New East Digital Archive

Poisoned beauty: inside the former closed town next to one of Russia’s largest nuclear power plants

26 November 2020

The Soviet Union’s quest to split the atom was ideology-intensive. In Moscow, dedicated “isotope shops” showcased a brave new tech-driven world to members of the public. Young, beautiful physicists carefully explained the benefits of atoms and isotopes in real life applications like growing potatoes, creating new vacuum cleaners, and measuring temperatures. The Soviet government needed to promote the atom to justify the huge resources that were invested in the programme.

But while peaceful atomic power was widely advertised among the public, thousands of scientists worked discreetly on something else: the atomic bomb. These specialists worked in pre-designed “closed towns” all over Russia — including Ozersk in the southern Urals, where the plutonium rod for the first Soviet atomic bomb was designed and produced. Under communism, these towns were generally not even shown on maps. Although residents were free to come and go, inhabitants lived encircled by a fence of barbed wire, and all visitors had to be pre-approved.

St Petersburg-based photographer Oleg Savunov was able to secure a pass to Ozersk, which still remains semi-closed, to document the near-unbearable stillness and tranquility of a town in the vicinity of one of the biggest nuclear plants in Russia.

“I first heard about Ozersk from my wife [who grew up there]. Naturally I was instantly drawn by its remoteness and secrecy,” Savunov remembers. But having relatives from Ozersk does not guarantee entrance to the town. Savunov had to organise an exhibition at a local art school in order to get his hands on a pass. He knew he would not be allowed to go near the top-secret nuclear plant, but ventured close to the grounds anyway, to find his own way of creating a visual chronicle of a secret place.

Savunov walked around the seemingly perfect pre-fab town, dotted by fragrant apple trees in bloom, with neat houses and clean, graffiti-free streets. But his images do not forget the numerous incidents which took place nearby, including the 1957 Kyshtym disaster which exposed locals to up to 20 times the radiation suffered by the victims of the Chernobyl disaster victims. In terms of severity, the Kyshtym nuclear disaster has only been surpassed by Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan. Many workers and engineers from Ozersk would later be sent to Chernobyl to help liquidate the catastrophe. They returned home highly damaged, with some forced to have both their hands and legs amputated to stop the high levels of radiation they had contracted from spreading further.

Today’s Ozersk, although similar to many other provincial towns in Russia, is stuck in time, somewhere in the late 90s’, as Savunov describes it. It provided a stark contrast to his own memories of growing up in Lyubertsy, a small town outside Moscow, that was hyper-criminalised during Savunov’s childhood. Ozersk, by contrast, was designed to manifest well-being and comfort, providing its prestigious residents — mostly workers of the nuclear power plant — high salaries, plenty of goods, and social standing.

“Due to its secret, sensitive status, it was created as an absolutely self-sufficient entity with all the structures and goods residents would need,” Savunov adds. Soviet closed towns were also normally built in picturesque locations, and Ozersk is no exception. It sits amid the lakes and forests of the southern Urals, beautiful and still, an eternal landscape that seemingly would not change even if mankind perished utterly. Yet there is some contradiction between external pastoral beauty and the internal ecological disaster hidden close to the town — something that Savunov put at the center of his work in Ozersk. Locals claim to have seen the nearby poplar trees shed their leaves completely in July due to radiation poisoning.

Savunov began photographing the damaged nature, such as mutant birches and lone fields, in an attempt to capture the terrible conflict caused by the humankind’s separation from the natural world, as part of his study of identity, self-identification, and its relation to the landscape in Russia.

Ozersk remains a semi-restricted area, as the nearby nuclear power plant is still functioning as a reprocessing facility for spent nuclear fuel — including fuel from abroad. New control measures were introduced after eco-activists began to protest the site, although incidents still happen — as regularly as every three months, according to locals still working at the plant. You can listen to more insider, first-hand comments by the locals on Savunov’s website, in Russian.