Life Inside Russia’s Secret Nuclear City

Life Inside Russia’s Secret Nuclear City

Stephanie Schoppert - March 2, 2017

City 40 is a place that Russia never wanted anyone to know about. The people who lived there were sworn to absolute secrecy and sometimes they hardly knew why themselves. Those who lived in City 40 had their movements highly restricted, contact with the outside world was regulated, and in return the residents felt they had a home of relative peace in a turbulent Russia.

This city is located deep within the forests of the Ural Mountains. It was named Ozersk, but its code name was City 40. It was never located on any map and was surrounded by heavily guarded gates and towering barbed wire fences. Those that chose to live in the city had their existence erased and they were never recorded on any Soviet census. To their families and friends, they had not simply moved to another city, they were missing altogether.

Construction for City 40 began in 1946, and the plans and building of the city was done in complete secrecy. The city would be built around the massive Mayak nuclear plant that rested on the shores of Lake Irtyash. Workers and scientists came from all over Russia in order to lead and be a part of the Soviet nuclear weapons program. They were all brought there to build the atomic bomb and to never speak of any of it to anyone, ever.

Life Inside Russia’s Secret Nuclear City
Picture of City 40 taken in 2008. The World Weekly

The city took its inspiration from Richland, Washington. Richland was the city that had given birth to the United States’ own atomic bomb “Fat Man.” Being modeled after an American city (and determined to be even better), the city was something of a paradise in the middle of a struggling Soviet Union. Those who were re-located to the city and forced to give up many freedoms were not nearly as upset when they realized what they would get in return.

Those who lived in City 40 had more than most Russians could ever dream of. Security from the dangers of the outside world, a city without crime, an excellent education system for their children, very well-paying jobs, and housing that was far beyond what could be found for regular people in the rest of the country. Those within the city had their freedoms taken away, but the Russian government still wanted to keep them happy in order to reduce the chance that any of them would try to escape and tell the outside world what they knew. It was believed that if they gave the people of City 40 a literal paradise ,then the people of City 40 would be grateful and even willing to give up those freedoms…and for the most part the Soviet Union was right.

Read on to see what life is life for people who still live in this secretive city.

Life Inside Russia’s Secret Nuclear City
A man sits by the poisonous lake in City 40. Vice

Even though the Cold War is over and the world knows that City 40 exists, that does not mean that life for people within the city has changed all that much. For the first 8 years after the city was built the people were not allowed to leave. They were transferred to the city without a word to anyone, and then they were not allowed to go outside the border fences or have any contact with the world outside the city, not even with their families.

After 8 years, things got a little better and people within City 40 could be granted visas to leave the city but the visas are very strict as to what people can do. The visas are granted for specific days and even for specific hours. There are restrictions on where you can go and what you are allowed to do. In the early years this was perfectly fine because who would want to leave paradise anyway?

For many people in the city that is still the case. The ones that live there are now are the children or the grandchildren of those that came in 1947. They have lived in the city their whole lives and they are told what a perfect place to live it is and they are happy. There are schools that offer them a better education than they could hope to have elsewhere, and an engineering school that provides the plant with a never-ending stream of engineers. But for all that the people are given they are also dying and most of them do not even know why.

Living around a massive nuclear plant has its problems. In 1957 there was a major disaster at the plant that released more radioactive material than Chernobyl. Lake Karachay next to the plant is now so radioactive that spending just two hours along its shore would mean death. The plants and crops in the city are contaminated with radioactivity. Those that live within the city are very likely to get cancer, and most of them will die from cancer. 80 percent of the city does not even know the connection between the cancer and what is being done at the plant.

Half a million people in and around Ozersk have been exposed to massive doses of radiation. A clock 20 minutes from City 40 switches between informing people of the time and the level of radiation in the air. Buying vegetables and fruit from a produce stand now involves a Geiger counter in order to see whether or not the food is relatively safe to eat.

Life Inside Russia’s Secret Nuclear City

Today, the Russian nuclear weapons stockpile and production of new weapons is still at City 40. Those within the city are still sworn to secrecy about what happens in the city and the perils they face. There are some who have spoken out, who have tried to get help for those suffering from cancer caused by the radioactivity. They get punished.

To this day, no foreigners or non-resident Russians are allowed in the city without permission from the Russian Secret Police. Despite the warnings and the threat of imprisonment by Russian police, one foreigner, Samira Goetschel, did manage to get into the city and talk to the people that lived there, creating the documentary City 40. Those that spoke to her did so knowing that they could face death if the Russians found out just as Samira could face death if she was found there.

The people that spoke of their lives in City 40 did so because they knew that they were going to die anyway, and at least they would die with someone knowing their story, and maybe with others in City 40 knowing what was really happening to them. For most of Russia and the world, there are no records of these people, and when they die there will be no record of their lives inside the secret City 40.