“As long as Russia remains the target of aggression, we will need to test our rockets and keep the tests behind the wall to provide secrecy,” Sergey Markov, a former Duma deputy, said in 2009.
From the fall of tsarism, Russian politics was shrouded in mistrust and deception. The Russian Revolution of 1917, the first successful socialist revolution in history, established Communism as a messianic faith amongst the people. Religious iconography, outlawed in the USSR, was replaced by revolutionary propaganda; heroism and pride for sovietism sought to widen the divide between the Russian people and those belonging to the outside world. Though the death of Stalin brought about the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’, where de-Stalinisation sought to reform the political system, relations with the United States worsened. The hoarding of nuclear weaponry and commencing of the Space Age pitted Russia against the west; the culture of secrecy was sustained.
The Soviet Union transformed existing cities and built new ones, developing them as centres for knowledge and design. They were constructed to aid the military and scientific advancement of the Russian people over their Cold War rivals. Wiped from maps, closed to foreigners and devoid of traditional naming conventions, the Soviet machine was intent on guarding their national interests from prying eyes. Secret cities have remained a feature of modern Russia and there are few examples of cities who have opened their gates since the fall of the bloc. It was only in 1986 that the Russian people were made aware of secret cities, when over 1 million people lived within their confines.
Though there are international instances of closed cities, it became a unique feature of the Soviet system due to the vast implementation of the policy. The closure of cities was sought as a temporary measure, but became a lasting tenet of Soviet reticence with urban areas categorised into two groups. One comprising conurbations with a military, scientific or industrial significance, and the other including settlements along coast and border lines. In both instances, foreign visitors to these communities were uncommon. Movement of people, both in and out of cities such as Vladivostok and Perm, required permits granted from those with authority.
The city of Perm was closed only to foreigners; within the closely monitored city limits, the residents worked on the production of munitions and development of aircraft engines. The coastal city of Vladivostok, as the home of the Soviet Pacific Fleet, had been subjected to decades of confrontation from the Japanese which had left the city in a ‘deplorable state’ prior to closure. It was closed in 1952, with foreign consulates banned from visiting the city, whilst plans to relocate merchant fishing vessels into neighbouring ports never materialised. Vladivostok would remain a closed city for over 40 years when in 1992, a decree signed by Boris Yeltsin would come into effect. Vladivostok would cease in being closed to the wider world.
These cities were expunged from civilian maps, replaced with the emptiness of the steppe and taiga. The cities existed in few printed forms. Their true names were replaced by that of a neighbouring city and adjoining number. Places could be separated by hundreds of miles, but this unique means of identification would achieve the desired effect. Outsiders were unaware of their existence for decades, allowing the Soviet regime to make advancements away from prying western eyes.
Cities that were closed were chosen due to their geographic relevance. Located in the remote Urals or the depths of Siberia, the townships were often positioned close to large bodies of water. As outposts of Russia, they were tactically safe, meaning it would be unlikely that enemy aircraft would venture into the provincial depths of the country. The secret operations that were worked upon within their periphery were closely guarded; within the confines of the city, government buildings were constantly manned.
As the name suggests, closed cities did not permit the free movement of people. This included those wanting to get in and residents hoping to leave. Escape from many of these remote settlements was inconceivable. Harsh weather and a punishing landscape would dissuade the most determined absconder. Cities such as Zheleznogorsk continue to be surrounded by a barbed wire perimeter, numerous military checkpoints and stern-faced guards. The historic compensation for residents of these sealed boroughs came in the form of an improved housing stock and access to a wider array of goods and services. Those working with important information were granted salary bonuses. A division exists today between those who are content with their protected way of life, and a younger generation who have been exposed to global influences.
The breadth of the Soviet border created closed cities in countries such as Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Moldova, many of which still guard themselves today. A commune containing military warehouses, Cobasna in Moldova is home to thousands of troops and decades of unused ammunition. It remains closed as the process of removing Russian arms from the territory has been arduous. In the Ukraine, cities such as Sevastopol were closed until the mid-1990s. Their closure was only ever extended to foreign travellers, with local people being able to freely travel.
In Russia, a number of closed cities have opened over the decades. The aforementioned Perm and Vladivostok were once important sealed conurbations. Nizhny Novgorod, formerly known as Gorky, is the sixth largest city in Russia. A historic industrial centre that is over 800 years old, the city was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe in World War II. Travel and tourism was a feature of Gorky in the Soviet era, with Russian travellers frequently stopping in the city on river cruises along the Volga. Foreign visitors were not permitted on account of the city’s military research facilities. Street maps were only made available in the 1970s, so to not disclose the whereabouts of state-funded facilities. The city’s openness cannot be questioned today, as in 2018 it hosted a number of international football matches as part of the World Cup Finals.
Once closed, Tomsk is another example of a Russian city that opened following the end of the Soviet era. Exclusionary measures extended to all outsiders; the location of Tomsk along the Tom river established it as an appropriate location for a secret city. In 1949, a city was founded nearby under the name ‘Tomsk-7’. It would become the home of the Tomsk Nuclear Power Plant, the first industrial scale nuclear plant in the Soviet Union. Though Tomsk was opened, neighbouring Tomsk-7 (renamed Seversk in 1991) remains shut to those from the outside world.
Cities that border the once hostile east and west were amongst the first to open. Their location in the USSR and proximity to hostile neighbours meant they were the first to close in the mid 20th century. The influence of globalisation mounted increased pressure on policy makers to open urban areas. Today, the closed cities are present on maps and their secrets are more overt and many have populations reminiscent of English towns. With the passing of time, an increased proportion of the people living in walled cities seek free movement as the distribution of ideas in the digital age inspires change. Strained foreign relations still exist, meaning that governments have a means to justify the need for restrictive walled-cities. As was true in the mid 20th century, travel without reason and proper documentation would result in arrest.
The existing closed cities provide a glimpse into a form of Russian life that has not been documented in the mainstream, where low costs, low salaries and a lack of political tension has ‘created a model of socialism’.