Closed Cities Cold War Gulag Soviet Intelligentsia Soviet Science Uncategorized

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. 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] 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.


Stalin Cult

In reply to my question about “going toward Hitler,” Plamper writes “Stalin, like the tsars, ensured himself a freedom one might say capriciousness of decision, which must have infused all of the institutions and officials seeking to please him. But that applied to most decision-making at the pinnacle of power in Stalin’s time—in a way, it is the universal definition of despotism.” I am not sure that that is a definition of despotism, though it certainly is a principal characteristic.  And perhaps it does not relate directly to the question of the Stalin cult.  But I was wondering about the modus operandi of Stalin particularly in regard to his image of modesty, and in comparison with other cults particularly Hitler’s ideologically proclaimed leader principle. (pp. 18-19)  In regard to the strategies of the artists or journalists to determine the images and shifts in imagery that Plamper shows so well, was this the result of a message communicated by figures close to Stalin, and/or a process of approximation awaiting higher approval like “going toward Stalin?”  I raise this question by way of clarification not of disagreement.  It may be that the manner of modesty was not only a way to avoid the ideological difficulties of personal rule in a Marxist framework, but also a means of generalizing uncertainty, the signs of approval even being less obvious than in Hitler’s open dictatorial rule.

The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult—Once More On Weber & Reception

Jan Plamper’s The Stalin Cult has catalyzed a dynamic, wide-ranging set of exchanges in the past week or so on  Russian History Blog.  His responses to the posts—particularly his engagement with Joan Neuberger—have been equally provocative.  Here I’d like to prompt him to spell out his position a bit further on two other issues.

Imperial Russia Russia in World History

Russia and the Alaskan Tobacco “Mystery”

As I’ve been working on the history of Russia’s experience with tobacco, I encountered a surprising development – the domestic production of tobacco in Alaska.  Anyone who’s spent time working on Russian Alaska could not help to notice the colonists’ continuing concerns about food and agriculture.  However, southern Alaska was an agriculturally fertile region, particularly among the Tlingit (on and near Sitka Island) and the nearby Haida.  (I’ve been assuming they just didn’t produce the food the Russians wanted, but I could be wrong).  Among their products was a type of tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalis).  The mysterious part of the equation is that no one grows N. quadrivalis anymore, and it was native to the southwestern U.S.  No one has come up with an explanation about its migration, much less its extermination.


What do we know?  The local indigenous groups grew this type of tobacco, and seemed to have consumed it as “chew” – but a particular recipe of tobacco leaf and lime.  Though the Russian American Company (RAC) seemed to have been successful in replacing domestic production with imported tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), the mystery for me is why the local population replaced local varieties for an expensive imported variety.  Robert Fortuine suggests that it was because the imported version was stronger, but the evidence in only anecdotal, and the mechanism by which indigenous Alaskans acquired it was rather exploitative, to say the least.

Blog Conversations Russian and Soviet Art Soviet Era 1917-1991 Soviet Intelligentsia Stalinism The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult – More (Clearly, I hope) on Thinking Visually

I hope I made it clear that I consider The Stalin Cult an excellent work of political and institutional history, from which I learned a great deal about a subject I care about. But my objections to its treatment of the visual culture so central to Stalin’s personality cult do not end with circles. And I do like a good argument. (Can I blame my parents? I grew up in household where arguing about ideas was a sign of love and respect.) Plamper’s discussion of individual works of art may, as he put it, “borrow tools from contemporary visual studies,” but it does so rather unevenly. The result is a book that deserves all the praise it has received from the other bloggers, who largely ignored the visual, but it doesn’t give us a proper sense of the visual culture that made up the cult or the visual experience of living in it.

The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult – Response by Jan Plamper

A huge thanks to all participants for taking the time to engage with my book and thanks to Steven Barnes for arranging this conversation and its stellar cast in the first place.

The conversation so far has broached many important issues, four of which have recurred in more than one post—(1) the genesis of the Stalin cult; (2) the phenomenon I call “immodest modesty” (did Stalin want his cult?); (3) my readings of key Stalin portraits and especially the circle pattern I identify in these; (4) and reception. Let me try to address the issues in this order.