Central entry checkpoint to the closed city of Seversk
, Tomsk Oblast, Russia
A closed city or closed town is a settlement where travel or residency restrictions are applied so that specific authorization is required to visit or remain overnight. They may be sensitive military establishments or secret research installations which require much more space or freedom than is available in a conventional military base. There may also be a wider variety of permanent residents including close family members of workers or trusted traders who are not directly connected with its clandestine purposes.
Many closed cities existed in the Soviet Union. After 1991, a number of them still existed in the CIS countries, especially Russia. In modern Russia, such places are officially known as "closed administrative-territorial formations" (закрытые административно-территориальные образования, zakrytye administrativno-territorial'nye obrazovaniya, or ЗАТО ZATO for short).
Structure and operations
Sometimes closed cities may only be represented on classified maps which are not available to the general public. In some cases there may be no road signs or directions to closed cities, and they are usually omitted from railroad time tables and bus routes.
Sometimes closed cities may be indicated obliquely as a nearby insignificant village, with the name of the stop serving the closed city made equivocal or misleading. For mail delivery, a closed city is usually named as the nearest large city and a special postcode e.g. Arzamas‑16, Chelyabinsk‑65. The actual settlement can be rather distant from its namesakes; for instance, Sarov, designated Arzamas-16, is in the federal republic of Mordovia, whereas Arzamas is in the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast (roughly 75 kilometres (47 mi) away). People not living in a closed city were subject to document checks and security checkpoints, and explicit permission was required for them to visit. To relocate to a closed city, one would need security clearance by the organization running it, such as the KGB in Soviet closed cities.
Closed cities were sometimes guarded by a security perimeter with barbed wire and towers. The very fact of such a city's existence was often classified, and residents were expected not to divulge their place of residence to outsiders. This lack of freedom was often compensated by better housing conditions and a better choice of goods in retail trade than elsewhere in the country. Also, in the USSR, people working with classified information received a salary bonus.
Soviet Union closed cities
Map indicating federal subjects containing closed cities used for nuclear research and development
Closed cities were established in the Soviet Union from the late 1940s onwards under the euphemistic name of "post boxes", referring to the practice of addressing post to them via mail boxes in other cities. They fell into two distinct categories.
- The first category comprised relatively small communities with sensitive military, industrial, or scientific facilities, such as arms plants or nuclear research sites. Examples are the modern towns of Ozyorsk (Chelyabinsk-65) with a plutonium production plant, and Sillamäe, the site of a uranium enrichment facility. Even Soviet citizens were not allowed access to these places without proper authorization. In addition to this, some bigger cities were closed for unauthorized access to foreigners, while they were freely accessible to Soviet citizens. These included cities like Perm, a center for Soviet tank production, and Vladivostok, the headquarters and primary base of the Soviet Pacific Fleet.
- The second category consisted of border cities (and some whole border areas, such as the Kaliningrad Oblast, Saaremaa, and Hiiumaa) which were closed for security purposes. Comparable closed areas existed elsewhere in the Eastern bloc; a substantial area along the inner German border and the border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia was placed under similar restrictions (although by the 1970s foreigners could cross the latter by train). Citizens were required to have special permits to enter such areas.
The locations of the first category of the closed cities were chosen for their geographical characteristics. They were often established in remote places situated deep in the Urals and Siberia, out of reach of enemy bombers. They were built close to rivers and lakes which were used to provide the large amounts of water needed for heavy industry and nuclear technology. Existing civilian settlements in the vicinity were often used as sources of construction labour. Although the closure of cities originated as a strictly temporary measure which was to be normalized under more favorable conditions, in practice the closed cities took on a life of their own and became a notable institutional feature of the Soviet system.
Movement to and from closed areas was tightly controlled. Foreigners were prohibited from entering them and local citizens were under stringent restrictions. They had to have special permission to travel there or leave, and anyone seeking residency was required to undergo vetting by the NKVD and its successor agencies. Access to some closed cities was physically enforced by surrounding them with barbed wire fences monitored by armed guards.
"Box" was the unofficial name of a secret Soviet facility much like the closed city, but smaller, usually the size of a factory. The "box" name was usually classified, as were the activities there. Incoming mail was addressed to "mailbox #XXXX", thus the name of "box". Most Soviet design bureaus for weapons, aircraft, space, military electronics, etc. were "boxes".
Closed cities in post-Soviet states
Russia has the largest number of closed cities. The policy of closing cities underwent major changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some cities, such as Perm, were opened well before the fall of the Soviet Union; others, such as Kaliningrad and Vladivostok, remained closed until as late as 1992. The adoption of a new constitution for the Russian Federation in 1993 prompted significant reforms to the status of closed cities, which were renamed "closed administrative-territorial formations" (or ZATO, after the Russian acronym). Municipally all such entities have a status of urban okrugs, as mandated by the federal law.
There are currently 44 publicly acknowledged closed cities in Russia with a total population of about 1.5 million people. 75% are administered by the Russian Ministry of Defense, with the rest being administered by Rosatom. Another 15 or so closed cities are believed to exist, but their names and locations have not been publicly disclosed by the Russian government.
