Closed Cities You Can Never Visit


 What the fuck Russia? WTF world?

The other day I stumbled upon a documentary on Netflix with a synopsis that read: “This documentary uses secret filming to penetrate the limits of a hidden Russian city whose inhabitants are bound by a bizarre nuclear arrangement.” Sorry, what?

Seriously, what the fuck is going on in Russia? I must ask that question at least once a week. I know I’ll never get a clear answer, but the documentary City 40 at least scratched the surface of the world behind the WTF. Basically, I learnt that there’s a town with a population of 60,000 people in Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia, officially named Ozersk but also known as City 40 that is a closed city inaccessible to the public. It was built back in the dark days of the Soviet Union to house the Mayak processing centre and power plant that was building and testing nuclear weapons. For eight years during the cold war, no one could enter or leave. Up until 1994, you could not find it on a map. Now, people can leave, but if you are an outsider, you sure as hell better not think about coming in. Not even for a cup of tea, because the answer is 100%, unequivocally no. So who are these people that live there? Originally they were people who worked in the nuclear biz, scientists and other government workers. And they brought their kids. Then their kids had kids, and now those kids are having kids. Do those kids have three heads? It’s hard to say, because no one’s allowed in to see. Chill.

Warning to foreigners at the entrance of City 40
Warning to foreigners at the entrance of City 40

Originally the residents of City 40 felt a sense of hometown pride, thinking they were the ‘chosen ones’ to help lead a scientific revolution and propel Russia toward world domination. Now, over 60 years on, everyone in the city is getting sick from radiation poisoning. There’s only one human rights lawyer in town who’s willing to fight the government, and that’s the documentary’s protagonist, Nadezhda Kutepova. And, well, you’ll see how well that turns out for her.

Somehow the filmmakers convinced some locals to smuggle cameras into the Forbidden City, and from the footage they captured, the place is weird. Once the film ended, I was on a heavy dose of WTF, Russia?, so I started researching the phenomena and discovered there are another 42 closed cities in Russia. With the fall of the Soviet Union, they became public knowledge, but they are still surrounded by barbed wire and closed off to anyone who doesn’t live there. Only in Russia, right? Wrong. There are closed cities operating in China, and another in Mercury, Nevada. WTF, world?

The Nuclear Town aerial shot
The Nuclear Town aerial shot

The Chinese one boasts an incredibly innovative name—The Nuclear Town. It’s located in the Gobi desert in the western part of Gansu province. Built in 1958, it’s the biggest nuclear industry base in China and the country’s first military nuclear reactor with 80% of China’s nuclear bomb core parts produced there. For over 20 years, Nuclear Town was completely closed to outsiders. There’s still a bunch of other remote parts of China like Datong Hui and Tu Autonomous County where a foreigner has to apply for an alien travel document in advance and report their accommodation to local police as soon as they enter or they will be removed immediately. Nothing suss about that, though. Totally convinced whatever going on inside Nuclear Town is legit.

Entrance to Mercury, Nevada
Entrance to Mercury, Nevada
Mercury, Nevada
Mercury, Nevada

Still, the one that shocked me the most was this closed city in Mercury, Nevada. I don’t know why its existence in the Godfather of Shady shocked me, but it did. The forbidden town lies within the Nevada Test Site, where every American nuclear device was tested between 1951-1992. That’s around 1,000 nuclear tests, with roughly 100 of them above ground, which is a lot of radioactive fallout. Because the government has never allowed public access to the city, it’s essentially a 50’s time capsule full of dated movie theatres, bowling alleys and a shit ton of radiation. At its peak of production, there were 10,000 people living in Mercury. Since the UN introduced the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1992, the population has dropped to 500. Still, that’s 500 people living in a radioactive 50s time warp in the middle of the fucking desert. What are they doing in there? What do they eat for breakfast? WTF, world?

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