Secret Soviet Cities

[Images: From ZATO: Secret Soviet Cities during the Cold War at Columbia’s Harriman Institute; right three photographs by Richard Pare].

Speaking of Van Alen Books: earlier this week, they hosted a panel on the topic of “Secret Soviet Cities During the Cold War.” These were closed cities or ZATO, “sites of highly secretive military and scientific research and production in the Soviet Empire. Nameless and not shown on maps, these remote urban environments followed a unique architectural program inspired by ideal cities and the ideology of the Party.”

The ZATO, we read courtesy of an interesting post on the Russian History Blog, was a “Closed Administrative-Territorial Formation (Zakrytoe administrativno-territorial’noe obrazovanie, ZATO)”:

[T]he cities themselves were never shown on official maps produced by the Soviet regime. Implicated in the Cold War posture of producing weapons for the Soviet military-industrial complex, these cities were some of the most deeply secret and omitted places in Soviet geography. Those who worked in these places had special passes to live and leave, and were themselves occluded from public view. Most of the scientists and engineers who worked in the ZATOs were not allowed to reveal their place or purpose of employment.

In any case, there are two main reasons to post this:

[Image: Photo by I. Yakovlev/Itar-Tass, courtesy of Nature].

1) Just last week, Nature looked at Soviet-era experiments in these closed cities, where “nearly 250,000 animals were systematically irradiated” as part of a larger medical effort “to understand how radiation damages tissues and causes diseases such as cancer.”

In an article that is otherwise more medical than it is urban or architectural, we nonetheless read of a mission to the formerly closed city of Ozersk in order to rescue this medical evidence from the urban ruins: “After a long flight, a three-hour drive and a lengthy security clearance, a small group of ageing scientists led the delegation to an abandoned house with a gaping roof and broken windows. Glass slides and laboratory notebooks lay strewn on the floors of some offices. But other, heated rooms held wooden cases stacked with slides and wax blocks in plastic bags.” These slides and wax blocks “provide a resource that could not be recreated today,” Nature suggests, “for both funding and ethical reasons.”

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the idea of medical researchers helicoptering into the ruins of a formerly secret city in order to locate medical samples of fatally irradiated mutant animals is a pretty incredible premise for a future film.

[Images: (top) photo by Tatjana Paunesku; (bottom) photo by S. Tapio. Courtesy of Nature].

2) More relevant for this blog, you only have five days left to see the exhibition ZATO: Secret Soviet Cities during the Cold War up at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, featuring “ZATO archival materials, camouflage maps of strategic sites, secret diagrams of changing ZATO names/numbers, [and] ZATO passports.”

That exhibition documents everything from the “special food and consumer supplements given as rewards for the secrecy and ‘otherness’ of the sites,” to the cities’ eerily suburbanized, half-abandoned state today: “Today there are 43 ZATO on the territory of the Russian Federation. Their future is uncertain: some may survive; others may disappear as urban formations within the context of Russian suburbs.” Check it out if you get a chance.

More info at the Harriman Institute.

6 thoughts on “Secret Soviet Cities”

  1. Another city of interest is the small town of Zholtye Vody in Ukraine. Located within the 'weapons heart' that was Dnepropetrovsk (missiles and control systems), Kirovograd (uranium enrichment), Pavlograd (waste and submarine parts), Dneprodzerzhinsk (also nuclear waste), Zholtye Vody is a town whose main function was uranium mining and enrichment. Most tragically, the majority of the town was built using uranium waste from the enrichment factory and two mines. Roads, parks, entire apartment blocks, public buildings, all infrastructure, was built using irradiated construction materials in the 1960's and 70's. Until the break-up of the USSR, Zholtye Vody was a closed city, not seen on any maps. Today, it is not a closed city, but it is still unseen in many peoples eyes. It has the highest rates of cancer and uses a special milk program for mothers devised for those in Chernobyl. Many of the residents, in fact, were used as Liquidators in the Chernobyl clean-up as it was believed they were "immune" to the risks of radiation – they had lived for decades in a radioactive construction site. Another case of geology terrorizing its citizens, an example of a wayward bureaucracy mindfully neglecting science. A short film can be viewed here:

  2. The most striking quote to my mind is "some may survive; others may disappear as urban formations within the context of Russian suburbs".

    a) Because it implies that the suburb unleashed is potent enough to swallow chunks of the Soviet military-industrial complex whole (disturbingly possible!)

    b) The idea that, for some future Russian child, the Creepy House At The End Of The Street will, in fact, be The Creepy Soviet City Entombed In Our Suburb

  3. I´m intrigued by the parallels of the ZATO's with the recently announced cite-city for New Mexico ( apparently the quintessential "Une Cite Industrielle"- and which could be most architects / urban designers dream come to life – to design a city…. "without the complication and safety issues associated with residents"…..

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