Secret Cities Revealed

Anna Nemtsova, special for Russia Now

"Checkpoint at the entrance to the closed city of Znamensk in Russia’s southern

Military: RN unlocks the mystery behind the ‘closed cities’ phenomenon.

Astrakhan region. The area is famous for reported U.F.O. sightings”

A relic of the Cold War, Russia’s 45 closed cities continue their proud military traditions amid an uncertain future. How will they adapt to new economic realities?

Quiet Asian music whispers from a corner as couples cuddle on round couches and young women serve green tea in belly-dancing garb. This intimate club, Aladdin, is not off Tverskaya Street in Moscow but in the heart of what was once among the most secret cities in the Soviet Union. Znamensk, or Kapustin Yar, as it was called in Soviet times, is still a closed city.

To walk the autumnal streets of Znamensk, still trimmed with roses, asters and chrysanthemums, tourists need to obtain a special permit. The only other way in—quite unofficially—is to avoid the checkpoint and walk in through one of the holes in the wall surrounding the city.

Only 33,000 people live on this 750 miles ofotherwise deserted steppe southeast of Moscow. The holes in the city wall, as well as rumors that ongoing military reform might one day open their city, do not please the citizens of Znamensk. For many of them, the lock on the gate and secretiveness of their hometown is not a Soviet relic but the meaning and pride of their lives.

The first time Russians officially heard that there were dozens of closed cities and towns all over the country with more than one million people living in them was 1986. The cities had mysterious numbers attached to their names: Arzamas-16, the home of the engineers who put an end to America’s nuclear monopoly, Krasnoyarsk-16, Tomsk-7 and others that sound like sci-fi thriller titles. Closed cities remained a dark secret for the majority of Russians. Only now, as the government tries to reckon with their future, are we learning about them.

The people of these towns and cities lived in a kind of prestigious internal exile for decades. They had foreign food, special privileges and better schools. Even now, 10 years after these cities began their economic and social slide, many inhabitants want to live in exile, especially since the government is promising a renaissance, pumping oil money into now beleaguered strategic military towns. In the case of Znamensk, the government has begun spending $25 million a year. Perhaps, despite the downturn, this is not the time to leave, yet students are looking over the wall to another life.

In Soviet times, all sorts of tricks were used to hide the cities in plain daylight, but today the borders are more fluid. Closed cities, or “post boxes,” as they were called for the addresses residents used to receive mail, are in epic transition. Znamensk dacha lovers even make holes in the wall for a shortcut to walk to their dachas. But the porous borders have brought new realities the rest of Russia knows all too well. Recently, local kids started to take their fights outside the wall; one person died and several were wounded, so city officials became concerned about the holes and put doors in some of them. To obtain a permit to get in, visitors need to be invited by a local friend or relative. Foreigners and journalists, if allowed to visit, are accompanied by guards wherever they go.

“The wall is not to make us closed-minded, or isolated, but to provide us with a special status,” Victor Likh, the city mayor said. “Since Kapustin Yar is the country’s major military range for testing ballistic missiles and anti-aircraft systems, the government is paying 80 percent of the city budget, which is now one billion rubles, the biggest budget for a population of 33,000 in the entire Russian South.”

The process of modernizing walled fortresses like Znamensk is still nascent. The economy of the city depends on one industry—missiles and missile testing on a moonscape of steppeabout 20miles from the town center.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, the government stopped financing Kapustin Yar—and over 40 other closed cities—almost entirely. In despair, dozens of officers’ families fled and abandoned their apartments, which fell into disrepair. Privatization was not allowed. “Ten years ago I could not even dream of registering a company,” said Alexander Volchkov, the owner of the biggest construction company in Znamensk.

In the last four years, Volchkov’s company has built three multiple-story buildings and almost completed the construction of a modern water filtering system for the city. Mikhail Avramuk’s real estate company reconstructs the abandoned apartments and sells them: “In a way, it is much harder to deal here than in an open market, as we do not have a big demand inside the wall. But the world’s economic crises did not make it over our fence either. The prices stay more or less stable,” Volchkov said.

An association of officials whose duties concern closed cities includingthe ministry of defense, ministry of economy, and all mayors of closed cities, regularly meets in Moscow to decide which cities will be closed and which will continue to develop and eventually be opened. There are currently 45 closed cities. It has been decided to open six of them. The association decides whether to liquidate such mono cities or create alternative employment for their citizens.

“With the military reform transforming the Russian army and the market economy booming, it is inevitable that most of these cities will open up,” said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst. Such programs as the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and British Closed Nuclear Cities Partnership are helping Russia and the West to open some of the doors and reduce secrecy. But it is clear that Russia will always have a few closed cities left and Znamensk might be one of them.

“Under constant threat of terrorism, the world will be moving towards deeper secrecy,” said Sergey Markov, a Duma deputy. “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 enough secrecy for the range.”

Not everyone is happy in exile. Most graduates of Znamensk schools prefer to leave. “We live here under a magnifying glass – every step to the left or right is noticed and discussed. My friends and I plan to move to Moscow right after graduation. At least I will see people from other countries there,” said Olga Sibiyato, an 11th grader at High School No. 235.

Olga does not have much opportunity to meet foreigners on the streets of Znamensk, as there usually no visitors. A year ago, a few American and German specialists stayed in Znamensk for a month. They came to launch six small satellites from the Voshod space rocket complex. A few Egyptian, Brazilian and some Arab clients (the officials prefer not to identify from which country) came last month to see the test of a new missile, the Tor M2-E. These were all the foreign guests the city welcomed over the last year.

As the sun goes down, soldiers and officers of Znamensk line up for their evening march. The songs they sing, “Katyusha” and “The Soldier is Walking in the City” drift over the downtown and signal that the day is coming to an end.

Aleksei Prudnikov is commander of the anti-terror unit at Znamensk military range. “We are rocket specialists of the highest level, the elite of the Russian army,” he said. “Thousands of missiles have gone through our hands and have been tested on this range. If not us, who’s going to keep Russia safe?”

Russia Now

A Paid Supplement to The Washington Post