Closed cities from the inside

Last week I wrote about the disgraceful number of closed cities in Russia, another of those leftovers from an anarchic age that Russia remains addicted to, despite (or perhaps because of) the restrictions it places on the human rights of their 1.7 million residents.

In a rather timely decision, the BBC have just decided to publish a feature article about the Russian cosmodrome at Plesetsk. Now, Plesetsk isn’t a closed city, but Mirny, the town next door is. The BBC reporter managed to get a precious invitation to visit Mirny, and this is what he saw:

Home to about 80,000 military staff and their families, at first glance, it seems like any other town, save the austere apartment blocks and lack of road signs.

We are taken to the space museum in the town square, then the kindergarten, where children dressed in traditional clothes sing Russian songs.

Despite the presence of occasional teams of foreign engineers, most of the town remains off limits to visitors. They can walk around only a small central section and must not stray outside the designated area.

The town was never on the map and its inhabitants can still only be officially reached under a military field post number.

I’ve just been to see if I could find Mirny using both GoogleEarth (the satellite imaging programme) and Expedia maps. I tried every spelling of the name I could think of without any luck (although I did discover there is a village with the same name in Southern Russia). I think I’ll have to investigate further, to see whether any of the closed cities that the Russian government has admitted to (and Mirny isn’t one of them) are on any maps.

So far, the only other account I’ve been able to find about a visit to a closed city, is Tajikblog’s visit to Taboshar, the city where the uranium for the first Soviet nuclear bombs was mined. Taboshar – in Tajikistan, by the way, and not Russia – is no longer a closed city. But it certainly doesn’t seem a very welcoming place…

Either way, we just slowly begin to explore the town. It’s really quite a nice town with birch trees and huge stone houses lining the streets, aside from the fact that most of the buildings are empty and starting to fall apart. Soon enough, though, another set of suspicious men appears (with their wives and children in tow, not exactly an intimidating sight) and the confrontation begins.

The mayor (who prior to this had a good reputation among internationals) was at the center of the posse. I wanted to meet him anyway hoping for a tour, so this was as fine a time as any to say hello. I must have caught him at a bad time, though, as his mood was sour.

After the initial “hi I’m Peter XXX, photographer from New York” schtick, it was time for the inquisition.
Why are you here? Who guided you here? What do you know about this town? Etc. etc.
Nargiza steadfastly translates the questions and my answers, but suddenly his suspicion and temper rise.

One thing that set him off, I think was my knowledge of the town’s having a high-tech science lab. Stephanie told me about it as the mayor’s sad attempt to attract people to his town, to create a center for technology. Maybe something else is going on, because he certainly didn’t want to speak about it.

I’m going to keep searching for stories about Russian closed cities (and others around the Former Soviet Union if I can find them). If you have any links, or stories of your own, please feel free to share them here.

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2 Responses

  1. Nathan says:

    My home away from home Navoi was a closed city until 1996, and it’s an utterly delightful place.

  2. varske says:

    Visaginas, the city next to Ignalina NNP in Lithuania, used to be a closed city. It’s pretty nice compared with most Soviet towns — brick more than concrete, forests and a lake. Inhabitants have been pretty closed as well but have eventually got used to foreigners advising them and Lithuanians telling them what to do.

    There are US and UK government projects for the nuclear closed cities in Russia. They are trying to help the scientists diversify away from making bombs so they don’t lose interest and defect to Iran or N Korea. It’s not wonderfully successful in terms of diversification. More details for the UK project here: http://www.dti.gov.uk/energy/environment/soviet-nuclear-legacy/programme-portfolio/cncp/index.html
    I haven’t been myself, but lnow a couple of people who have.