This Strange Russian City Was Kept So Secret It Didn’t Even Appear On The Map

It’s the mid-1940s, and a spate of disappearances is plaguing the Soviet Union. Citizens are vanishing from their homes, leaving their loved ones mystified. But these individuals aren’t just evaporating into thin air. No, they’re actually being taken deep into the Ural Mountains, to a place encircled by fences and armed checkpoints, somewhere so secret that it doesn’t even appear on the map. These citizens are being moved to “City 40” – and they won’t be allowed to leave.

At the time, the consequences of World War II were still being keenly felt throughout the Soviet Union. Yet the urban center known as City 40 was constructed nonetheless, with some 100,000 people eventually settling there. And though the city was a comfortable place to live, being a resident there came with conditions.

Things in City 40 weren’t always quite what they seemed – even its name has been open to revision. The place has been known as Chelyabinsk 40 and Chelyabinsk 65, before it eventually settled on its present name of Ozersk. In any case, regardless of its name, the enigmatic center has always harbored an incredible secret.

With its reasonable schools, well-stocked stores and decent housing, City 40 may have seemed like a fine place to live. In reality, however, the place was little more than a gilded cage. Two layers of fearsome barbed wire fencing surrounded the city, with its entrances being guarded by armed personnel.

But despite this suffocating level of security, it seems that few of City 40’s citizens wanted to leave their prison paradise. According to a 2016 article in the The Guardian, those who lived in the city even believed themselves to be the “chosen ones.” It seems that they were actively willing to stay.

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So, how did this clandestine city first take shape over 70 years ago? Well, construction at the City 40 site began in 1946 – and it’s worth remembering what the Soviet Union was like back then. This was just a year after the Red Army had entered Berlin in triumph, having finally crushed Nazi Germany.

Victory was sweet alright, but the people of the Soviet Union had paid a terrible price to overcome the Nazis. As many as 26 million Soviets were killed, having borne the brunt of the German war machine. Writing in his 2012 book Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, British Historian Max Hastings was in no doubt about the debt the rest of the world owed to the Soviets.

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Hastings asserted, “It was the Western Allies’ extreme good fortune that the Russians, and not themselves, paid almost the entire ‘butcher’s bill’ for [defeating Nazi Germany], accepting 95 per cent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance.” But this massive effort had left the economic and industrial fabric of the Soviet Union in tatters.

Despite its momentous victory, the Soviet Union was in dire straits in 1945. As much as 25 percent of the nation’s wealth had been destroyed. Both farm and factory production levels were much lower than before the war. Although the Soviet regime pursued a vigorous reconstruction of their stricken nation, ordinary people would see little direct benefit.

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And there was another major problem on the horizon. During World War II the principal Allied nations – America, Britain and the Soviet Union – had found common cause in defeating Hitler. But tensions between the West and the Soviets soon emerged once the Nazis had been vanquished. Now there would be decades of hostility between the two power blocs, a period we call the Cold War.

Refusing the funding that the U.S. gave to Western European nations for reconstruction, the Soviet rulers concentrated on rebuilding industry. Food and consumer goods production, though, was comparatively neglected, meaning that levels were actually below what they’d been in the 1920s. Broadly speaking, then, living standards were lower in the Soviet Union than in the West.

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It was within this context of national poverty and international tension that City 40 came into being in 1946. Built among the dense forests of the Urals, the site overlooked the waters of Lake Irtyash. And it must be said, the people who were moved to City 40 enjoyed a more agreeable lifestyle than that of most of their fellow Soviet citizens.

Through living in City 40, people had access to luxuries virtually unheard of in the rest of the Soviet Union. There were bananas aplenty, caviar was on the menu, and shops stocked other rare items like tins of condensed milk. The city offered ample opportunities for leisure activities, and there was a lively arts culture. In short, it was a lifestyle that most Soviets could only dream of.

