Thousands of Russian citizens live in “closed towns”. I visited one of them, Lesnoye, to find out how people live today.
A shabbily dressed older man in a cap with ear flaps, looking like a character out of a Soviet film, walks past some women, wrapped up in padded jackets and old fur coats, selling socks, toys and frozen fish. This odd mini market is right next to a bus stop.
Behind this market lies the small town of Nizhnyaya Tura, which boasts a café, open 24/7, that offers rooms for intimate encounters during the evening; a pelmeni restaurant serving meat-filled dumplings to a clientele of rough-looking young men, and numerous down-at-heel shops selling household appliances. Three metres away, on the other side of the road, is a security checkpoint, two rows of barbed wire and troops checking the ID of everyone going through the control point. This is one of the roads into the closed town of Lesnoye, and no outsider can enter.
A Nuclear World Cup
The Russian Federation still has several dozen closed towns and cities left over from the Soviet period, homes to industrial installations of various kinds. Some produce warheads for nuclear weapons; some – radioactive isotopes. All types of closed towns live under a regime of security and state secrets that creates less-than-standard living conditions for local people.
The first closed towns were built when the USSR was working on its nuclear programme: in 1945, Stalin set up a special department within the State Defence Committee whose main tasks were to develop the use of Uranium’s atomic potential, to create technology for its extraction in the Soviet Union and to build an atomic bomb. The Soviet citizens who didn’t live near to these closed towns knew nothing about them, and information about their location was kept under wraps. The only people who could get into these closed towns either had to work there or were close relatives of residents with a permanent entry-pass (non-residents would receive a one-off entry pass).
All residents of closed towns had to sign a form promising never to reveal their home town’s name or location, and the Soviet government gave these places names linked to the nearest cities: Chelyabinsk–40, Krasnoyarsk-26 and so on. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the list of these towns was made public and they were all given proper names. Some became ordinary, open towns, but there are still some towns where visitors can’t go without a special pass.
Residents of closed towns had to sign a form promising never to reveal their home town’s name or location
One such town is Lesnoye (formerly Sverdlovsk-45), which was founded in the Sverdlovsk region in 1947. It was constructed by prisoners from the GULAG; there were up to 30,000 prisoners in the 1950s. The older part of town and the roads leading to it were built by them.
In 1948, the town embarked on the building of a plant for electromagnetic isotope separation, which came into operation two years later. A second plant appeared some time afterwards; its main task was the serial production of atomic bombs – up to 60 a year. This installation was one of the main elements in the USSR’s so-called “nuclear shield” during the Cold War.
After Sverdlovsk-45 lost its “secret” status in the 1990s, it was renamed Lesnoye. Its largest installation, now known as the Elektrokhimpribor (“Electro-chemical-appliance”) plant, produces warheads for nuclear weapons and is also engaged in electromagnetic isotope separation. It has a workforce of 9,000, almost one in five of the local residents. The plant belongs to the state-owned Rosatom nuclear corporation, as do the companies in Russia’s nine other closed towns.
But apart from its strategic importance, Sverdlovsk-45 is also famous for its “Fakel” (“Torch”) sports academy. Residents remember the town council actively promoting sporting facilities from the very start, as a means of occupying its young people. And the combination of Lesnoye’s compact layout and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle led to exceptionally good results.
“We had the best possible conditions for developing our sporting prowess,” the Olympic artistic gymnastics champion Olga Glatskikh, who grew up in the town, told an interviewer. “That’s probably why we have had so many Olympic athletes and champions.”
Over the years, the town’s training facilities have been used by 11 Olympic champions and runners-up and 46 World, European, Russian and Soviet champions in various sports; officials at the town hall are proud to tell me that Lesnoye holds the national record for the number of Olympians relative to its general population. And some well known sportsmen and women still live here.
There have never been any problems about the town’s sports stars travelling abroad for competitions. “None of them ever knew what went on at the plant, and those who did know didn’t have external passports,” says Sergey Pronin, an ice-skating coach at Fakel. “There was never any secret about it being a closed town: people from other countries weren’t in the least interested.” The town’s status nevertheless played a role in the recent anti-doping scandal: the Russian government used Lesnoye’s closed status to ban World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) experts from visiting the town.
Indeed, it isn’t easy to simply visit Lesnoye: the local FSB and Rosatom corporation monitor everyone arriving. I spent six weeks in negotiations with people from Elektrokhimpribor, trying to get a visitor’s pass. For this to happen, I had to not only send them my ID details (which is normal for many Russian military facilities), but state what equipment I was bringing, and how many days I planned to spend, as well as promising not to write anything negative about their town and its plant – just describe my trip.
