City 40, or what is today known as Ozersk, is a closed city in Russia that the Soviet Union created during the Cold War. City 40 didn't appear on any maps until 1991, allowed no outsiders to enter, and for a long time, no insiders were allowed out. It wasn't until very recently that the Western world has even become aware of Ozersk, and it took a brave documentary crew sneaking cameras through the heavily guarded gates for any footage of the city to escape.
That footage shows Ozersk as the heart of the Russian nuclear program and its residents as the people charged with keeping that heart beating. The denizens of the cloistered city were treated to luxuries that the rest of the country was denied but also exposed to dangers that others were not. While there is (and will always be) much that outsiders will never know about what happens inside those gates, here is what we do know about the surreal, dangerous, closed-off world of City 40.
It's The Home Of The Soviet Nuclear Program
Construction on City 40 began in 1948 in a barely inhabited spot in the Ural mountains, about 45 miles from the city of Chelyabinsk. The city was built in conjunction with the new Mayak plutonium plant as a place to house the construction workers during the building process - and once the plant was up and running, the imported nuclear scientists and facility employees.
Mayak was conceived as the hub of the new Soviet atomic weapons program, a secluded place where state scientists could work furiously to catch up with the Americans. The plant quickly began processing and weaponizing plutonium, and their greatest success came with the manufacture of the infamous First Lightning, the USSR's first plutonium bomb. Mayak is still in operation today but it no longer manufactures weapons; instead, it produces harmless commercial materials such as cobalt-60, iridium-192, and carbon-14.
It's A Fully Functioning City
The plant itself requires about 15,000 people to operate, all living within the city walls. Those employees also have family members that live with them, and all of these people require an extensive infrastructure to house, feed, and care for them.
All told, there are nearly 100,000 people living in Ozersk, which has all of the features that you would expect from a city that size. There are sanitation and public works departments, post offices, churches, schools, restaurants, and grocery stores. The town even has its own Coat of Arms featuring a golden salamander.
You Can't Get Inside. Period.
The city is surrounded by thick walls and guard fences, and no one is allowed in or out without the proper clearance - no outsiders admitted.
Today, residents are free to leave on their own, but this was not always the case: initially, no one other than the very highest-ranking Soviet officials were allowed to enter or exit the stronghold, with most residents essentially being held captive. Heavily armed guards stand at every gate.
- Video: YouTube
The City Watches Everyone
It takes a lot of intense pressure and scrutiny to keep an entire city secret, and as such, the residents of Ozersk were (and still are) under constant surveillance. Visible cameras are everywhere - as are hidden cameras and audio recorders - and during the height of the Cold War, City 40 was crawling with Soviet secret police.
The NKVD and the KGB were constantly listening in on residents' conversations to ensure that they weren't sharing secrets or plotting anything illegal, and it was not uncommon for Black Marias to whisk residents away if anything suspect was detected. Citizens were tested by undercover agents who would ask them questions trying to get them to disclose classified information and then arrest them if they did.
The surveillance isn't as extreme now, but it is still a closed city and the police presence hasn't gone away - for example, some of the subjects of the City 40 documentary have faced police pressure and have been forced to flee the country for fear of imprisonment.
Residents Have Luxuries Other Cities Do Not
These days, residents of Ozersk are allowed to leave permanently if they so choose; however, most of them don't, despite all the restrictions and shortcomings. The government has gone to great lengths to ensure that the city's occupants are happy with their lives, doing their best to engineer a safe, clean, idyllic community surrounding their nuclear reactors.
The town is a surreally peaceful land of plenty with public parks, a professional theater, a college of music, fresh air, and beautiful lakes. There is little to no violent crime, plentiful housing, and the grocery stores are full of cheap, high-quality food that other Russian citizens once didn't have access to. In a time when bread was in short supply nationwide, Ozersk residents had access to luxury items like bananas, chocolates, and caviar.
- Photo: Ecodefense/Heinrich Boell Stiftung Russia/Slapovskaya/Nikulina / Wikimedia Commons / Attribution
The Whole City Is Radioactive
Yes, life in Ozersk looks picture-perfect from afar, but if history and literature have taught us anything, it's that if things in Russia look too good to be true, they probably are. Sure, Lake Irtyash looks serene and picturesque, perfect for drinking, swimming, and fishing; however, the water has been shown to be amongst the most polluted in the entire world, leading to its charming local nickname: "The Lake of Death."
Mayak used to dump their toxic waste directly into the lake and even though that practice has since stopped the area is already completely contaminated. The soil, plant life, wildlife, and even the air all bear more than trace levels of radioactivity, levels that can have some adverse health effects on its residents.