Upon the passing of John McCain this summer, Russian Parliamentarian Oleg Morosov reacted to the death of the American senator and patriot by saying, “The enemy died. Honor his honest hostility, honest hatred and intransigence. Others act crookedly. This one says what he thinks. He taught us to better understand ourselves and the United States.” A product of the Cold War and staunch critic of Russia, these words no doubt would have made McCain proud. They reflect the mutual sentiment shared between Russians and Americans for most of the last century: the suspicion and respect of a worthy adversary.
As Russia provokes the West with threats both loaded and hollow, lingering relics of the Cold War offer essential wisdom on how to understand the “red menace.” One carefully hidden relic is a town in the Southern Ural Mountains which, until 1994, had no name and could not be found on any map. Today, the town is called Ozersk. And in the 2016 documentary City 40 (available on Netflix), the world got its first look at the closed city. With the cooperation of a few locals – and cameras hidden from Russian authorities – Iranian-American filmmaker Samira Goetschel entered Ozersk to discover its Cold War secrets.
City 40: The Town That Didn’t Exist
The documentary opens in a somewhat dingy apartment. A single mother does laundry with her children, hanging it on clotheslines hung from walls covered in crayon drawings and chipping paint. Nadehzda Kutepova, a single mother and human rights attorney, has lived in Ozersk all her life.
Near the city of Chelyabinsk, Ozersk is the site of the Mayak nuclear plant. This off-the-grid city was a direct product of the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. As the film explains, “In 1944, the U.S. built the secret city of Richland, WA around the Hanford Nuclear Plant that produced plutonium for the atomic bomb. One year later, with plans stolen from Richland and Hanford, the Soviet Union began construction of their own secret atomic city.”
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin knew that developing atomic weapons would be essential to compete with the Americans. So in total secrecy, they began building the Mayak plant, the first nuclear plant in the Soviet Union. The city of Ozersk would be populated by the new plant’s workers and scientists. Kutepova’s grandmother, a chemical engineer, brought her mother to Ozersk at age 8. There she worked with Igor Kurchatov, the nuclear physicist widely credited as “the father of the Russian bomb.”
“We lived like well-fed animals in a zoo”
In the era of Soviet shortages, living in Ozersk had many perks. While their countrymen scrounged for food and had to wait years for the privilege of buying a car, residents of the hidden city had lives more similar to American suburbanites than their fellow Russians. Gregory Kuznetsov lived as a boy in nearby Chelyabinsk and recalls visits from his parents friends who worked at the plant. Once they brought him a bunch of bananas, a commodity so scarce in Soviet territory that Kuznetsov thought the gift “was like a fairy tale.” Russians in the neighboring cities even called Ozersk residents “the chocolate people,” because – unlike their compatriots – they had access to chocolate.
The city also offered other perks. Being shut off from the outside and closely controlled by Stalin’s secret police, the city was a safe, crime-free place to raise a family. Residents felt privileged and proud of their town.
Of course, that privilege came at the price of total secrecy. Workers and scientists at the Mayak plant could not tell anyone outside the town about their jobs or where they lived. Relatives of workers sent to Ozersk thought their family members were missing or dead. No outsiders were allowed to enter and residents required special permission to leave. When residents were able to leave, they could tell no one where they lived. They were told to give the cover that they “lived in Chelyabinsk on Lenin Street.”
Signs in the town read, “If you wouldn’t tell Stalin, don’t tell anyone” and “Talk means trouble. Don’t talk.” Nadehzda Kutepova recalls her mother warning her that if she ever told anyone where her parents lived, they’d be taken away and never seen again. There were spies throughout the town. Her mother would insist, “Let state secrets stay secret.”
One former nuclear scientist put it bluntly, “We lived like well-fed animals in a zoo.” Indeed, workers at the Mayak plant lived a privileged life in Ozersk, but they paid for it dearly with their silence – and as they would discover, their bodies.
The explosion at mayak
As you can imagine, working so closely with radioactive materials has had lasting effects on families in Ozersk. Though the physical repercussions of working with these substances was somewhat known, Soviet authorities hid or downplayed the risks from Mayak workers.
Likewise, Communist Party rules dictated that all people do their share for the good of the state. One interviewee’s father, according to party rules, picked up a spill of radioactive powder with his bare hands. He died at 55 of lung cancer. Many people died young and were replaced at the plant with no acknowledgement of the cause.
And in 1957 there was a massive explosion at Mayak, sending caesium-137, strontium-90, and other radioactive materials over a span of 20,000 square miles. It was the third greatest nuclear disaster recorded after Fukushima and Chernobyl. In spite of this, Soviet authorities were reluctant to inform residents of the extreme risk to their health. Even when evacuation orders were made, the reasons given were vague; authorities could not risk anyone finding out about the hidden city. It was 1989 before the government would declassify documents admitting to the disaster.
mayak’s nuclear poison kills followers and dissidents alike
Kutepov has battled in the courts for the victims of Mayak-related illnesses. Families in Ozersk are heartbreakingly familiar with leukemia, birth defects, miscarriages, sterility, skin disorders, and radiation-induced cancer. Of course its victims lie far beyond the borders of Ozersk, spreading into the air, land, and water of the region.
Unfortunately Mayak has claimed lives even beyond these boundaries – and more recently than you may think. The deadly polonium that killed dissident and former spy Alexander Litvinenko almost certainly had origins in the Mayak plant in Ozersk. With the town’s full-scale army presence, no nuclear material could escape this gated, prison-like community without the notice of the Russian authorities.
So while Mayak and Ozersk have roots in the Cold War, the documentary City 40 shows that those roots go deep. At one point, it seemed that the collapse of the Soviet Union might spell the end of the secret city. But with the poisoning of Litvinenko, it’s clear that Vladimir Putin still sees a bright future for Mayak.