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.
On a typical day, young mothers push newborns in prams and children play in the street. Music booms from teenage boys’ stereos as they show off their skateboarding skills to young girls. In the nearby forest, families swim in the lake as older folk rest on park benches, enjoying a lazy afternoon watching passersby.
On the side roads, local women sell fruit and vegetables. Only the Geiger counters used to check the produce before it is purchased point to the dark secret that haunts this tranquil urban scene.
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.
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.
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.
On the outskirts of Ozersk, there is an oversized “no trespassing” sign in English and Russian, with “Attention!!!” written in large red letters to emphasise the point. Foreigners and non-resident Russians are still prohibited from entering the city without permission from the FSB (Russian secret police), and filming in the area is strictly forbidden.
Samira Goetschel is an award-winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles.