"The Graveyard Of The Earth": Russia's Hidden Nuclear City


It has been contaminated for decades, yet Osjorsk is still home to around 80,000 people. The city is considered the birthplace of the Russian atomic bomb, and since its creation there have been several massive radioactive accidents.


On 29 September 1957, the sky above the Russian town of Ozyorsk shone such an unusual blue-purple that the local press suspected it was northern lights, which would have been quite surprising given the city's location. The truth, however, was different, and a terrible one: there had been a dreadful accident at the "Mayak" factory about seven kilometres away, and what was "produced" there was lethal. The consequences still affect the inhabitants of Ozyorsk today.

Located in the Russian administrative district of Chelyabinsk, Osyorsk was built from 1946 onwards as a planned city around the Mayak power plant – where Russia's first atomic bomb was developed. No one was ever supposed to know what was being worked on here, which is why no one was allowed to leave the city for the first eight years, and contact with the outside world was also forbidden. For the researchers and their families, Osyorsk was a secluded little world full of luxury.


While most of the people in the country lived in poverty, in Osyorsk there was an abundance of everything for the inhabitants. Even exotic delicacies like caviar and bananas were available, as well as schools and, bizarrely enough, health care. "These people were better off than the ordinary population," says Sebastian Pflugbeil, chairman of the Society for Radiation Protection. "They also earned more than the average. But they were never informed about what was happening, not even about the extent of the radioactive contamination." In other words, they had the sense that something was going on, but they were kept in the dark about what exactly was happening and what health risks were involved. The "accident" of 1957 was not an isolated case. During its existence, the Mayak power plant produced four times as much radiation and waste as the Chernobyl disaster.


Radiation-related deaths had already been accumulating since the late 1940s. However, the fact, as well as the 1957 incident, was covered up by the Soviet government. Mr Pflugbeil heard a story from a doctor who was involved in the research around Ozyorsk and its inhabitants at the time: "So they came into the houses of the people there, and the Geiger counters started going crazy. At first you couldn't explain it at all, but then you realise that the source of the radiation was the samovars in which the people kept their tea hot. The water came from the river Tetscha, which was extremely contaminated." Mr Pflugbeil cites yet another case in which prisoners of a nearby labour camp had to take apart a reactor with their bare hands: "At that time, several thousand people died miserably." And that was only the beginning of a human and ecological catastrophe.

Even today, no one is allowed to enter the city without special permission from the Russian secret service. Iranian-American filmmaker Samira Goetschel managed to visit Ozyorsk incognito, an experience she captured in the documentary "City 40", which was nominated for an Emmy in the category "News & Documentary".