'The graveyard of the Earth': inside City 40, Russia's deadly nuclear secret

Ozersk, codenamed City 40, was the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme. Now it is one of the most contaminated places on the planet – so why do so many residents still view it as a fenced-in paradise?

• View the trailer for the documentary City 40 here

Those in paradise were given a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. There was no third alternative.” (From the dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1924)

Deep in the vast forests of Russia’s Ural mountains lies the forbidden city of Ozersk. Behind guarded gates and barbed wire fences stands a beautiful enigma – a hypnotic place that seems to exist in a different dimension.

Codenamed City 40, Ozersk was the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme after the second world war. For decades, this city of 100,000 people did not appear on any maps, and its inhabitants’ identities were erased from the Soviet census.

Today, with its beautiful lakes, perfumed flowers and picturesque tree-lined streets, Ozersk resembles a suburban 1950s American town – like one of those too-perfect places depicted in The Twilight Zone.

On a typical day, young mothers push newborns in prams and children play in the street. Music booms from teenage boys’ stereos as they show off their skateboarding skills to young girls. In the nearby forest, families swim in the lake as older folk rest on park benches, enjoying a lazy afternoon watching passersby.

On the side roads, local women sell fruit and vegetables. Only the Geiger counters used to check the produce before it is purchased point to the dark secret that haunts this tranquil urban scene.

The city’s residents know the truth, however: that their water is contaminated, their mushrooms and berries are poisoned, and their children may be sick. Ozersk and the surrounding region is one of the most contaminated places on the planet, referred to by some as the “graveyard of the Earth”.

Yet the majority of residents do not want to leave. They believe they are Russia’s “chosen ones”, and even take pride in being citizens of a closed city. This is where they were born, got married, and raised their families. It is where they buried their parents, and some of their sons and daughters too.

‘Saviours of the world’

In 1946, the Soviets began construction of City 40 in total secrecy, around the huge Mayak nuclear plant on the shores of Lake Irtyash. It would house the workers and scientists transported from across the country to lead the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons programme, and build an atomic bomb.

For the first eight years, residents were forbidden from leaving the city, writing letters or making any contact with the outside world – including members of their own family. Those who had been relocated here were considered missing by their relatives, as if they had disappeared into oblivion.

City 40 - Ozersk lake
The level of radiation in nearby lakes is said to be 2.5 times that of Chernobyl. Photograph: DIG Films

City 40’s inhabitants were told they were “the nuclear shield and saviours of the world”, and that everyone on the outside was an enemy. While the majority of the Soviet population were suffering from famine and living in abject poverty, the authorities created a paradise for these residents, providing them with lives of privilege and some luxury.

They were offered private apartments, plenty of food – including exotic delicacies such as bananas, condensed milk and caviar – good schools and healthcare, a plethora of entertainment and cultural activities, all in a lakeside forest setting worthy of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale.

In exchange, the residents were ordered to maintain secrets about their lives and work. It is a deal they still adhere to today, in a city where almost all of Russia’s reserve fissile material is stored.

It is prestigious to live in Ozersk. Many residents describe it as a town of “intellectuals”, where they are used to getting “the best of everything for free”. Life in a closed town implies not only physical security but financial stability for their families; Ozersk children, they assert, are offered great opportunities for a successful future.

map city 50

But the pact has had deadly consequences. For years, the Soviet Union’s political and scientific leadership withheld the effects of extreme exposure to radiation on the health of the city’s inhabitants, and their future offspring.

From the outset, the majority of residents worked or lived near the Mayak nuclear complex under extremely dangerous conditions. From the late 1940s, people here started to get sick and die: the victims of long-term exposure to radiation.

While accurate data is not available thanks to the authorities’ extreme secrecy and frequent denials, the gravestones of many young residents in Ozersk’s cemetery bear witness to the secret the Soviets tried to bury alongside victims of the Mayak plant.

City 40 residents have been casualties in a number of nuclear incidents, including the 1957 Kyshtym disaster – the world’s worst nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl – which the Soviet authorities kept a well-guarded secret from the outside world.

City 40 - shop
City 40 residents have always enjoyed plenty of food, even when the rest of the country lived in poverty. Photograph: DIG Films

The Mayak plant’s management has also overseen the dumping of its waste into nearby lakes and rivers, which flow into the River Ob and on into the Arctic Ocean. Over four decades, Mayak is said to have dumped 200 million curies of radioactive waste into the environment, equal to four “Chernobyls”, although this is always denied by the authorities.

According to some Ozersk residents, the dumping continues today. One of the nearby lakes has been so heavily contaminated by plutonium that locals have renamed it the “Lake of Death” or “Plutonium Lake”. The radioactive concentration there is reported to exceed 120 million curies2.5 times the amount of radiation released in Chernobyl.

In a village about 20 minutes outside Ozersk, a digital clock in the town square switches constantly between the local time and the current level of radiation in the air (though the latter reading is never accurate). Half a million people in Ozersk and its surrounding area are said to have been exposed to five times as much radiation as those living in the areas of Ukraine affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

On the outskirts of Ozersk, there is an oversized “no trespassing” sign in English and Russian, with “Attention!!!” written in large red letters to emphasise the point. Foreigners and non-resident Russians are still prohibited from entering the city without permission from the FSB (Russian secret police), and filming in the area is strictly forbidden.

Ozersk’s warning to outsiders.
Ozersk’s stark warning to outsiders. Photograph: DIG Films

Ozersk’s residents are, however, permitted to exit the city with a special pass, and are even allowed to leave permanently if they wish never to return. Few do, because it would mean losing the privileges of being a resident of this closed city.

In most – though certainly not all – residents’ eyes, the fence around Ozersk does not serve to keep them in against their wishes, but rather to keep outsiders away from their paradise, protecting them from “the enemy”. The barbed-wire fence remains an intrinsic part of the city’s landscape and the citizens’ psychological makeup and collective identity.

It is difficult for outsiders to comprehend how the residents of City 40 can continue to live in a place they know is slowly killing them. But a local journalist says they are not concerned with what the outside world thinks of them and their way of life.

He says the majority of his fellow residents, like him, just wish to be left alone to live in “peace”. They are happy in their fenced-in paradise.

Samira Goetschel is an award-winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She is the producer and director of the feature-length documentary City 40, which will be screened at Bertha DocHouse, London WC1, on 23 July, and will be available on Netflix from September

Samira Goetschel

The GuardianTramp

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