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However, the new citizens of this secret city paid dearly for those elevated living standards. Throughout the initial eight or years of its existence, residents of City 40 weren’t allowed to leave under any circumstances whatsoever. Security was so tight that residents couldn’t even send letters out of the area.

All external contact – even with family – was strictly forbidden. According to The Guardian, relatives thought of those who’d been shipped into the city as “missing.” It was as if they’d simply disappeared from the face of the Earth. The City 40 folks, meanwhile, were completely forbidden from talking about what they got up to in their closed community.

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Even after the complete lockdown was relaxed by the authorities in 1954, City 40 residents lived a severely restricted life. Astonishingly, this is still true today. In the unlikely event that you wish to visit the city, you’ll need permission from the authorities, which is unlikely to be granted. Plus, filming and photography in City 40 are outlawed altogether.

But one woman probably knows more about the city and what it’s like nowadays than any other outsider. American Samira Goetschel defied local law in order to enter and film the city for a 2016 documentary called City 40. She wrote about her experience in an article for Huffpost that same year.

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In the piece, Goetschel described the practicalities of her daring project. She wrote, “With the help of several locals, the crew and several cameras were smuggled inside the forbidden city.” Then, she went on to depict life in the city. She recalled, “Inside, we found a city similar to a prison house, and its residents living in exile.”

Goetschel continued, “We learnt about personal tragedies, lethal landscapes and massive environmental catastrophes its citizens were born to bear.” The filmmaker also recognized the courage of those few willing to speak to her – and even to be identified on film. Goetschel wrote, “Despite grave personal risks, several brave citizens decided to break their silence and talk about their invisible city.”

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One voice in Goetschel’s film stood out, that of human rights lawyer Nadezhda Kutepova. In the documentary she described her life in City 40. She recalled, “My mother used to warn me, ‘Darling never say where you are from or a Black Maria [police car] will take us away and you’ll never see your parents again.’”

Kutepova continued, “We were told we lived in a secret place. There were spies all over, sneaking around gathering information. My mother told me, ‘Let state secrets stay secret.’” The notion that your parents could disappear from your life at any moment must have been terrifying, yet Kutepova describes the situation in a matter-of-fact way. As a child, it had simply been part of her life.

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Another interviewee in the film – a former worker at the factory which was the center of industry in City 40 – chose to remain anonymous. He remembered, “We lived like well-fed animals in the zoo… We had plenty of kielbasa [sausage], food, sports clubs for kids, everything. My father made enough money to give the family everything.”

The man continued, “We had stacks of chocolate stored at home. You bet! That is why they called us ‘chocolate kids.’” So, despite the stifling secrecy that ruled life in City 40, there were obviously compensations for its citizens. But just what was it about City 40 that had to be kept so secret?

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For the answer to that question, we need to look back to the beginning of the Cold War. Remember, at the end of World War II there was just one nuclear power in the world: the United States. But for the Soviet dictator Stalin, that was something that had to change. The communists, too, had to have their own atom bomb.

That’s where City 40 came in. In 1946 building works got underway on a factory called Mayak, which was to be a massive nuclear weapons plant. City 40, then, was built around it to house the scientists and other personnel needed to operate the facility. But the operation had to be kept entirely secret.

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As Goetschel pointed out in Huffpost, the people who lived and worked in City 40 were told that “they were the ‘nuclear shield’ and ‘saviors of the world’ and that everyone on the outside was an enemy.” But arriving at the city to work at Mayak could be a frightening experience. In Goetschel’s film, one worker who was drafted in to work at Mayak remembered the experience.

This person recalled, “It was on July 5, 1947. I was met at Kyshtym station [near City 40]. It was 11 o’clock in the evening. They drove me in an unknown direction. They didn’t tell me where I was being taken. I thought it would be a factory in Kyshtym. I realized there were no enterprises there that would fit my specialization.” In the Soviet Union of the time, people had good reason to fear the authorities, as this man clearly did.

