City 40, or what is today known as Ozersk, is a closed city in Russia that the Soviet Union created during the Cold War. So, what is City 40? Well, first of all, City 40 appears on no maps, and on top of that no outsiders were allowed in, and for a long time no insiders were allowed out, either. Once you were in, you were in; people were born, lived full lives, and died in Ozersk without ever setting foot outside the city walls. 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 - and subjected to horrors the rest of the country was spared. 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.
Keep reading to learn all about this amazing, top-secret city.
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.
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, because how could you survive as a city without one of those?
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 and breaking in would require a small army (or one deadly team of ninjas). That's if a person crazy enough to break in could even find it - Ozersk wasn't even included on any maps until 1991.
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.