In the end, I developed a slight paranoia: what if they were bugging my phone? Would they perhaps keep tabs on me given that I was working for a foreign publication? I approached the entry checkpoint in this uncomfortable state, and the young soldiers looked at me suspiciously and sent me up to the first floor. There, I handed my ID through a small window to a woman in uniform and heard her relaying the information to her colleagues below.
“Will they give me some kind of paperwork to show while I’m in your town?” I asked one of the troops. “No,” he shot back and let me through the barrier.
The plant and the town are the same thing
Dmitry Nikishkin came to live in Lesnoye from Izhevsk in 1987 when he was 17: his father, who worked for the military, had been posted here. The young man enrolled at the local campus of Moscow’s National Nuclear Research University (MIFI), did practical training at Elektrokhimpribor from his third year onwards – and has worked there ever since.
“The plant and the town are the same thing,” Nikishkin tells me. And indeed, the plant is laid out like a small town, and Lesnoye’s economy revolves around it. But while the plant is engaged in producing modern materials that it exports to Canada, the US, China and other countries, the town itself looks more like a postcard from the past.
The town centre consists of buildings in Soviet neo-classical style. Children walk to school past a statue of Lenin and a House of Culture, while mothers push their babies round a square named after famous Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. You can eat lunch for 100 roubles (£1.17) and take your leisure at the town’s various clubs and its one cinema, where a ticket costs £3.50.
It wasn’t easy for me to find a flat to rent: the “deluxe” suite at the town’s one hotel had neither wi-fi nor a shower, and the Booking.com site offered just one possible option. A one-room flat here costs up to 1.5m roubles (£17,500) to buy, or you can rent for a mere 10,000-12,000 roubles (£117-140) a month.
One of the town’s sights is “Champions’ Alley”, an avenue of nine-storey residential blocks decorated with enormous banners showing the Olympic athletes who began their careers here.
Dmitry Nikishkin is also an ex-Paralympic skier who competed at the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002. He recalls meeting ordinary Americans: “I realised that their government told them that Russia was their enemy,” he says, “but there was no aggression in their eyes.” But Nikishkin lost his chance of further travel abroad when he went to work for Elektrokhimpribor.
Nikishkin tells me that he would like to travel more freely, and when I ask him what his dream would be, he answers: “Everyone in the town has just one dream – that the international situation become less tense. You can understand that Lesnoye has an important role in all this. I can’t speak for everyone, but there’s a feeling of instability in the world.”
An island of calm
Talking to people on the streets, you get the impression that you’ve landed in a separate socialist state. “Highly educated people were offered housing here from the start,” says pensioner and former sports trainer Vladimir Popov. “It was all designers, engineers, teachers and doctors.”
For example, Popov adds, the local authorities gave residents free housing, and still do (as was the usual situation all over the Soviet Union). The 1990s passed Lesnoye by: the plant and the town’s special status assured its high standing with central government and it was always well provided for. Also, its being a closed town has meant a very low crime level – only 500 crimes were officially reported over the whole of 2017. There is also an extra rule in force: if someone has been convicted of a crime, they can’t return to Lesnoye after they leave prison, even if members of their family live there – all because of the town’s special status.
“We live between two sets of regulations: one to do with local government and the other with being a closed town”
“We live between two sets of regulations: one to do with local government and the other with being a closed town,” Lesnoye’s former mayor Viktor Grishin told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper in 2011. “The pass control regime has very tough regulations. People who fail the security service check have to settle in a zone 10 kilometres outside the town, rent a flat there and be left in limbo.”
And so the cloistered town retains its calm and friendly atmosphere: everyone I met there were happy to show me, the outsider, the way, and some even struck up conversations. Small children walk to school on their own, and I am assured that even at night it’s perfectly safe to go for a walk.
A town preserved in aspic
But however much members of Lesnoye’s local council give interviews boasting about its quietness and the sporting achievements of its residents, the town has enough problems of its own. Its special status impedes the development of small and medium business and prevents the Sverdlovsk regional authorities from constructing new buildings. Land here can only be rented, not bought, but this too is hindered by the bureaucratic obstacles created by Rosatom, which owns the plant.
