Most of our episodes deal with places that you can travel to, like Iceland or Cuba. But what about the places you’re never allowed to explore? The places that are closed off the public, off-limits and top-secret?
In this episode, we’re going to tell you about Closed Cities, also known as secret cities or forbidden cities. These are places on the planet, where thousands of people can live but no one’s allowed in and no one’s allowed out.
Have you ever heard of a closed city? In many ways, it’s a lot like a normal city. You have thousands of people who pay taxes, have jobs, and fall in love. The only difference is, it’s shut off from the rest of the world.
“The first closed city was built in Washington state,” says Samira Goetschel, who spoke with Cinema Sophistry about her movie City 40.
Zac Fanni of Cinema Sophistry was kind enough to let us use this interview with Goetschel in our episode, you can check out more of their content here.
“That city which was closed, meaning, no one had access. The closest thing would be a high-security military base,” she explains.
And no one is allowed to leave.
These places are sealed from outside access. They’re meant to protect secrets of sensitive military research, with much of the residents working on those project. Most of the closed cities in the US were created for the top-secret Manhattan Project which led to the development of the first nuclear bomb.
Places like Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee were closed to outsiders and placed under the control of the US Military. In 1941, the government chose the town of Dugway, Utah as a closed city where they could house researchers and their families. Its remote location made it the best place to study biological and chemical warfare agents.
Keeping the city closed could prevent any accidental biological contamination from spreading to the rest of the country.
Although many of these formerly closed cities now allow public access, a few still remain.
Like the town of Mercury, Nevada, which once had a population of over 10,000. It housed the scientists who tested the first nuclear bombs. Mercury was a thriving secret city with a school, movie theater, bowling alley, and everything else you’d find in a 1950s American town.
Today, you’re still not allowed step foot here, unless you have a clearance and orders from the government. The current population numbers are classified, but it’s rumored that at least 500 people still live here and they’re mostly researchers.
Not much else is known about any other cities like this existing in the US, but we do know that in Russia there are dozens of active closed cities.
Under communist rule, these places were so secret that they weren’t even placed on Soviet maps. Some cities had populations as large as 100,000 people.
Residents here were forbidden from leaving or even writing letters to family.
“The relatives of these people who were relocated to this city, they considered them as missing; they disappeared,” said Goetschel.
Hundreds of thousands of people simply disappeared after they moved to these cities. Hiding their whereabouts also served another grim purpose.
“They also, I’m talking about the Soviet Union at the time. They didn’t put aside the idea that maybe there would be a nuclear accident that would actually kill these people, so what they decided to do was erase their identity. Meaning they didn’t exist outside of the city.”
Like the Manhattan Project in the US, Soviet closed cities were created to protect nuclear secrets.
But today many of these places are changing, with Russia now publicly admitting of their existence.
Like Ozersk, once codenamed City 40.
“It still remains a closed city, however it’s no longer a secret, it still remains a forbidden city,” according to Goetschel.
Constructed in 1947, City 40 was the birthplace of the Soviet Nuclear Weapons Program. To keep this project secret and to keep residents from fleeing, the USSR told them that they were ‘the nuclear shield and saviors of the world,’ and that everyone outside was a potential enemy.
They also provided them with the best perks and jobs in Soviet Union.
“They created a paradise for these people, so they didn’t want to escape,” Goetschel explained, “They had everything they needed and more.”
Residents had nice apartments, plenty of food, good schools and healthcare, as well as a ton of entertainment options.
But most outside information was restricted from entering City 40. During the Cold War, residents were unaware that most of the Soviet population was suffering from famine and living in poverty.
“These people who had absolutely nothing outside, they had everything and beyond, like an episode of Twilight Zone or a science fiction film,” she said.
Today, there currently 44 publicly acknowledged closed cities in Russia, with over 1 and a half million people living in them.
“Today they have a certain access to the outside world, but they have to get outside visas.”
These cities are surrounded by double barbed wire fencing, to keep people without authorization from leaving. The ones that can leave have to promise not to talk about their home city.
“You do not talk to anybody about City 40 because then you are accused of being a traitor.”
If you want to go to a closed city, you’ll need an invitation from an existing resident. And even that might not get you in. Foreigners and non-resident Russians need special permission from the Russian secret police.
It’s believed that an additional 15 or so closed cities exist in Russia, but their names and locations have not been publicly disclosed.
Could you live in a closed city? Would you consider visiting one? In Russia, they’re viewed as these utopian bubbles, with many residents choosing to stay in these secretive cites, even though they don’t have to.
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