<In 1946, the Soviets began construction of City 40 in total secrecy, around the huge Mayak nuclear plant on the shores of Lake Irtyash. It would house the workers and scientists transported from across the country to lead the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program, and build an atomic bomb.
For the first eight years, residents were forbidden from leaving the city, writing letters or making any contact with the outside world – including members of their own family. Those who had been relocated here were considered missing by their relatives, as if they had disappeared into oblivion.
City 40’s inhabitants were told they were “the nuclear shield and saviours of the world”, and that everyone on the outside was an enemy. While the majority of the Soviet population were suffering from famine and living in abject poverty, the authorities created a paradise for these residents, providing them with lives of privilege and some luxury like private apartments, plenty of food including exotic delicacies such as bananas, condensed milk and caviar – good schools and healthcare, a plethora of entertainment and cultural activities, all in a lakeside forest setting worthy of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.
In exchange, the residents were ordered to maintain secrets about their lives and work. It is a deal they still adhere to today, in a city where almost all of Russia’s reserve fissile material is stored.
It is prestigious to live in Ozersk. Many residents describe it as a town of “intellectuals”, where they are used to getting “the best of everything for free”. Life in a closed town implies not only physical security but financial stability for their families; Ozersk children, they assert, are offered great opportunities for a successful future.
But the pact has had deadly consequences. For years, the Soviet Union’s political and scientific leadership withheld the effects of extreme exposure to radiation on the health of the city’s inhabitants, and their future offspring. From the outset, the majority of residents worked or lived near the Mayak nuclear complex under extremely dangerous conditions. From the late 1940s, people here started to get sick and die: the victims of long-term exposure to radiation.While accurate data is not available thanks to the authorities’ extreme secrecy and frequent denials, the gravestones of many young residents in Ozersk’s cemetery bear witness to the secret the Soviets tried to bury alongside victims of the Mayak plant.
City 40 residents have been casualties in a number of nuclear incidents, including the 1957 Kyshtym disaster – the world’s worst nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl – which the Soviet authorities kept a well-guarded secret from the outside world.