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.
Closed towns were kept highly secretive due to a military industrial complex within the premises of each town. The towns were built to accommodate workers, practitioners and scientists from across Russia. The main sign of a closed town is the perimeter wall which stands between the town and the settlements surrounding it.
These towns were seen as utopias - a place without a place for the rest of the world, a place of luxury for a particular group of people. During the difficult soviet times, many dreamed of such places without knowing that they actually existed due to the secrecy surrounding this topic. The towns were designed in a particular way using the same spatial grid in design, including everything from secret ski slopes, to an amusement park which was rare during the Soviet era. The aim was to provide everything for its residents preventing them from leaving and searching for such things elsewhere. This exploration started with a utopian aesthetic as expressed by the residents when discussing the towns past and ends with a desaturated colour palette to visualise the current situation within the town due to it being in a period of stagnation.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the functions of closed towns have changed from purely military and secret technologies to encompass innovation in energy and biotechnology. Although it is not a secret today, closed towns still operate under closed town regime which is still present within the lives of those who live behind the wall. The mindset and mentality, how it affected three different generations living behind the wall. For them the closed wall is a symbol of not just protection from crime and strangers (or the illusion of protection) it is also their exclusiveness and preferential treatment that they have received within. Drawing from personal stories and experiences provided by a narrative lead by locals, the intimate and covert lives of those living within this closed space is revealed. The construction of space was of particular interest with politically charged typologies present frequently throughout the town. Soviet ‘closedness’ is present among the older generation as they vaguely responded to questions about their past, through to exploring the retreat of the youth today.
As experienced universally in smaller industrial towns and cities, there is an issue of the youth leaving due to a lack of opportunities and jobs. Due to its closed town status it is difficult to attract investors, thus the town has been static in its development for a long time. There is also an element of preservation and compressed time as the older generations wish to keep the town closed, as their desire to maintain this isolated environment relates to a sense of protection provided by the perimeter wall. The youth are leaving this isolated and enclosed environment for a bigger and brighter future and most never return.