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The man continued, “I began to worry. Especially when we passed through the center of town. Then we went up the hill to the church and then the woods began. There was nothing to see. This is when I really began to worry. I had a sinking feeling. Had I been arrested for something?” In fact, he was to become one of the saviors of the world, as the propaganda had it. He would be living in a prison city, not because he was a criminal, but because he was an essential worker.

In the early days of City 40, people were completely cut off from the outside world. At the same time, they lived a life of relative luxury as a sort of compensation for this isolation. But this was ultimately a deal with the devil. In those times, the health and safety of the workers at Mayak seems to have been of little concern.

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As Kutepova put it in the 2016 documentary, “Even though Mayak is just a factory in Ozersk [City 40’s name today], historically Mayak has always been more important than the city.” And it seems that the work of the factory – producing material for nuclear weapons – was much more important than the health of workers. And this was increasingly evident over the decades.

Within years of the Mayak plant opening, City 40 residents started to fall ill and pass away. The cause was evidently excessive exposure to the highly radioactive materials required to build atomic weapons. Because the Soviet Union – and later the Russian Federation – have worked to keep City 40’s secrets, hard information about the casualties of Mayak is hard to come by.

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But search for evidence and you can find it. In the city’s cemetery, many gravestones attest to early deaths. And there have been calamitous nuclear accidents. One came in 1957, and it was the worst incident of its kind until the tragedy of Chernobyl in 1986. That was in Ukraine – then still part of the Soviet Union – where explosions and a resulting fire destroyed a nuclear power plant.

It was on September 29, 1957, when people living in the Chelyabinsk region – where City 40 is located – first noticed something strange. Strange blue and violet hues seemed to be coloring the sky. At first, local media suggested that this might be some unusual trick of polar light, observed much further south than was usual.

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But it then became apparent that there was a buzz of unaccustomed military activity around the Mayak nuclear plant. And the authorities began to issue panicky diktats. Farmers were ordered to slaughter their animals, to plow up their fields and to destroy their crops. Some 11,000 souls were evacuated from more than 20 rural settlements around City 40.

Officialdom remained tight-lipped. To this day the incident is known as the Kyshtym disater, named after a nearby town, with no mention of Mayak or City 40. The background to this was the fact that Mayak had produced its first nuclear weapon in 1947. And after that the authorities had demanded more of the deadly weapons. They were much more concerned, it seems, with quantity rather than safety.

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Over the course of a decade beginning in 1948, more than 17,000 workers were subjected to radiation doses well above safe levels. On top of that, untreated nuclear waste had simply been dumped into nearby rivers and lakes. Formerly idyllic Lake Irtyash, for instance, is known to locals as the “Lake of Death.” Villagers near bodies of water such this often succumbed to radiation sickness.

The 1957 accident involved the failure of equipment intended to cool a tank of radioactive waste material. When the waste had reached a critical temperature of more than 650 °F, it exploded. The tank had been topped by a 160-ton concrete cover. This was blown clean off and radioactive material streamed into the atmosphere.

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This deadly radioactive fallout spread out over more than 7,500 square miles, an area where some 270,000 individuals lived. Yet the Soviet authorities managed to keep this catastrophe completely hidden from the world. It was only in 1976 that a Soviet refugee named Zhores Medvedev revealed to the world what had happened at Mayak.

However, it turns out that the CIA had known about the incident since 1960 through analysis of spy plane imagery. But the operatives decided to sit on their knowledge. This was apparently for fear that tricky questions would be posed about safety at the U.S. nuclear weapons plant at Hanford in Washington State, which operated until 1987.

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The exact extent of illness and death caused by operations at Mayak is unknown. But the Russian authorities are still hyper-sensitive to any revelations about life at City 40, or Ozersk as it’s now known. After Nadezhda Kutepova had spoken out in Goetschel’s film, she was apparently harassed by a Russian state media outlet. Fearing arrest, she fled her native country and sought political asylum in France, where she now lives. She continues her battle for the rights of those still living in City 40, which some grimly call the “graveyard of the Earth.”

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