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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Privilege to Poverty: Life in the Secret Cities

Once pampered enclaves for the best Soviet scientists, the former secret nuclear cities now confront unpaid wages, dwindling resources and an increasingly restive population.

KRASNOYARSK-26, Western Siberia - When Andrei Sokolov came to this nuclear city more than 30 years ago it was a bastion of privilege for the Soviet Union's scientific elite.

Its very existence was a state secret. Behind barbed-wire fences, and hidden inside a mountain of granite, three nuclear reactors produced tons of plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal. Its scientists, the nation's brightest, lived the Soviet dream: the best food and wages the Kremlin could provide.

Krasnoyarsk-26 remains closed off from the world. But these days it is an impoverished ward of the state, and a vexing worry for Russian and U.S. officials who fear Russia's best scientists will leave for aspiring nuclear powers like Iran and Iraq.

Sokolov, 58, one of the city's top nuclear specialists, says he is not leaving. He sometimes goes months without his meager salary, and he and his neighbors recently endured a few weeks without heat. Like the humblest Russian peasant, his wife, Nadezhda, helps make ends meet by canning cabbages, cucumbers and tomatoes from the garden at their dacha, and she cannot look back without a twinge of regret. "It was better then,'' she said. "The city was clean. Everything was in abundance. There was no economic panic. We were young and everything seemed beautiful to us.''

While the Sokolovs are stoical about the future, nobody can be sure about the thousands of other specialists in Russia's 10 nuclear cities. The government has become so concerned about the tumbling morale of its top nuclear scientists that it has ordered its security services to secretly monitor them, Russia's nuclear power minister said in an interview.

In Washington, the Energy Department has pledged as much as $30 million in assistance through 1999 to start up new businesses in the hope that the enterprises will be able to attract hundreds of millions more in Western investment.

But critics worry that the aid is too little to make a difference. And with the economy in crisis and investors fleeing, attracting foreign investment is harder than ever.

As winter began to creep across the heartland, nuclear workers took to the streets to demand back pay. Guards at nuclear laboratories have abandoned their posts to forage for food. Power shortages threaten to shut down electronic security systems designed to safeguard stores of weapons-grade materials.

Krasnoyarsk-26 has endured its share of tribulations: a restive work force, months of unpaid wages and the temporary shutdown of its lone nuclear reactor, which forced residents to endure the bitter Siberian chill. "The situation in the nuclear closed cities is very close to catastrophic,'' said Viktor Orlov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Policy Studies and an expert on Russia's nuclear complex.

The armed guards at the checkpoint for Krasnoyarsk-26 provide a sobering reminder to visitors that they are about to enter a state within a state. Outsiders must get the blessing of the Federal Security Service, the heir to the KGB. Passports are inspected and, in the case of foreigners, escorts provided.

The residential heart of this city of 18 square kilometers gives a hint of its past glory. There is an artificial lake with three beaches. Its movie theater, which used to receive first-run Soviet films the day after they appeared in Moscow, displays an ad for the American film "Titanic.'' There are more sports facilities than in most Russian cities of this size, and a well-tended park, which features a statue of Lenin staring vacantly into space. (It had been looking approvingly at Stalin before Nikita Khrushchev launched his campaign to de-Stalinize the nation and the dictator's statue was removed.)

The train station that the city's scientists and engineers use to go to work looks like a typical suburban platform, save for the fact it is protected by armed Interior Ministry guards and serves an electric train that heads straight into a fortified mountain. The subterranean complex at the other end of a 4.8-kilometer-long tunnel is a cavernous, multistory honeycomb of nuclear reactors, plutonium laboratories, cafeterias and workshops - some 3,500 rooms in all. It is the mountain that persuaded Stalin and Lavrenty Beria, his secret police chief, to build the complex in this remote stretch of Siberia. The granite peak, they calculated, would shelter the complex against an American nuclear strike, enabling the Soviet Union to produce weapons-grade plutonium after a nuclear war. The nearby Yenisei River, one of Siberia's mightiest, would cool the plutonium-generating reactors. No efforts were spared to turn this Cold War project into a reality. The chief construction engineers were military officers. Most of the brawn, however, was provided by slave labor.

According to the city's records, some 70,000 prisoners worked here from 1950 to 1964, digging out the mountain - excavating more rock than was used to build Egypt's largest pyramid. Many were veterans, farmers and workers, who may have done little more than steal a sack of potatoes to feed their families. Several hundred foreigners were also brought here for forced labor, including, the city's punctilious records show, prisoners from Germany, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Spain, Finland and "one Negro.''

