In Russia, the phenomenon of secret closed towns has been present since the mid 1940s, throughout the Cold War period and the nuclear age, prompted by the two world wars.
The regime of secrecy was created in order to house a military industrial complex within the walls of each of these secret towns. Secret towns were positioned in various geographic locations and were non-existent on Soviet maps. Secured by a concrete wall, in the past, these closed towns might have resonated a feeling of privilege, safety and comfort. They provided all the luxuries people could ever dream of: a theatre, schools, sports complex, ski slopes and more importantly, food and complementary accommodation. A permit (propusk) was required to access each town, restricting entry for the general public. They were seen as utopias which people dreamed of living in, but never knew existed.
My grandparents were recruited to be a part of one such community, arriving from Nizhny Tagil, Russia in 1975 with their two children with the hope of a better life. Through my photographs of their town, I explore the notion of Soviet closedness through documenting family members and locals who still live within this enclosed environment. Mailbox44 questions how this particular environment has shaped and impacted the mentality of its residents from its past until this day.
This project is currently exhibited at Vantage Point Sharjah 8 , United Arab Emirates until November 29, 2020.
Secret “closed towns” have existed in Russia since the mid-1940s, throughout the Cold War and into the nuclear age. Positioned in locations across the country, these towns were built to house sensitive military, research, and industrial facilities – and the workers, practitioners and scientists that were needed to run them. Residence was by invitation only, and they did not appear on Soviet maps.
Each town was known by a generic name, a pochtovy yashchik or “mailbox” to which correspondence could be sent, removing the need for an address that might identify their location. Closed towns were designed in a particular way, each following a similar spatial grid and layout. They were often referred to as “clones” because of their similarity to one another. Authorisation was required to enter or leave, and many residents spent their entire lives within the confines of the walls that separated them from their surroundings.
But far from a barrier keeping them from the world outside, those living within were often grateful for this exclusion – for the security it brought, and for the privileges it granted by allowing only a select few to pass. Once inside, residents enjoyed access to a range of luxury amenities: theatre, a sports complex, and ski slopes; better schools and health care, food, goods, and housing. It was hoped that by providing everything their residents might want and need, it would also prevent them from wanting to leave, and for residents the knowledge of their privileged position – set apart from the difficulties and deprivation that many Soviet citizens faced elsewhere – made for a powerful incentive to stay. But for those living beyond their walls, closed towns were just an imagined utopia – the kind of place people dreamed of living in, and never knew existed.
My grandparents were recruited to be a part of one such community, arriving from Nizhny Tagil in 1975 with their two children and the hope of a better life. My grandfather moved first to start work, and the rest of the family followed six months later. “There were sports events, artists, and a theatre,” my grandmother told me. “I came here in 1975 and there were one- or two-storey houses, many barracks. The food and accommodation were free.” They were given a two-bedroom apartment in a five-storey block that had a shared courtyard and playground. “There was a sense of beauty. I did not get this feeling from the city that I came from. The buildings and houses were new. I remember thinking it was so beautiful. There were carefully placed flowerbeds.” It was a a drastic change to their way of life: they had previously spent eight years in a communal flat, sharing one room between the four of them. Now, their new home was set among trees and there were schools nearby for their children – including my mother, who was five at the time. My grandparents lived in this apartment until 2018.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the function of closed towns has changed. Their existence has now been acknowledged, but the walls remain in place and a propusk (permit) is still required to access most towns, restricting entry for the wider public. They remain strictly off limits to foreign citizens without special permission.
Mailbox44 is an exploration of my grandparent’s town, documenting three generations of family members and locals living behind the wall and the idea of Soviet “closedness” it continues to create, even after declassification. For the oldest generation, the perimeter wall remains a symbol not just of protection from the perceived dangers of the world beyond, but also of the exclusivity of the lifestyle they enjoyed, and their preferential treatment within the broader spectrum of Soviet society. “The town amazed us with its beauty, its was perfectly clean, quiet and cosy. It is interesting to live and work here. Our children and grandchildren grew up in this town. My husband and I celebrated our golden wedding anniversary. Life continues.”
But a sustained lack of investment has meant there are now few opportunities and little satisfactory employment on offer. Many of the town’s younger people are leaving in search of a different life elsewhere, unlikely to return. “I didn’t feel any closure when I was a kid,” Ilya told me. “There is a feeling of a limitation though. You feel the walls here, you understand there isn’t much space, you understand that the borders themselves are smaller. Sometimes I want to get out of here, sometimes I feel that I am cut off from the world. I want to think that I am not in a closed town because this status is not elite, I want to leave.”
Drawing from personal stories and experiences, Mailbox44 delves into the contrasting experiences and mindsets of those still living in this closed, though no longer secret, space.