By Erik Sass
Construction on the Soviet Union's secret cities began during the early 1940s, and by the 1980s there were at least 57 secret settlements with a total population of 1.5 million scattered across the nation. Hidden in remote areas, their existence remained a matter of conjecture among ordinary people until the collapse of the USSR. Since 1991 some of the cities have been opened to visitors, but Western security experts believe there are still 15 secret cities whose names and locations the Russian government refuses to disclose. Here's the scoop on the little we do know.
Hiding from Hitler
After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and occupied key industrial areas in 1941, Stalin came up with a crafty solution. He had hundreds of factories disassembled and shipped far from the front, to safe locations beyond the Ural Mountains in Siberia.Stalin's pre-fab towns established the pattern for later secret cities. People who entered them were totally cut off in self-contained "closed administrative units" that included apartment blocks, clinics, gyms, schools, stores, theaters, restaurants, and power plants. Factory employees, including managers, were forbidden to leave, as all activity was closely monitored by the predecessor of the KGB, the NKVD. Surrounded by fences and guard forces, the cities were identified with only a name and a number indicating general location "“ and even these coordinates were false since they were changed frequently to deceive spies and saboteurs. Only key officials knew the actual location of the cities, or how to contact them via a secret phone network.
Version 2.0: The Birth of the Atomgrad
After Germany's defeat in 1945, Soviet leaders launched a crash program to build dozens of new secret cities. They were entering into a long period of confrontation with the United States and NATO, and were determined to match Western military power at any cost.The first priority was construction of a nuclear bomb like those dropped on Japan by the United States in 1945. Shrouded in secrecy, the Soviet nuclear program spawned at least a dozen "Atomgrads," 10 of which are still operational. Housing a total population of 600,000-700,000, most were built by slave labor from the Soviet GULAG, and they included everything from plutonium producing towns, to centers for uranium enrichment to cities devoted entirely to nuclear warhead design.
As to how secure the towns were, you might want to consider the small town of Sarov, which the Soviet government took over in 1946 and converted into a giant top-secret nuclear laboratory called Arzamas-16. About 90 square miles in area, it's surrounded by a 25-mile outer security cordon and an inner cordon with a double barbed wire fence. Within the inner cordon, hidden motion detectors and other sensors blanket the city. Like other secret cities, the entire site is elaborately camouflaged to frustrate American spy satellites.
Of course, what the radioactive material is used for varies. British police say the polonium-210 used to kill the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in November of 2006 almost certainly came from Arzamas-16. Litvinenko, who had accused the Russian security service of staging terrorist attacks, said Vladimir Putin had personally ordered assassinations including one on him.
The Cities Find New Purpose
Nuclear weapons were just the beginning. In typical Soviet fashion Stalin's successor Nikita Krushchev decided to hide the Soviet space program in the barren plains of southwest Kazakhstan. Construction of Leninsk began in 1955. Here the regime's rocket scientists assembled and launched Sputnik in October 1957, followed by Sputnik 2, carrying the dog Laika, less than a month later. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin made history's first manned space flight from the site. At its height in the 1980s Leninsk had about 100,000 inhabitantsThe Soviets also created new "Akademgorodok," or Academic Cities, devoted to chemical and biological weapons research. Beginning in 1973, dozens of labs employing about 65,000 people produced thousands of tons of biological agents for use in offensive weapons, including plague, tularemia, glanders, anthrax, smallpox, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.
As the Soviet system declined, highly contagious organisms sometimes escaped the research and production facilities, blowing their cover. The deadliest outbreak of anthrax in modern times occurred in 1979, when the accidental release of weaponized anthrax killed at least 68 people near a facility outside Sverdlovsk. In 1993, citing the evidence of defectors, the United States and the United Kingdom accused the new Russian government of continuing research on biological weapons. With rumors circulating that the cities are still churning out deadly new agents like the Marburg virus, the secret of the cities may be out, but their work seems to press on.