The streets of Krasnoyarsk-26 are named after Soviet heros and city founders, but the only trace of the prisoners is the pitiful plot of overgrown and unmarked graves that straddles the border of the town. Now, some graves have been defaced by local vandals while others have been covered by a garage.

Krasnoyarsk-26's fall from grace has made its present troubles harder for many of its residents to bear. Unlike Russia's sorry factory towns or collective farms, this city got used to being a pampered enclave for the nation's top engineering talent, and many inhabitants cannot look back without a nagging sense of regret.

"The early days were full of enthusiasm,'' said Ivan Mashkovtsev, a former KGB official who used to oversee security at the nuclear complex. Its work force earned 50 percent more than its counterparts outside the city gates. Food was ample and there was no rationing or lines. Vacations were generous: 36 work days a year and 48 days for those who labored inside the mountain.

The sense of national purpose was fortified by ironhanded secrecy. For the first few years, none of the residents was allowed to leave. Later, when travel within the Soviet Union was allowed, the word "plutonium'' was stripped from their vocabulary. If anyone asked, they could say that they worked for an iron ore mine or lived on a military base. There were no telephone lines connecting Krasnoyarsk-26 to nearby cities and villages; the telephone lines used by the top leadership ran straight to Moscow.

Because the city was left off Soviet maps, residents called it Krasnoyarsk-26, using the number on the post office box where their mail was sent at the open city of Krasnoyarsk, 64 kilometers south. Krasnoyarsk's plutonium industry did not stay secret for long. According to Russian officials, American intelligence learned about the reactors in the 1963, several years after its second reactor began to operate. Still, Krasnoyarsk-26's reactors kept churning away. According to some Western estimates, they produced more than 40 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, about one-third of the plutonium used to build the Soviet arsenal. With the world awash in deadly plutonium, two of the three reactors here have been shut down.

The remaining reactor provides heat for the city. It still produces plutonium as a byproduct that is separated from the reactor's nuclear waste and stored as a powder for safekeeping. To many, the loss of the secret city's Cold War mission has been a devastating psychological blow. "The main problem is probably not the loss of material wealth,'' Mashkovtsev said. "The problem is the way people look at the nuclear industry. People here feel like they are unneeded, especially when they hear others say that everything they did was unnecessary.''

For Valery Lebedev, the director of Krasnoyarsk-26's nuclear operations and a veteran resident of the city, holding the complex together is an increasingly daunting task. Some 10,000 people still work at the nuclear complex. But it has received only two-thirds of the government funds it was expecting this year. "The prices have increased but we cannot raise wages, because we do not even pay people what they are supposed to be paid,'' Lebedev said. "We try to do our best to pay something. If we don't have money we give food.''

The money crunch has taken its toll. Even keeping the lone reactor running is not a simple proposition. In September, a budget shortfall delayed a shipment of uranium fuel. Then workers in the radio-chemistry laboratory, where plutonium is separated from the nuclear waste, mounted a brief protest. The reactor was out of operation for weeks, leaving the city without heat. "We are concerned when a person has to think all the time about how to feed his family,'' Lebedev explained. "That's not a good time to carry out some important operations.''

It is also affecting arms control efforts. The Russian government has promised the United States it will convert the Krasnoyarsk-26 reactor and two similar reactors at another closed city, Tomsk-7, so that they no longer produce plutonium by 2000.

But Russian officials said the conversion will almost certainly have to be delayed because of budgetary and technical problems. Without generous funds from Moscow, the city's character has begun to change. It is quieter, greener and safer than most Russian cities, but it is no longer walled off from the problems of modern-day Russia. The shortage of funds has affected the city's medical services which suspended all but emergency operations in August when medicine and surgical gloves ran out.

Like other scientists, Sokolov and his family have felt the blow. They live in a cramped, but tidy apartment, crowded with books and pictures of grandchildren. Sokolov, tall, lean and graced with an impish sense of humor, relishes his work and his colleagues and regales guests with tales of his trips through the still untamed taiga, the storied Siberian wilderness that stretches north to the arctic tundra.

Their rewards for long years of service behind the barbed-wire city limits, however, is a meager one. Sokolov's salary, which sometimes has been delayed for months, is about $150 a month. His wife, a chemist, has been paid more regularly, but only receives $30 a month. Their salaries are supplemented by small pensions, granted in recognition of their decades of toil. Each receives $37.

