Secret Nuclear Cities

The Soviet Union was the second country in the world to detonate a nuclear device in 1948, and the first to launch a civilian nuclear station in 1954. Much of the 1950s–1970s was spent on achieving nuclear parity with the United States during the Cold War. The Soviet Union had to build facilities for research and development (R&D) of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It needed uranium mines, enrichment facilities, plutonium-239 production facilities, and nuclear waste reprocessing facilities. It also had to build, transport, store, and test weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical, and biological. According to some estimates, in the late Soviet period about one-quarter of all industrial workers in the country (5 million people) were employed by the VPK, including almost 1 million researchers at over 2,000 institutes and factories, and the sector accounted for almost 20% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

Hundreds of research labs, institutes, and factories were scattered over a few dozen small and medium-sized cities that did not appear on any maps. These secret nuclear (or otherwise military) cities constitute a fascinating subject for geographic research (Rowland, 1999). They were largely declassified, renamed, and finally put on maps by 2000. Most remain closed to casual visitors, however, and even Russia's residents (let alone foreigners) require special permits to enter. Some of this top-secret research also went on behind the facades of average office buildings in Moscow, Gorky (now Nizhniy Novgorod), Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), and Krasnoyarsk, hiding behind innocent names or simply post office box numbers. Such yashchiki (literally, “postal boxes”) were good employers: The pay was better than usual, and the prospect of doing cutting-edge science research that had to be shrouded in secrecy added to the appeal. Workers were usually housed in nearby settlements with better-than-average clinics, food stores, and schools available. In post-Soviet times, however, salaries at such facilities plummeted. Eventually, many employees quit their no longer satisfying jobs. My first job after college was with an environmental group that was renting two rooms for an office in one of the former “postal boxes” near the Airport metro station in Moscow. The linoleum floors were peeling, the washrooms stank, the guards were lenient, and our meager rent (paid out of Western grants) actually was one of the few sources of income for the almost bankrupt state facility!

Much Soviet-era research in economic geography was spent on optimizing “territorial production complexes” (called TPK in Russian)—that is, on aligning the locations of military factories with regional sources of fuels, metals, and water. The Soviet geographer N. Kolosovsky created a theoretical framework of TPK organization, proposing various types of solutions to the problems of optimal location, depending on the region. For example, for many industries dependent on coal (e.g., steel and chemical manufacturing), the most important factor in the location of enterprises was proximity to coal-mining districts. The location of other facilities followed a similar geographic logic. Warships and hydroplanes had to be produced near the sea (St. Petersburg, Taganrog, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Severodvinsk). Nuclear facilities were hidden deep in the country's interior (the Urals, central Siberia) to protect them in case of an outside attack, as they are in the United States. The Volga region, with its cheap electricity necessary for aluminum smelting, saw the development of the aerospace industry. The Urals traditionally were the center for production of lighter weapons (guns, rifles, grenades, and mines), as well as tanks and armored personnel carriers, because of the extraordinarily rich polymetallic ores available in the region.

The Soviet distribution of factories was determined by careful centralized planning unlike that in a market economy. For example, the top-secret Soviet city was arguably Arzamas-16 (historical Sarov), south of Gorky (Nizhniy Novgorod). Located in a beautiful pine forest in a former monastery town about 50 km south of the actual city of Arzamas, it is still one of the main centers of nuclear weapons research and production. The famous physicists Sakharov, Kapitsa, Tamm, Khariton, and others spent years living in the closed city in small but comfortable cabins in the woods, working on designs for some of the most powerful weapons ever built. The historical Sarov monastery was obliterated to make room for the nuclear center.

Other well-known towns and cities with nuclear facilities included Zarechny, radioelectronic center, southeast of Moscow; Obninsk, Dubna, and Protvino, near Moscow; Ozersk and Snezhinsk, near Chelyabinsk; Seversk, Zheleznogorsk, and Zelenogorsk, in central Siberia; and others. The Soviet Union had not only nuclear but also chemical and biological facilities at a few dozen sites. In addition, it engaged in production of space satellite equipment, antiaircraft ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, fighter jets, nuclear submarines, and of course ICBMs (e.g., in Votkinsk, Udmurtiya).

A typical “secret” city today has about 40,000 residents. Usually there is one main enterprise that gives the city its reason for existence. Sometimes there are two or three. The biggest such city is Seversk in Central Siberia, with over 116,000 residents in 1997 (Rowland, 1999); the second biggest is Novouralsk (91,000), near Yekaterinburg in the Urals. Rowland's list (which uses the pre-2000 economic region names) includes 11 settlements in the Urals, 9 near Moscow, 8 in the European North (mainly near Murmansk, where the nuclear submarine fleet is deployed), 7 in the Far East (submarine bases), 5 in Central Siberia near Krasnoyarsk, 3 in the Volga region, 2 in West Siberia, and 1 in the Far East. An additional 5 were located in Kazakhstan—for example, Kurchatov, near the Semipalatinsk bombing site, and Stepnogorsk, which was a center of uranium mining and of chemical and biological weapon production. There have been attempts to convert some of the former military factories for civilian use. For example, the first Russian computed tomography (CT) scanner was developed at Snezhinsk, the home of a leading thermonuclear bomb research facility. Many nonsecret cities around Moscow are also heavily involved with nuclear-weapons-related research.