In 1952 a massive strike was organized by the inmates, which became known as the Norilsk uprising, during which thousands of prisoners protested their conditions and rioted, often violently, despite lacking any weapons whatsoever. The uprising was suppressed after a few months, but not before more than a thousand inmates had been killed or injured, and in total, according to Soviet archives, 16,806 prisoners died during the construction, either as a result of hard labor, starvation, or the cold. By 1956, the city was considered completed, and was immediately closed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
To support the growing city and its industry, a railway line was built to connect Norilsk with Dudinka port, where ships could dock and deliver supplies. This port, along with an airport built just to the west, are the only ways to get to Norilsk. There isn’t a single road or railway connecting it to the rest of Russia – it’s essentially a colony – your only options are the airport or a journey by boat and then rail, and that’s only when the weather permits. This has led to the locals referring to the rest of Russia as “the mainland” as if they’re far away on an island.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, the population of Norilsk boomed as its economy grew, and its strategic location so far to the north made it a perfect staging base for strategic bombers in case they ever needed to quickly reach the United States. More underground deposits were discovered year after year, and the mining industry became one of the most productive in the entire Soviet Union, with the horizon around the city becoming dotted with dozens of busy smokestacks.
When the USSR collapsed, the mining industry fell into the hands of a newly formed company, Norilsk Nickel, who over the years acquired the rights to almost every mining operation in the city. This company also owns the railroad to the port, and employs the vast majority of workers in Norilsk in almost every sector.
In 2001, its status as a closed city was adjusted – Russian and Belarussian citizens no longer need a permit to enter the city, but all foreigners will still require government permission. And so, despite being completely geographically isolated, Norilsk isn’t nearly as secretive as other closed cities, probably because they don’t handle nuclear research, so quite a bit is known about what its like to live in Norilsk in the present day.
Saying that Norilsk is merely ‘polluted’ is really underplaying the insane level of contamination. It is by far the most polluted city in Russia, being six times more polluted than the city in second place. Because of the constant fumes from smelting various ores, it’s perpetually plagued with thick smog, containing sulfur dioxide, particles of lead, nickel, and various radioisotopes. One report estimated that as much as 4 tons of metal is released into the air every year. There’s so much heavy metal in the air that it is now considered profitable to mine the surface soil that’s absorbed so much of the pollutants from the smoke.
It’s really hard to grasp just how incredibly foul the air is in Norilsk, but one thing that puts it in perspective is the so-called ‘Dead Zone’, an area surrounding the city that has been so contaminated with the chemical smog and acid rain that no plants can grow, leaving a desolate view of dead trees in every direction. Oh, and by the way, this Dead Zone isn’t just a thin ring around the city. The belt of complete destruction of nature is 30 kilometers thick, or 19 miles, and the acid rain has spread over an area that’s the size of Germany.
If that isn’t bad enough, in 2016 images started popping up on social media that the nearby Daldykan River was turning blood red. Norilsk Nickel initially denied that it was their fault, but it was pretty clear that it was the result of illegal waste dumping, accusations of which have been thrown at the company basically since its inception.
Vladimir Putin himself has visited Norilsk several times and threatened intense environmental fines if the situation doesn’t improve, and, to their credit, Norilsk Nickel has made some improvements. In 2016 they shut down one factory that was, by itself, responsible for 25% of the entire city’s sulfur dioxide emissions. They’ve also allocated hundreds of billions of rubles for the next decade to reduce the pollution in various ways, such as converting sulfur dioxide into gypsum instead of releasing it into the air.
But, until these environmental goals are reached, Norilsk will keep its place among the worst places to live in Russia, and one of the most polluted places on earth. Yes, the wages are high and the economy is booming, but the lack of sunlight and difficulty of delivering fresh food means high rates of vitamin deficiencies. The thick smog and heavy metal exposure are directly linked with respiratory illnesses, cancer, and various blood disorders, and the average life expectancy is just 59 years – an entire decade shorter than that of the average Russian living in a different city.
Not So Secret
When the Soviet Union set up their secret cities, it’s true that the majority of them were built inside the borders of Russia, but there was no shortage of such installations in the other Soviet Socialist Republics.
For example, Ukraine at one point had eighteen closed cities. One of the biggest in Ukraine was the central-eastern city Kamianske, which was the site of the largest uranium processing factory in the entire Soviet Union. It’s no longer a closed city today, but its economy is still largely made up of metallurgy, hydroelectric stations, and other factories reminiscent of its former status.
Kazakhstan used to be home to several closed cities, including Kurchatov, formerly known as Semipalatinsk-21, which was possibly the most secretive of them all. It was here that the USSR housed their scientists that tested nuclear weapons at the nearby test site nicknamed ‘The Polygon’, which, after many, many detonations, heavily irradiated much of the landscape. Nuclear tests have long since stopped, and the scientists left decades ago, but the population of the now open city still suffers the effects of the radiation, decades later. Another secret city that was constructed in Kazakhstan was Baikonur, which housed the families and workers of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where all Soviet spacecraft were launched, including the first ever man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, and the first ever manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin. The name Baikonur was taken from a mining town a few hundred kilometers to the northeast. Funny enough, the residents of the actual Baikonur figured this out and took advantage of the shared name – for a few years they got away with ordering expensive and scarce materials before the Soviet authorities realized they were sending the goods to the wrong Baikonur.
Baikonur is one of the more interesting closed cities because when the USSR collapsed, Russia wasn’t so keen to let their historic cosmodrome slip out of their hands. A deal was struck with Kazakhstan, and now the area is rented by and controlled by Russia as an enclave, with the current lease extended to the year 2050, and will continue to be the launch site for Russian spacecraft. Today, the city’s secret veil has mostly been lifted, and visitors are allowed, though foreigners will need approval from the Russian government before entering. In Spring 2022 a British Youtuber known as Bald and Bankrupt was arrested for trespassing in the cosmodrome, but thankfully the Russian police let him leave after paying a small fine.
Nearly every republic in the Soviet Union had a closed city of some sort, such as a uranium mining town in Azerbaijan, or nuclear research facilities in Estonia. Most of the cities have since been opened, but Russia continues to hold on to the tradition of keeping most of them closed. As of 2022, there are 44 publicly acknowledged closed cities in Russia, with a combined population totaling one and a half million people, and its believed that there are as many as fifteen more whose existence they’ve yet to admit.