I am told this by Sergey Pronin, a distinguished ice-skating coach who lives in Lesnoye with his wife and three children. He tells me that the town administration cuts corners in many budget areas. “Lesnoye used to be a flourishing place,” Pronin says, “but now wages are falling and they’re laying people off at the plant.”
The townspeople, however, are not bothered by their town’s status. According to Pronin, everybody is used to the perimeter fencing, the passes and the complications that arise if you want to invite friends to visit from other places. “The secrecy thing might affect the people working at the plant, but not anybody else,” Pronin says as we drive along the barbed wire fence in his car.
The town’s special status impedes the development of small and medium business
The situation also affects Lesnoye’s younger generation. They have little choice in life: they work at the plant and train in their spare time – and that’s about it. The town has only one nightclub and a couple of cafes and shopping centres. The lack of opportunities to find yourself leads young people to move away. Take Liza Sharova, 16, for example. She is finishing school this year and showing great promise as an ice-skater. But Liza doesn’t intend to stay. “There’s nothing to do here,” she tells me. “It’s quiet and peaceful, but I want to train as a computer programmer in Moscow and make my home there.”
The feeling of a place frozen in time is also responsible for the lack of civil society that is evident in Lesnoye. You won’t find any informal opposition protests here: most residents, while fed up with their low wages and high utility bills, express opinions typical of dwellers in provincial Russian towns: “Putin is a good man, but all our problems are because of the government.” There are, in fact about 20 NGOs in Lesnoye – from the women’s town council to an organisation for disabled people – but most of them are loyal to the town authorities.
An open secret
Should closed towns be opened? This question has been under discussion at the government level for ages. On the one hand, Sergey Pronin, Dmitri Nikishin and Vladimir Popov all feel that removing the town’s “closed” status would allow its economy to develop more quickly, with an influx of new business and an inflow of new residents as a result. On the other hand, things will be less quiet.
Local people will tell you that the town’s closed status is nothing of the sort, but the one thing that should perhaps keep its secrets is the Elektrokhimpribor plant. Meanwhile, the downside of the idyllic quiet streets is an atmosphere of paranoia, a feeling of being under constant surveillance that surfaces from time to time in conversations.
“What do you think?” I ask Sergey Pronin as he shows me the town. “Given that the FSB checks up on the people who want to come here, does that mean they bug locals’ phones as well?”
“Of course they do!” he laughs, but whether he’s joking or serious, I can’t tell. “But what news will they hear from me?”
FSB phone tapping is far from the only issue raised when people start talking about opening Lesnoye and other closed towns. “Closed towns are a drain on government finances,” says Nadezhda Kutepova, who heads the Planet of Hopes human rights organisation. Kutepova has spent most of her life in the closed town of Ozersk, south of Lesnoye in Chelyabinsk region, but she was forced into exile in Europe after being accused of spying by Russian state TV in 2015. “They receive a targeted subsidy designed to make up for the reduction in their civil rights (specifically, freedom of movement). This is why the Ministry of Economic Development, which is responsible for closed towns, raises the question of these towns from time to time when it sees how much money it is forced to spend on issues unconnected with security.”
However, Kutepova goes on, whenever the Ministry tries to raise the question, the nuclear lobby always turns it from an economic issue into a state security issue – and the subject is dropped. This lobby, which is made up of Rosatom, nuclear installations and the security services, puts forward a number of arguments for keeping closed towns closed.
The first one is economic. “Rosatom doesn’t have to spend anything on either external security or urban maintenance – the state pays for it all,” says Kutepova. The second reason is linked to corruption: “The entire life of a closed town is in the hands of those who police the right of entry to it.” The head of any business, or their deputy, needs the agreement of the FSB for any right of entry. And this applies to everything, from giving an entry pass to someone’s granny to the launch of state owned shopping centres or any kind of business. If the allegiance of those who take the decisions is lost for any reason, entry will be refused.
The third reason, Kutepova believes, is the fact that the residents of closed towns don’t always want them to be opened because they fear change: “It’s a result of the mass conditioning of their consciousness that people have been subjected to in such places from the moment they were set up.” And the last reason is government and business’ desire to limit public access to information about the environmental issues around the nuclear industry – the Mayak plant in Ozersk is an obvious example.
There have been examples of military closed towns, which come under the Ministry of Defence, being opened, but never a closed town involved in Russia’s nuclear industry. Could the residents of Lesnoye ever gain the right to move freely about Russia and invite their friends to visit? They don’t seem to know the answer to that question – and don’t seem very bothered about it either.