I. The city built on bones
Deep in the vast Russian steppe lies a city that is never spoken of. Surrounded by fences that seem to try to scratch the sky with their double barbed-wire, the city remains in silence, disconnected from the life that continues behind the trees that enclose it.
The city that they never speak of isn’t frightening in itself, but it guards a chilling secret.
Ozersk was founded in 1945, when the final flame of the Second World War had died out. Until 1994, it had never appeared on a map. Its inhabitants had never set foot on the land that extended past the fences.
In Ozersk, the first rule had always been silence. The second, to live normally. Or at least try to.
When you go in search of tales of Ozersk, its history and its purpose, it’s easy to feel like you’re peeking into an imaginary city, dreamed up in a sci-fi book. But Ozersk is as real as the 80,000 people who live inside its fences, that reside in the “area”.
As real as the story told to us by film director Samira Goetschel (whose works include documentaries like Our Own Private Bin Laden) in City 40, a film about the hermetic city in which she tries to unravel some of its secrets.
“Those who were relocated to the new city simply disappeared from their families. They were erased from the Earth”, says Goetschel. But to what do we owe this secrecy? What was hidden in the city?
II. The secret
When the US dropped their atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin decided, in his office in the Kremlin, that the US had gone too far. So, of course, they would have to catch up with them.
With the help of his right hand man, Lavrenti Beria, the Soviet leader came up with a plan: They would activate all the empire’s mechanisms in order to develop a lethal weapon capable of wiping out every last trace of humanity in just a few seconds. This was the beginning of the Cold War.
Until 1994, City 40 never appeared on a map.
In barely three months, the foundation stones were laid for City 40. A great city that was secret, cryptic, enclosed, built in the image and likeness of Richland, the city where they created the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.
City 40 was first called Chelyabinsk 40, then Chelyabinsk 65 and, now, Ozersk. It was the birth place of the first Russian atomic bomb and was inhabited by thousands of people who worked at the nuclear complex, Mayak.
Thousands of citizens fell into the black hole of a city built to create death.
III. Paradise on Earth
Living in the enclosed city of Chelyabinsk had its perks. The settlers were given a quality of life that the rest of the Soviets could only dream of. Jobs that were much better paid than those in the rest of the Soviet territory, good quality housing and excellent educational centres seemed to be some of the privileges that others would kill for. But those privileges came at a high price.
“They created a paradise for these people so they wouldn’t want to leave. They had everything they could ever need and more”, says Goetschel.
The price was isolation. For years, no inhabitant of City 40 could set foot outside. No relative could come to visit the great city. Life revolved around a huge secret, and their only role was to protect it from the enemies of the outside world.
“The people who were relocated simply disappeared from their families. They were erased from the Earth”
Something else was added to the lack of freedom: In the undersoil below the buildings, situated in an area of startling beauty, tall pine trees and four big lakes, throbbed an enormous deposit of nuclear waste. The waste of the atomic experiments that they carried out on the surface.
One day in 1957, one of the waste containers exploded. The people didn’t know what was happening as the windows in buildings shattered. That night, the inhabitants of City 40 watched as tiny dust particles particles shone in the darkness, as if it were the aurora borealis. A radioactive aurora borealis which seeped into their skin.
Soon, the snow fell. Snowflakes blanketed the roofs, streets and trees. The snowflakes were radioactive. The evacuation began 7 days after the onset of the greatest nuclear disaster before Chernobyl.
The paradise became a radioactive abyss. And the danger is still present.
“Currently, 60% of the city’s population work in Mayak is producing military components for the Russian army”, says Goetschel. “This is a ticking time bomb if we’re talking about a nuclear disaster on a global scale”.
IV. The paranoia
When Goetschel first became interested in the secret city, she realised that there was no way of getting in. Even now, since the city has stopped being “secret” following the fall of the USSR, Ozersk is a city closed to outsiders.
Its own inhabitants can’t move to a different area. They need a special visa in order to venture outside the city limits.
It’s now been some time since they lost their former privileges, but they still don’t leave.
In 1957, a radioactive container exploded, condemning the inhabitants to live forever in one of the most contaminated areas on the planet.
They don’t leave even though they live in one of the most contaminated areas on our planet. They don’t leave even though oncological disease rates shatter statistics. Even though babies are born sick, and suffer severely. Even though the lakes that surround them are lakes of death in which a quick swim will expose you to high doses of radiation.
“I don’t want to judge them, but one of the things that I came to understand is that this is the only place they know. They haven’t seen anything else”, says Goetschel. The life of the people in City 40 was built on a lie from the beginning. On a dramatic display of patriotism for which these people were chosen.
And this is how it continues to be. Many of the the habitants of this city are happy to live there. Just like blind people who have never seen light. Cancer forms part of their daily lives. They are born, they live and they die of cancer.
But there are those who are unconvinced. In order to make the documentary, filmed with secret cameras, the Iranian director contacted Nadezhda Kutepova, a human rights activist who was born and lives in the city.
Nadezhda, mother to 4 children, risked her life to speak to Goetschel. Now, she’s being interrogated by the Russian secret services. She betrayed her homeland. And in some parts of the world, there’s nothing more precious than the homeland – even if it’s slowly poisoning you.
Despite the fact that the director doesn’t make it very clear how she gained access into the banned city, the story of desolation and conformation which she tells in her documentary both moves and horrifies in equal measure.
“I always begin my films with one question. I don’t have a story because then you have to follow a set structure. The question was: If I were a terrorist, would I be able to have in my hands enough material and technology to pose a real threat?”
Day-to-day life of the inhabitants of City 40 is full of patriotism and cancer.
While the director asks questions, life goes on behind the barbed-wire fencing. Destiny is accepted, while the city which was sold as a paradise begins to crack.
After the recent debut of the documentary at the Canadian festival, Hot Docs, the veil of secrecy which shrouded City 40 has been, in part, lifted. Even so, nothing has changed between its walls, which remain as impenetrable as ever.