ZATOs In View

A few weeks ago, on March 27, I was at a reception at the Harriman Institute (for Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies) at Columbia University for the opening of a new exhibit entitled ZATO: Soviet Secret Cities During the Cold War. The exhibit, which will be on display until May 22, was curated by Dr. Xenia Vytuleva, an architectural historian who did her graduate work at Moscow State University and is now visiting at Columbia. The exhibit includes images, diagrams, maps, and documents, some of it provided by Richard Pare, the English photographer well-known for his work on Soviet modernist architecture. Dr. Vytuleva has done an exemplary job of visually communicating the essence of the “closed cities” and I encourage all in the New York area to come and see her superb work.

My contribution to the project was to provide the historical text (and context) and to help conceptualize an exhibit ostensibly designed to render visible a phenomenon that was largely about invisibility. I provide here a brief summary of some of my thoughts that fed into the ZATO exhibit and the ways in which we might begin to situate the “secret cities” phenomenon on the social and political geography of the former Soviet Union. On a very cursory level, these cities are no mystery. Consider the official designation that created this typology of urban life: the Closed Administrative-Territorial Formation (Zakrytoe administrativno-territorial’noe obrazovanie, ZATO). All of these words hold certain meanings, but they all communicate a sense of boundaries, demarcations, limitations, and circumscriptions on the social and political geography of the Soviet Union. At a deeper level, the language of secret cities is also one of omission, most starkly demonstrated by the fact that the cities themselves were never shown on official maps produced by the Soviet regime. Implicated in the Cold War posture of producing weapons for the Soviet military-industrial complex, these cities were some of the most deeply secret and omitted places in Soviet geography. Those who worked in these places had special passes to live and leave, and were themselves occluded from public view. Most of the scientists and engineers who worked in the ZATOs were not allowed to reveal their place or purpose of employment. Again, this omission.

If the secret cities can be seen as a phenomenon of omission, they can also be understood as spaces of exclusion. Much like other social spaces that were highly exclusionary—such as the Gulag—passage in and out of these urban “formations” was very strictly regulated, even for people who lived within. Yet, what made them different from the Gulag was, of course, the intersection of exclusion and privilege. For Soviet intelligentsia—particularly scientists, engineers, and technicians—secret cities represented aspirational spaces, idealized urban formations where the day-to-day amenities of life were seemingly abundant and plentiful. In these markers—exclusion, omission, and privilege—we see the secret cities functioning as metaphors for the place of knowledge in Soviet civilization. Knowledge—and information—was excluded, omitted, and privileged, according the often arbitrary codes of the Bol’sheviks, creating a system of secrecy at the political, social, and cultural levels that affected every Soviet citizen. Activities from the most anodyne to the most dissident acquired and lost meaning when they were confronted with the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

Much of the discourse surrounding the secret cities has centered on Cold War imperatives and pressures; this was a story of the Soviet military-industrial complex.1 But an obvious touchstone for the ZATO, especially in terms of secrecy, was the Gulag. Everything about the Gulag, its institutional structure, the scope of its camp system, how it operated, how many prisoners labored as part of it, where it was located—all of these were considered secret. The Gulag archives are, in fact, replete with directives whose sole goal was to ensure occlusion from public view. Like the ZATOs, the Gulag camps that dotted the Soviet landscape were also omitted from official Soviet maps.

Once the ZATOs began to emerge on the topography of Soviet maps in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they immediately became the object of study for Western security studies scholars (interested in weapons proliferation) and environmentalists (who were concerned with the effects of nuclear and industrial waste). Their concerns are certainly legitimate but it has been equally exciting to see humanities scholars and social scientists exploring other aspects of the ZATO phenomenon. New work among others by Victoria Donovan (who is studying migration) and Ekaterina Emeliantseva hold much promise to add to what has so far been a relatively straightforward recounting of facts. Much in the mode of this new work, the Van Alen Institute is hosting a discussion on May 15, 2012 on the theme of “ZATO: Secret Soviet Cities During the Cold War.” Present will be Jean-Louis Cohen, the Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at NYU, Xenia Vytuleva, Richard Pare, and myself. On the same day, the Harriman Review will issue its Spring/Summer issue containing an essay by me proposing a conceptual framework for the study of ZATOs in the context of the history of secrecy in Soviet civilization. We hope that this will be the beginning of further discussion on the history and urban ecology of the phenomenon of closed cities.

  1. For some useful social science and history literature, see Richard H. Rowland, “Russia’s Secret Cities,” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics 37.7 (1996): 426-462; Ira N. Gang and Robert C. Stuart, “Where Mobility is Illegal: Internal Migration and City Growth in the Soviet Union,” Journal of Population Economics 12.1 (1999): 117-134; Cynthia Buckley, “The Myth of Managed Migration: Migration Control and Market in the Soviet Period,” Slavic Review 54.4 (Winter 1995): 896-916; David Shearer, “Elements Near and Alien: Passportization, Policing, and Identity in the Stalinist State, 1932-1953,” Journal of Modern History 76.4 (2004): 835-881
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5 Responses to ZATOs In View

  1. Andrew Jenks says:

    What a fascinating topic. Just two comments. I wonder how scholars are situating the ZATO phenomenon in a broader geographical or cultural context. Hanford, etc., certainly had some ZATO like qualities. Closing off space for national security reasons and setting up communities behind fences and barbed wires seems like a broader aspect of modernity, though certainly the Soviet case had its own specificities. Secondly, I wonder about the broader implications of closed communities and spaces for daily life — how people understood and explained the transformation of their surrounding geographical space into open and closed spaces. The latter became fertile breeding grounds for rumors and urban myths (on the edges of those medieval maps, in the unknown realms, grew all sorts of hideous sea monsters). I deal with this phenomenon in my biography of Gagarin. Gagarin was, like so many Soviets, an inhabitant of closed cities, yet he also lived and worked in open spaces. Coming from a secret city lent his celebrity a unique and mysterious quality — and also played a fundamental role in shaping his image.

  2. Asif Siddiqi says:

    Andy, thanks for the incisive comments. I think there is much to your suggestion (if I may paraphrase you) that Soviet closed cities be put in the broader context of closed spaces globally, especially during the Cold War. Hanford is the obvious one in mind, but there are any number of other examples, such as restricted areas for military or intelligence dotted all over the United States. I think the history of closed or restricted spaces would very much lend itself to a transnational (or at least comparative) history. This topic actually came up during discussions at a panel at the last ASEEES meeting on closed cities. Your second point is also well-taken. In fact, in my essay for the Harriman Review, I note that, “while the ZATOs were officially invisible, there were hundreds of thousands who knew the phenomenon intimately as social reality. These not only included the people who lived in the cities, and their relatives and friends with whom they maintained contact, but also the population in the vicinity of the cities. Undoubtedly their awareness of the physical existence of the city came into conflict with the official discourse of omission. The manifestation of that conflict was an informal market for the circulation of informal—and dissident—information in the form of rumor, suspicion, jokes, skepticism, and the samizdat.” Your new book is obviously a useful touchstone for this kind of thinking. Congratulations on the book by the way. I look forward to reading it.

  3. Asif and Andy,

    The critical mass of interest in these cities does appear to have put them on our scholarly map in recent years. Like Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, however, they seem to have a not-so-secret side to them, which both of you touched on in your comments above. I’d especially like to know more about the official (but not public) circulation of knowledge about these places through, for example, recruitment efforts and the educational institutions that produced their engineers and scientists.