Some Russian closed cities are open for foreign investment, but foreigners may only enter with a permit. An example is the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI), a joint effort of the United States National Nuclear Security Administration and Minatom, which involves in part the cities of Sarov, Snezhinsk, and Zheleznogorsk.
The number of closed cities has been significantly reduced since the mid-1990s. However, on 30 October 2001, foreign travel (without any exceptions) was restricted in the northern cities of Norilsk, Talnakh, Kayerkan, Dudinka, and Igarka. Russian and Belarusian citizens visiting these cities are not required to have any permits, however, local courts are known to deport Belarusian citizens in contradiction with federal Constitution.
Krasnoyarsk-26 in Siberia, researched for the subject of Sidney Sheldon's 2001 fictional murder mystery-romance The Sky is Falling, was planned in 2003 to be shut down by 2011, in co-operation with the U.S, and documented by their Natural Resources Defense Council, but actually closed in 2008.
The number of closed cities in Russia is defined by government decree (see links further). They include the following cities. Reasons for restrictions are denoted in the descriptions below.
- Mezhgorye – 129th Directorate of strategic subjects' technical supply and maintenance
- Ozyorsk – nuclear waste processing and recycling plant. It was known as Chelyabinsk-65, and even earlier, as Chelyabinsk-40 (the digits are the last digits of the postal code, and the name is that of the nearest big city; which was a common practice of giving names to closed towns).
- Snezhinsk – site of one of the two major Russian Federal Nuclear Centers. Formerly known as Chelyabinsk-70
- Tryokhgorny – development of parts and machinery for atomic stations and weaponry. Formerly known as Zlatoust-36
Former Russian closed cities
Travel restrictions for foreigners
There is a list of territories within Russia that do not have closed city status, but require special permits for foreigners to visit. The largest locality within such territory is the city of Norilsk.
There were two closed cities in Estonia: Sillamäe and Paldiski. As with all the other industrial cities, the population of them was mainly Russian-speaking. Sillamäe was the site for a chemical factory that produced fuel rods and nuclear materials for the Soviet nuclear power plants and nuclear weapon facilities, while Paldiski was home to a Soviet Navy nuclear submarine training centre. Sillamäe was closed until Estonia regained its independence in 1991; Paldiski remained closed until 1994, when the last Russian warship left.
Tartu, home to Raadi Airfield, was partially closed. Foreign academics could visit the University of Tartu, but had to sleep elsewhere.
- Baikonur, a town close to the spaceport facility of the same name in Kazakhstan, which is rented and administered by Russia. Non-resident visitors will need pre-approval from the Russian authorities to visit both the town of Baikonur itself and the Cosmodrome. Note that said approval is completely separate from just having a Russian visa. Some tourism organisations in Kazakhstan provide services in organising trips to visit Baikonur and the museums contained there.
- Priozersk, Kazakhstan
Former closed cities
- Kurchatov, Kazakhstan – was previously known by its postal code, Semipalatinsk-16.
Moldova has one official closed city – the commune Cobasna (Rîbnița District) in the disputed area of Transnistria. The commune, located on the left bank of the Dniester river, still contains military warehouses of the former Soviet 14th Army.
Ukraine had eighteen closed cities: among them the Crimean port of Sevastopol and the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, though both were restricted to foreigners, not locals. Travel restrictions were lifted in the mid-1990s.
- Simferopol-28, Crimea – former closed town, a Soviet military space mission control center.
- Feodosia-13, Crimea – former closed town, a central storage of nuclear weapons.
In other countries
During communism in Albania, the towns of Çorovodë and Qyteti Stalin (now Kuçovë) were closed cities with a military airport, military industry and other critical war infrastructure.
- №404 Factory of China National Nuclear Corp (中国核工业总公司第四零四厂), then the Ministry of Nuclear Industry, located in the Gobi desert in western part of Gansu province. It is simply called the nuclear town (核城). It is the biggest nuclear industry base in China, built in 1958. China built its first military nuclear reactor and 80% of core parts for China's nuclear bombs were produced here. Before the 1980s, the whole town was closed from outsiders. A nuclear accident happened in 1969, which caused a leak of nuclear material. It was called the mine area of Gansu (甘肃矿区) outside to keep secret. In 2007, most of its residents were moved to nearby Jiayuguan City.
- Some remote areas in China, such as Datong Hui and Tu Autonomous County (except Laoye Mountain), Huangzhong County (except Kumbum Monastery), and Huangyuan County around Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, maintain travel restrictions on foreigners. A foreigner has to apply for an alien travel document (外国人旅行证) in advance, and has to report their accommodation to local police within 24 hours after entering the area. Otherwise visitors would be requested to leave immediately.
- Mecca is closed to everyone not considered a Muslim by the Saudi authorities, including members of the Ahmadiyya movement. Similar restrictions are in place for the city center of Medina.
- Alexander Bay, Northern Cape. After diamonds were discovered along this coast in 1925 by Dr Hans Merensky, Alexander Bay became known for its mining activities. The town was a high security area and permits were needed when entered. Today, it is no longer a high security area and no permits are needed.
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Mecca, like Medina, is closed to non-Muslims
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