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‘The graveyard of the Earth’: inside City 40, Russia’s deadly nuclear secret via the Guardian

Ozersk, codenamed City 40, was the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme. Now it is one of the most contaminated places on the planet – so why do so many residents still view it as a fenced-in paradise?

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Deep in the vast forests of Russia’s Ural mountains lies the forbidden city of Ozersk. Behind guarded gates and barbed wire fences stands a beautiful enigma – a hypnotic place that seems to exist in a different dimension.

Codenamed City 40, Ozersk was the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme after the second world war. For decades, this city of 100,000 people did not appear on any maps, and its inhabitants’ identities were erased from the Soviet census.

Today, with its beautiful lakes, perfumed flowers and picturesque tree-lined streets, Ozersk resembles a suburban 1950s American town – like one of those too-perfect places depicted in The Twilight Zone.

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The city’s residents know the truth, however: that their water is contaminated, their mushrooms and berries are poisoned, and their children may be sick. Ozersk and the surrounding region is one of the most contaminated places on the planet, referred to by some as the “graveyard of the Earth”.

Yet the majority of residents do not want to leave. They believe they are Russia’s “chosen ones”, and even take pride in being citizens of a closed city. This is where they were born, got married, and raised their families. It is where they buried their parents, and some of their sons and daughters too.

‘Saviours of the world’

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 programme, 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.
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They were offered 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 fairytale.

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.

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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.

The Mayak plant’s management has also overseen the dumping of its waste into nearby lakes and rivers, which flow into the River Ob and on into the Arctic Ocean. Over four decades, Mayak is said to have dumped 200 million curies of radioactive waste into the environment, equal to four “Chernobyls”, although this is always denied by the authorities.

According to some Ozersk residents, the dumping continues today. One of the nearby lakes has been so heavily contaminated by plutonium that locals have renamed it the “Lake of Death” or “Plutonium Lake”. The radioactive concentration there is reported to exceed 120 million curies2.5 times the amount of radiation released in Chernobyl.

In a village about 20 minutes outside Ozersk, a digital clock in the town square switches constantly between the local time and the current level of radiation in the air (though the latter reading is never accurate). Half a million people in Ozersk and its surrounding area are said to have been exposed to five times as much radiation as those living in the areas of Ukraine affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

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Samira Goetschel is an award-winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She is the producer and director of the feature-length documentary City 40, which will be screened at Bertha DocHouse, London WC1, on 23 July, and will be available on Netflix from September

Posted in *English.

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