    Also, while their closed nature might make them ripe material for rumors, dissent, and (I’m hoping) some good conspiracy theories, I’d be interested to know the extent to which people (e.g., residents of ZATOs, those living nearby, ordinary people back in Moscow, etc.) found them to be perfectly acceptable and not in “conflict with the official discourse of omission.” (Asif’s comment) In other words, what kind of legitimacy did they enjoy and what was its source? Was it a desire to live in a ZATO for its privileges? A popular sense that a major world power needs such places and its secrets?

    I find Asif’s comparison of the ZATOs to the Gulag a useful tool to figuring out what they were all about. However, you write at one point, “Everything about the Gulag, its institutional structure, the scope of its camp system, how it operated, how many prisoners labored as part of it, where it was located—all of these were considered secret.” With such publications as Belomor, it seems there were times the Soviets were more than happy to publicize what historians like Steven Barnes see as one of the central features of the Gulag — labor. Then, in the Khrushchev years, of course, the Gulag itself becomes a rather different topic of public discussion. In any event, the bigger point here is what period of Soviet history we’re talking about, because there does appear to be some significant changes in how secret the Gulag and the ZATOs were. Perhaps you could say a few words about the ZATOs on this point beyond their revelations in the Gorbachev period.

    Finally, as you both indicate, a comparative study of these closed cities across the Iron Curtain does seem like a worthwhile endeavor. Kate Brown’s recent work on Richland, Washington (the Hanford plant) and Cheliabinsk-40 provides a model for this type of work. Especially interesting are her insights into the types of consumer and housing privileges that the resident-scientists/engineers enjoyed in both locales despite their obvious dangers to people’s health.

  4. Asif Siddiqi says:


    Thanks for your comments. You raise all good points. Let me see if I can say a few words about each. First, you were curious about “the official (but not public) circulation of knowledge about these places through … recruitment efforts.” I do know for a fact that engineers who graduated from respectable engineering institutions (such as Bauman or MAI, for example) were well aware of their possible employment options, which included work in closed cities, or more often, “secret” institutions within the defense industry. There was clearly a system of circulating information (about employment opportunities in closed cities) that was available to graduating students or professionals seeking career changes. The exact nature of how this information circulated is still unclear to me. Anecdotal evidence suggests in the universities, Rectors or Deans were privy to such information about ZATOs and passed it on as needed to students.

    Which brings me to your second point: “what kind of legitimacy did they enjoy and what was its source? Was it a desire to live in a ZATO for its privileges? A popular sense that a major world power needs such places and its secrets?” This is a more difficult question to answer. On the surface at least, ZATOs were places highly sought after for a certain category of Soviet scientific and technical intelligentsia. Some of this had to do with the day-to-day amenities (better infrastructure, household goods, public transportation, etc.). But there was also a certain kind of professional pride in working in a ZATO. By-and-large, only the most successful of a given group were assigned to work in these closed cities; thus by simple dint of working in a ZATO, one already communicated a sense of accomplishment to one’s relatives, former professional colleagues, etc. Besides the search for a better standard of living and professional pride, one might also include the possibility of higher level scientific and engineering work, i.e., the possibility of working with better equipment and smarter people. These are all of course gross generalizations but they do each hold some truth.

    Your final point is the comparison with the Gulag. I am not suggesting that the existence of the Gulag was a secret. What I am suggesting is that information about its operations and functions were state secrets. Thus, in the pre-1953 era, one might certainly be aware that major industrial infrastructure was built by Gulag prisoners but statistical data about such projects (especially as they related to the Gulag system) was out of bounds. In addition, like the ZATOs, there was no ‘official’ map of the Gulag network. During the Khrushchev Thaw, there was, of course, an acknowledgment of the Gulag’s function and existence (always couched in historic terms) but even then these public admissions communicated essence (i.e., the soul-crushing nature of the Gulag) rather than substance (how many prisoners, where were the camps, etc.).

    And yes, Kate Brown’s comparative work promises to be fascinating.

  5. Pingback: As cidades secretas da Rússia durante a Segunda Guerra | Caos Ordenado

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