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Life in a Twenty-First Century Atomic City: No Longer a Socialist Utopia

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The Cold War was all about the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Both countries initiated their nuclear projects around the 1940s with the ultimate purpose of designing an atomic bomb. The production of new weapons implied the large-scale construction of space-consuming and technologically complex facilities. Scientists, engineers, civilian workers, and GULAG (labor camp) inmates mobilized from around the Soviet Union to build the first nuclear plants and cities around them, a thousand miles away from Moscow.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost nobody knew that these cities existed; one could not find them on the map. Soviet nuclear workers were forbidden to tell anybody about the location or content of their job under threat of criminal penalty: what happened in the closed cities stayed in the closed cities. Residents did not mind such restrictions. The state supplied them with all essential goods and services, so that there was no actual need to leave the city. People in closed cities enjoyed more cars, more living space, and more doctors per person than people in other Soviet cities. Nuclear workers lived in a golden cage, and some scholars argue that they were “spoilt” by Soviet privileges (Lappo and Polyan.) They were the Soviet elite, and once they settled in closed cities, they generally preferred to stay. Kate Brown rightly called nuclear cities plutopia-an urban utopia made possible by the production of plutonium.

Many researchers have studied the history of these cities, for closed cities are a scholarly gem that reveals fascinating insights into the history of labor, science, surveillance, public health, culture, urban history, and environmental history. Reading some thrilling works about Soviet closed cities made me wonder what has become of them and to what extent they represent a socialist utopia today. I was fortunate to meet a person who grew up in one of Russia’s closed cities. Now, when most of these cities are no longer a secret, but still a mystery, I interviewed my friend and his family about life and the Soviet legacy in a yet closed city with the romantic name, Snezhinsk (from the word sneg, “snow”), located in the Ural Mountains, between the megacities of Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk. The Russian Federal Nuclear Center has been dominating the local economy since the era of the Cold War.

My informant’s grandparents moved to Snezhinsk in the 1960s. They did not chose the nuclear city themselves; rather, the city chose them. Like many Russians in those days, after graduation from university they received a work assignment according to their specialization. There were no application or interviews, like today. Grandparents, as well as their children, worked as theoretical physicists, constructors, and engineers. My interviewees testified to enthusiasm at the workplace: everybody reportedly always tried to do their best, as they felt that each of them was equally responsible for the success of their shared project. My interviewees add that, because the city was initially small and everybody knew each other, it was necessary to maintain good relationships both at work and in everyday life.

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The family I interviewed did not experience any shortage of goods or services in Snezhinsk. They stated that the city was always supplied fairly well, as its needs were ranked immediately after Moscow and Leningrad in order of importance. Their education and medicine were superior. Their high school graduates were always and are still welcomed at the best colleges in the country, in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, as well as the colleges of Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk. Their medical services nowadays, the citizens lament, are much worse, as the best doctors have migrated to big cities, preferring to work at private rather than municipal clinics.

My interviewees evaluated cultural life in Soviet times as satisfactory, although they craved more diversity: there was a movie theater with a typical name “Kosmos” (“space”) and a House of Culture where theatre performances and poetry evenings took place. Today, there is much wider range of entertainment available: concerts of popular singers, new restaurants, cafes, and night clubs. In those days, many spent their leisure time on sports, for Soviet citizens had the opportunity to practice any sport they liked. Importantly, all the equipment was given to them free of charge. My friend trained in track and field, swimming, and biathlon; his parents also did track and field and played handball. Unfortunately, a decade ago, athletics in Snezhinsk started to “die out”, as it is largely underfinanced.

SnezhinskThe design and production of nuclear weapons entailed its limitations. The residents could not travel abroad or bring friends and relatives to the city. During the interview, I discovered that one could not even make a call to the city! Kate Brown’s book Plutopia suggested that accidents in Ozersk, another closed nuclear city, just an hour’s drive away from Snezhinsk, caused irreparable damage to the surrounding area (particularly, the Techa River) and its population. It was a good surprise to learn that there is no perceived threat of radioactive contamination in Snezhinsk; the polluted soil of the Techa river basin is too far. Obviously, for residents of Snezhinsk, its advantages outweigh the disadvantages, even today. For instance, the restricted access into the city (through checkpoints) is seen as a positive measure that bans “random” people, the “marginals” such as ex-prisoners or syphilitics. The “quality” of population has significantly deteriorated in comparison with Soviet times, my informants say. The language they use generally reminds me of the notion of a “gated community,” a term deployed by American urban scholar Sonia Hirt in her description of a new post-socialist type of collective residence characterized by privatism and the exclusion of undesirable social elements. Thus, my interviewees would choose to retain the status of a closed city, because the place is “peaceful” this way, or to return to an even harsher regime of Soviet times.

Life in Snezhinsk changed radically after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The family I interviewed complained that public expenditures nowadays do not exceed funding for any other “regular” Russian city. They are generally satisfied with the city planning today as much as in the past, except for the issues with the need for road repairs and the inadequate amount of parking space and greenery. Although now the residents have a chance to build their own private houses, these developments have their adverse effects, eliminating the forestry on the outskirts of the city, in what used to be a recreation zone. The cars, constantly increasing in number, are parked right on the green lawns. The research institute remains the major employer in the city, paying competitive salaries (even by Moscow standards); however, new private companies and small businesses also hire a large portion of local population today.

The transition from command to market economy was central to city life experiences in turn-of-the-century Russia. My conversation with this local family confirmed that this transition was particularly troublesome for Snezhinsk, which for many years survived exclusively at state expense. In any case, the city-forming enterprise is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future. Nuclear weapons still matter, and until they cease to be of military import, the city with its people will be sustained.


Mariia Koskina
MA in History
Binghamton University

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