Monday, March 2, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s ‘Closed’ Cities Open Up Just a Little

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 2 – Russia’s “closed” cities are not nearly as restricted as were their Soviet predecessors – they now go by their own names rather than a number and can be found on most maps -- but these centers of secret military research remain off limits for most people, making any media reports from them especially intriguing.
In three articles posted on the portal over the weekend, Yuliya Eidel’, who visited Sarov, one of the most famous of these places, as the relative of someone who works there, describes what they are like now as well as how difficult it remains for an outsider to get into them (, 3861, and 3862).
Although Russia has a tradition of cities closed to outsiders extending at least to the eighteenth century, it was during the Soviet-era and especially the last years of Stalin’s rule that these institutions acquired their reputation. At that time, there were 103 closed cities, ten of which were known as “nuclear” cities, created to conduct secret military work.
They were known by their box number at a neighboring “open” city, and they were entirely financed by Moscow rather than regional budgets. As a result, the scientists and technicians who worked there often lived significantly better than did those in surrounding areas, even though they were not permitted to say where they lived.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, their names and locations were declassified, but many of them remained restricted under the terms of a 1992 law governing “closed administrative-territorial formations” with the Russian acronym ZATO, as these locales were always identified.
At the present time, Eidel’ says, there are 45 such places in the Russian Federation. These cities have 1.3 million residents, or nearly one percent of the country’s total population. But despite the new “openness,” she continues, it is still very difficult to get into them, and it is impossible to a ticket to travel directly to any of them.
In addition to registered and highly screened residents – and because of that there is little crime in these places – close relatives of the residents, scientists who work in related areas, cultural and sports figures, and occasional journalists like Eidel’ can get in by applying for a pass, buying a ticket to a neighboring city, and then paying a supplement to go into them.
Recently, she continues, educational institutions in these cities like the Northern State Technical Academy in Seversk and branches of outside universities operating there have begun accepting students from elsewhere in the Russian Federation, apparently because so many young people from these places are fleeing them, an outflow older residents deny is happening.
What strikes those able to visit these places, she continues, is that in them, “time has stopped,” with housing and stores much like they were 30 years ago. There are few new buildings, no fastfood outlets, and little of the glitz that has spread across many urban areas in Russia since the 1990s
Prices for most services are lower than on the “outside,” although they are increasing rapidly. But what is most impressive, Eidel’ says, is that not in any capital restaurant, club or casino would you see such [obviously] satisfied people,” people who feel comfortable with their lives and can even leave their apartments unlocked.
She notes that there are frequent rumors that these cities will finally be opened once and for all, but that has produced a new phenomenon: Now, there are debates on the Internet between those who believe that would be a good thing to do and those, frequently residents, who fear that their standard of living would decline.
There is one story about these cities many Russians still believe. Supposedly, the buildings on the streets of these closed cities have been numbered in reverse order in order to trick foreign spies. That may once have been true, Eidel’ suggests, but she adds that there was no evidence of that when she visited Sarov.

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