A closed city or closed town is a settlement where travel or residency restrictions are applied so that specific authorization is required to visit or remain overnight. Such places may be sensitive military establishments or secret research installations that require much more space or internal freedom than is available in a conventional military base. There may also be a wider variety of permanent residents, including close family members of workers or trusted traders who are not directly connected with clandestine purposes.
Many closed cities existed in the Soviet Union from the mid-1940s until its dissolution in 1991. After 1991, a number of them still existed in the CIS countries, especially in Russia. In modern Russia, such places are officially known as "closed administrative-territorial formations" (закрытые административно-территориальные образования, zakrytye administrativno-territorial'nye obrazovaniya, or ЗАТО ZATO for short).
Sometimes closed cities may only be represented on classified maps that are not available to the general public. In some cases there may be no road signs or directions to closed cities, and they are usually omitted from railroad time tables and bus routes.
Sometimes closed cities may be indicated obliquely as a nearby insignificant village, with the name of the stop serving the closed city made equivocal or misleading. For mail delivery, a closed city is usually named as the nearest large city and a special postcode, for example, Arzamas‑16, Chelyabinsk‑65. The actual settlement can be rather distant from its namesakes; for instance, Sarov, designated Arzamas-16, is in the federal republic of Mordovia, whereas Arzamas is in the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast (roughly 75 kilometres (47 mi) away). People not living in a closed city were subject to document checks and security checkpoints, and explicit permission was required for them to visit. To relocate to a closed city, one would need security clearance by the organization running it, such as the KGB in Soviet closed cities.
Closed cities were sometimes guarded by a security perimeter with barbed wire and towers. The very fact of such a city's existence was often classified, and residents were expected not to divulge their place of residence to outsiders. This lack of freedom was often compensated by better housing conditions and a better choice of goods in retail trade than elsewhere in the country. Also, in the Soviet Union, people working with classified information received a salary bonus.
Closed cities were established in the Soviet Union from the late 1940s onwards under the euphemistic name of "post boxes", referring to the practice of addressing post to them via mailboxes in other cities. They fell into two distinct categories.
The locations of the first category of closed cities were chosen for their geographical characteristics. They were often established in remote places deep in the Urals and Siberia, out of reach of enemy bombers. They were built close to rivers and lakes that were used to provide the large amounts of water needed for heavy industry and nuclear technology. Existing civilian settlements in the vicinity were often used as sources of construction labour. Although the closure of cities originated as a strictly temporary measure that was to be normalized under more favorable conditions, in practice the closed cities took on a life of their own and became a notable institutional feature of the Soviet system.
Any movement to and from closed areas was tightly controlled. Foreigners were prohibited from entering them and local citizens were under stringent restrictions. They had to have special permission to travel there or leave, and anyone seeking residency was required to undergo vetting by the NKVD and its successor agencies. Access to some closed cities was physically enforced by surrounding them with barbed wire fences monitored by armed guards.
"Mailbox" (Russian: Почтовый ящик, romanized: Pochtovyy yashik) was the unofficial name of a secret Soviet facility much like the closed city, but smaller, usually the size of a factory. The name of such a facility was usually secret, as were the activities there. Incoming mail was addressed to "Mailbox #XXXX", thus the name of "mailbox". Most Soviet design bureaus (OKB) for weapons, aircraft, space technology, military electronics, etc. were "mailboxes".
Russia has the largest number of closed cities. The policy of closing cities underwent major changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The adoption of a new constitution for the Russian Federation in 1993 prompted significant reforms to the status of closed cities, which were renamed "closed administrative-territorial formations" (or ZATO, after the Russian acronym). Municipally all such entities have a status of urban okrugs, as mandated by the federal law.
There are currently 44 publicly acknowledged closed cities in Russia with a total population of about 1.5 million people. 75% are administered by the Russian Ministry of Defense, with the rest being administered by Rosatom. Another 15 or so closed cities are believed to exist, but their names and locations have not been publicly disclosed by the Russian government.
Some Russian closed cities are open for foreign investment, but foreigners may only enter with a permit. An example is the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI), a joint effort of the United States National Nuclear Security Administration and Minatom, which involves in part the cities of Sarov, Snezhinsk, and Zheleznogorsk.
The number of closed cities has been significantly reduced since the mid-1990s. However, on 30 October 2001, foreign travel (without any exceptions) was restricted in the northern cities of Norilsk, Talnakh, Kayerkan, Dudinka, and Igarka. Russian and Belarusian citizens visiting these cities are not required to have any permits; however, local courts are known to deport Belarusian citizens.
Krasnoyarsk-26 in Siberia, researched for the subject of Sidney Sheldon's 2001 fictional murder mystery-romance The Sky is Falling, was planned in 2003 to be shut down by 2011, in co-operation with the U.S, and documented by their Natural Resources Defense Council, but actually closed in 2008.
The number of closed cities in Russia is defined by government decree (see links further). They include the following cities. Reasons for restrictions are denoted in the descriptions below.
Republic of Bashkortostan
Nizhny Novgorod Oblast
There is a list of territories within Russia that do not have closed-city status but require special permits for foreigners to visit. The largest locality within such territory is the city of Norilsk.
There were two closed cities in Estonia: Sillamäe and Paldiski. As with all the other industrial cities, the population of them was mainly Russian-speaking. Sillamäe was the site for a chemical factory that produced fuel rods and nuclear materials for the Soviet nuclear power plants and nuclear weapon facilities, while Paldiski was home to a Soviet Navy nuclear submarine training centre. Sillamäe was closed until Estonia regained its independence in 1991; Paldiski remained closed until 1994, when the last Russian warship left.
Tartu, home to Raadi Airfield, was partially closed. Foreign academics could visit the University of Tartu, but had to sleep elsewhere.
Moldova has one partially closed city: the village of Cobasna (Rîbnița District), which is under the control of the unrecognized state of Transnistria internationally recognized as part of Moldova. The village, on the left bank of the Dniester river, contains a large Soviet-era ammunition depot guarded by Russian troops. Only the Transnistrian and Russian authorities have detailed information about this depot.
Ukraine had eighteen closed cities, including:
During the period of communist rule in Albania, the towns of Çorovodë and Qyteti Stalin (now Kuçovë) were closed cities with a military airport, military industry and other critical war infrastructure.
See also: Frontier Closed Area
The Frontier Closed Area (FCA) is a fenced stretch of land along the northern border of Hong Kong, which serves as a buffer between the closed border and the rest of the territory. For anyone to enter the area, a Closed Area Permit is required. Between 1951 and 2012, it contained dozens of villages over an area of 28 square kilometres. Upon several stages of reduction, by 2016, the border town of Sha Tau Kok remains as the only settlement within the FCA.
Within the Korean Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea are two "peace villages" (one maintained by each nation): Daeseong-dong (South) and (possibly) Kijŏng-dong (North). Access by non-residents to Daeseong-dong requires a military escort, while Kijŏng-dong is not accessible to visitors.
The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center sits within a closed city that occupies 24.8 square kilometers (9.6 sq mi).
Between 1957 and 1962, approximately one-third of the United States was closed to Soviet citizens. Only eight states were accessible in their entirety: Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, North Carolina, Arkansas, Vermont, Missouri, and Mississippi.
The 2020 film Tenet prominently features a fictional Soviet-era closed city in Siberia called Stalsk-12 in its storyline.
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See 25 minute video of Felicity Barr's interview of Nadezhda Kutepova.
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Mecca, like Medina, is closed to non-Muslims