Inside the closed city of Severesk (Alexey Lubkin)
Today in Russia, at least 1.5 million people live in cities that no one from the outside world is allowed to visit.
Many don’t appear on maps. Some have no road signs to indicate where they are. Still more are so cloaked in secrecy that people outside Russia don’t even know what they’re called.
They are Russia’s ‘closed cities’, a hangover from the Soviet Union when the then government went to extreme lengths to conceal locations of strategic importance.
The clandestine communities housed military bases, weapons factories and secretive research facilities that those in power wanted to keep hidden from foreign eyes – doing so by denying their existence altogether.
The security checkpoint to enter the closed city of Severesk (Dmitry Afonin)
Currently there are still 44 publically acknowledged closed cities in Russia, and it is suspected that more remain under wraps.
Russia’s first closed cities were built in the late 1940s, and the Soviet Union had with a number of techniques to keep them out of sight.
Only classified maps – available to very few people – showed where the cities were located, and stops were omitted from transport timetables.
External communication with citizens wasn’t easy. Any post had to be delivered to a classified mailbox in another area, where someone in on the secret would then be able to forward it on.
And the residents themselves were by no means free to come and go as they pleased – special permission was required for travel outside the boundaries and visitors were heavily vetted.
A nuclear power plant in the closed city of Sosnovy Bor (Alexey Danichev)
Since their peak under the communist government the number of closed cities has dropped dramatically. Their existence was officially revealed in 1986, and the majority were opened to foreign visitors and investors in the late ‘80s and ‘90s.
Those that remain are now known as ‘closed administrative territorial entities’, or ZATOs, and life for the citizens there has retained some of the bizarre attributes imposed on closed cities under communism.
In Zarcheny, a closed city in Penza Oblast, 12 kilometres from Moscow, 62,000 people currently live within a high barbed wire fence.
Ksenia Yurkova, a Russian photographer, was permitted to visit the city to document the city’s 55th anniversary parade.
“A life in Zarechny can’t be compared to one in a big town,” she said.
“People seem to be not so free in their decisions. It was rather visible during the official parade for the anniversary celebration, which most of the workers were forced to take part in.”
A view of Zarechny
Zarechny, formerly known as Penza-19, is centred around a plant that builds parts for nuclear weapons.
Yurkova explained: “Most of the inhabitants work on the plant. The region has its own unique economy and market system, very different compared to the big towns nearby.
“The shop prices are very low, as are the average salaries. So the inhabitants can hardly afford to spend money outside the city.
“The main Russian political agenda transmitted by mass media is absolutely imperceptible here.
“The daily routine has hardly any fluctuations. Life is safe, measured, even sleepy – an inheritance of the Soviet Era.”
A military parade in Zarcheny
Residents can leave the city, but any guests can only visit with an invitation from a local, which has to be approved by the authorities.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone can deal with the bizarre pressures of living in this shuttered environment.
“Some citizens are waiting for an opportunity to leave, for example to work elsewhere for higher salaries and have the chance to admit some entertainment in their lives,” Yukova said.
Politicians and officials meet regularly in Moscow to discuss the future of the 44 remaining closed cities.
And until the decision is made to open up these mysterious communities, there are sure to be details about these Soviet relics that the outside world will just never know.