Their children have delivered their verdict on the city's future. The Sokolovs' son works in the city, but their two daughters, who received degrees in science, moved away years ago and have no desire to return. Pensioners and laid-off workers have an even harder time. Valentina Mazurova worked as a construction engineer when Krasnoyarsk-26 was a boomtown. A sturdy woman with an engaging smile, she has given up her dreams of travel and supplements her monthly pension by selling dried fruit in the outdoor market. On a good day, she may earn $2. Other residents have turned to the world outside the wire for work. Each weekday morning, several thousand pile into a caravan of cars and buses that snakes its way to the city of Krasnoyarsk. Lebedev would like to see the secret city opened up. That, he believes, would bring in new business and money and make the city less dependent on the dying military sector.

Few residents, however, agree. They see the barbed-wire fences as a final barrier against the turmoil sweeping the land and want to keep Krasnoyarsk-26 closed despite the economic costs. "The stronger the crisis the more people want to live in isolation,'' said the Andrei Katargin, the mayor of Zheleznogorsk, the name of the residential area inside the fences.

In Moscow, the closed cities have become a heavy burden for Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov. Krasnoyarsk-26 is just part of the problem. The director of the nuclear design center Chelyabinsk-70 shot himself in 1996, as that closed city faltered under the weight of unpaid wages. Morale is so low that Adamov regularly lectures the authorities in the nuclear cities not to pay plumbers and common laborers more than nuclear scientists. The winter threatens to make a bad situation worse.

Closing down the cities is not an option. They are still needed to disassemble weapons and safeguard nuclear materials, and nobody wants the scientists to be tempted to go abroad.

As the cities deteriorated, Russian intelligence began the secret monitoring of the top scientists, whose bomb-designing skills would be particularly valuable to an aspiring nuclear power or to the United States, Adamov said. The United States itself is worried about Russian scientists' leaving to help Iraq, Iran, North Korea and other aspiring nuclear powers. It has agreed to provide money for their employers to switch to non-nuclear ventures.

The Russians "call them sensitive professions,'' Adamov said, "and we know all these people by name. Even they don't know that they are in this group. We make sure they are provided for.''

The Nuclear Power Ministry's long-term plan is to cut the nuclear workforce by as much as a third and create an equivalent number of new jobs in the commercial sector. Of the 750,000 people who live in the closed cities, 125,000 work directly in the nuclear enterprises. "People in the closed cities are like children,'' Adamov said. "The gap between ordinary cities and the free market is quite big, but the gap between people who lived in a closed city and a market economy is enormous.''

The stakes are so high that the U.S. Energy Department has forged an unusual collaboration with the Nuclear Power Ministry, its former archrival. It has earmarked $30 million to help launch new businesses, which might attract Western capital. But it is a small sum and the funds cannot even be disbursed until Congress reviews the spending plan early next year. The Energy Department is also planning to spend $200 million to help Russia dispose of plutonium. That will also involve work in the closed cities, though it is not clear exactly how those funds will be spent and how much will go to American contractors.

"The cities were in trouble before, but now they are getting desperate," said Kenneth Luongo, a former Energy Department official and the head of the Russian-American National Security Advisory Council, a private group that focuses on the problems of the closed cities. "What little economic progress there was is being erased and serious action is required to prevent further deterioration.''

At Krasnoyarsk-26, Lebedev has not given up hope. His dream is to transform his complex into a high-tech commercial center - a sort of Silicon Valley of Russia. He has tried one plan after another to try to lure business here but little has happened. A plan to assemble Samsung televisions collapsed after import tariffs on electronic components were raised. He also drafted a plan to make his city a tax-free zone for foreign investors. But the government never acted. The complex is so desperate it would like to make money storing nuclear waste. But Russian law forbids it from accepting nuclear waste from abroad.

These days Krasnoyarsk-26 is counting on the construction of a $200 million factory to produce silicon for computer chips. The Defense Enterprise Fund, a Pentagon-funded group that is trying to help Russia convert its military industry to civilian production, has paid for some of the planning. The Russian government has already spent several million dollars to grow silicon crystals.

Krasnoyarsk-26, however, still needs to line up major Western investors. With Asia in a recession and the United States and Europe possibly on the brink of a slowdown, persuading foreign companies to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into a Siberian nuclear city is harder than ever. As investors ponder their hand, Lebedev is weighed down by more immediate worries. This summer, he sent his Moscow superiors a blunt memo describing where this once-proud city was headed.

"Wage payments are three months behind schedule,'' he wrote. "The social tension in the shops and factories has reached the critical level, and its consequences are unpredictable.''

New York Times Service