Russia: Secret Cities!

I was drinking my morning cup of coffee and thinking about an article that I read. I am going to share this article with you. The article is about the secret cities of Russia.

There are still cities in Russia that, (I) being an American can not get into. (Unless given permission.) So when we travel we just try to go to open areas.

This is no different than when I lived in America. I spent my life near, “The Lake City Arsenal”. Located near Kansas City, Mo. You could drive near the place but better not try to get in. This complex was just like a city all its own. They had everything within the comforts of its walls.

We (when kids) use to talk about: That if there was ever an Atomic War, we would be the first to go. (We lived near the largest armory in America)

Secret City…

“During the Great Patriotic War the Soviet military-industrial complex created a number of new other towns and cities for weapons development and manufacturing. The creation of such “town-forming enterprises” accelerated during the War, as such much of the Soviet military industrial infrastructure was relocated beyond the reach of Hitler’s advancing armies.

In response to the immense challenge of the unfolding East-West arms race, Stalin decided to create dozens of centers of research and development excellence in the USSR. Some of these so-called “Naukograds” [Science Towns] were “Akademgorodok” [Academic Cities} devoted to basic research. Others were secret cities which were to provide the technical foundation for Soviet military technology – sputniks, long-range missiles, thermonuclear warheads of extreme yield. Among the work performed in such places were chemical, biological and nuclear weapons research and manufacturing, enrichment of plutonium, space research, and military intelligence work.

Collectively, these secret cities are known as zakrytye administrativno-territorial’nye obrazovaniia (ZATO), many of which were built by slave labor from the Soviet GULAG. During the cold war many of Russia’s towns and cities, including some of its largest, were ‘closed cities’. Anyone with a foreign passport was forbidden to enter, and many were even out of bounds to Russian citizens. These closed cities provided the technical foundation for Soviet military technology including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons research and manufacturing, enrichment of plutonium, space research, and military intelligence work. This meant that large numbers of highly qualified scientists and researchers were concentrated in these geographical areas, developing new technologies but isolated from the global research community. With Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union, all of the major cities were opened for collaboration in civil research and the slow process of breaking down the barriers of secrecy began.

Such “secret cities” were known only by a postal code, identified with a name and a number. Originally, the number following the city was the distance in kilometers the facility was located from the city. In practice, the numbers were in some instances arbitrarily assigned, and changed from time to time, to obscure the actual location of the installation. Thus, the All-Russian Scientific and Research Institute of Experimental Physics (VNIIEF) was initially known as Arzamas-60, a postal code designation to show that it was 60 km from the city of Arzamas. But the “60” was considered too sensitive, and the number was changed to “16.” In 1947 the entire city of Sarov (Arzamas-16) disappeared from all official Russian maps and statistical documents. The facility has also been known Moscow-300, the town of Kremlev, and Arzamas-75. Zlatoust-20 is probably the same as Zlatoust-36, and Kurchatov-21, Moscow-21, Moscow-400 and Semipalatinsk-121 are almost certainly the same as Semipalatinsk-16.

The naukograds reflect the character of the Soviet system of organising the society to a high degree of purity. More generally, the secret cities were a natural expression of the Soviet emphasis on secrecy, and strict controls on the internal movement of the population. But they were not entirely unique to the Soviet system. For instance, in 1915, Britain built a massive new war factory on the Solway River. HM Factory Gretna employed 30,000 women and men manufacturing cordite for ammunition. The two new Townships of Eastriggs and Gretna were created to house many of the workers who built and worked in the factory. But the new communities did not officially exist because of the secrecy surrounding the operation. Gretna and Eastriggs were referred to by their codename “Moorside” in Government circles. Conan Doyle describes those townships as Miracle Towns, because the houses were not just thrown up without thought. They were designed by prominent architects of the day to modern Garden City principles. Cinemas, Dance Halls, Schools, Churches, State Controlled Public Houses and Leisure Facilities were provided for the needs of the munitions workers. The United States employed a similar philosophy with the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb during World War II, building secret cities at Hanford, Washington, Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Many Soviet era defense plant are, in some ways, a throw-back to a US factory-town. The defense plant is a mini-city in itself, with its own apartments, doctors, clinics, restaurants, and power plants. Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, defense plant employees usually live in company apartments, shop in company stores, and eat in company cafeterias. Up to 80 percent of a defense plant’s budget goes to maintaining these social services. The plant manager is often as concerned with making deals to bring in potatoes and bread to feed his people as with joint venture agreements, and these and other transactions are often conducted on a barter-basis.

The “secret cities” share these characteristics, but they were separated from other urban areas, self-contained, and protected by fences and guard forces. The secret cities require a special permit for entrance, and are usually surrounded by a concrete wall. Personnel working in the Soviet nuclear complex were under heavy surveillance by the KGB, and underwent an intensive screening process, and their activities were closely monitored. Soviet-era control systems relied heavily on keeping personnel and materiel in secret cities and facilities, closely monitoring nuclear industry personnel, and severely punishing control violations.

The facilities could grow to considerable size, with tens of thousands of employees and dependents. With schools, stores, and recreational facilities, these secret cities contained everything a normal city might have. The selection of goods was often much better than a normal Soviet city, a reward for the difficult lifestyle and secrecy required by the job. Many of these cities are now “open,” but remain engaged in military-industrial work. In present Russia, 3 million people live in such naukograds. The problem is what to do with these cities after the end of the militarized East-West contest.

Sources and Resources

  • Secret and Closed Cities in the Russian Federation by the Center for Post Soviet Studies.This list of known secret or closed cities was originally compiled by Dr. Murray Feshbach and his research staff: Doug Goudie, Janel Lardizabel, Cathy Schaidler and Niki Gallozzi. The data was taken from a wide variety of Russian-language sources, including newspapers, journals and books. It appears as Appendix A in Dr. Murray Feshbach’s Ecological Disaster: Cleaning up the Hidden Legacy of the Soviet Regime (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1995, pp. 110-111).
  • Russian Administrative Districts The Ethnic Territories of Russia GIS Project, Dr. Robert J. Kaiser also includes an interesting discussion of Rayon-Level Population Data Limitations and Considerations
  • Don’t Play With Nuclear Fire. The Open `Wounds’ of the Closed Cities, Anatoliy Pokrovskiy, PRAVDA, 12/2/1995 — Discussion of Russia’s closed cities in the post-Cold War era.
  • From Nuclear War to the War of the Markets, Pilar Bonet, EL PAIS, 11/7/1995 — Report on the transition of Russia’s secret defense research laboratories to the post-Cold War environment.”

This article explains to me what I talked about in a more previous article.

I have come to discover that there are Secret Cities all over the world!!


comments always welcome.

About the Author


A survivor of six heart attacks and a brain tumor, a grumpy bear of a man, whom has declared Russia as his new and wonderful home. His wife is a true Russian Sweet Pea of a girl and she puts up with this bear of a guy and keeps him in line. Thank God for my Sweet Pea and Russia.