The Russia Journal
November 16-22, 2001
Russia’s closed cities are open and shut case
By GABOR SZABO and VLADIMIR KITOV
Russia’s closed cities – nobody knows exactly how many there are, but everyone knows that the list just got longer.
On Oct. 30, when Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov signed Decree No. 755, essentially closing Norilsk and a handful of its northern Siberian neighbors off to foreigners, the number of people living in Russia’s restricted zones may have grown to as many as 2 million.
"Nobody knows how many of these cities there are, and the people who do know won’t tell you," said an expert on the Russian military who asked not to be named. "I don’t even think there’s anyone in the government who is in charge of all of this. It’s all a remnant of the Soviet Union that was supposed to disappear but didn’t."
During Soviet times, scores of cities and towns – including some of the country’s largest, such as Kaliningrad, Krasnoyarsk, Murmansk, Nizhny Novgorod, Perm and Vladivostok – were off limits to anyone with a foreign passport, and many were forbidden even to the country’s own citizens. Norilsk was among them.
But with Glasnost and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union, all of the major cities were opened, and Russia’s new constitution, in Article 27, guaranteed complete freedom of movement to "everyone legally present in the Russian Federation," regardless of citizenship. At least in theory, that right could only be abridged in extraordinary circumstances of national security concern.
In 1992, then-Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar signed Decree No. 450, limiting foreigners’ access to territory in 15 Russian subjects, including the Arkhangelskaya, Chelyabinskaya, Kaliningradskaya, Kamchatskaya, Leningradskaya, Moskovskaya, Murmanskaya, Nizhegorodskaya, Orenburgskaya, Sverdlovskaya and Volgogradskaya Oblasts; Khabarovsky, Krasnoyarsky and Primorsky Krais; and the Republic of Mordova. The decree was later amended in 1992, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 2000.
Most of the territory covered in Decree No. 450 is either located along borders or around sensitive military or nuclear objects.
Meanwhile, the Atomic Energy Ministry and the Defense Ministry retained the right to declare certain cities – usually relatively small towns – off-limits to foreigners, although those rights are apparently not based on any specific laws, the military expert said.
The Atomic Energy Ministry has published a list of the 10 cities it has cordoned off, including Lesnoi and Novouralsk in the Sverdlovsk Oblast, Ozersk in the Chelyabinskaya Oblast, Sarov in the Nizhegorodskaya Oblast, Seversk in the Tomskaya Oblast, Snezhinsk and Trekhgorny in the Chelyabinskaya Oblast, Zarechny in the Penzenskaya Oblast, and Zelenogorsk and Zheleznogorsk in the Krasnoyarsk Oblast.
The Defense Ministry, on the other hand, guards the list of its closed cities as a state secret and failed to return calls seeking information. But press reports claim that the Ministry has barred access to between 30 and 90 cities and towns. And a partial 1997 list obtained by The Russia Journal from reliable sources lists 27 cities, including one apiece in the Amurskaya, Arkhangelskaya, Astrakhanskaya, Chelyabinskaya, Chitinskaya, Kirovskaya, Orenburgskaya, Permskaya and Saratovskaya Oblasts and the Primorsky Krai, two each in the Kamchatskaya, Sverdlovskaya and Tverskaya Oblasts, and the Krasnoyarsky Krai, four in the Moskovskaya Oblast and five in the Murmanskaya Oblast.
In all, according to the 1997 list, 1.7 million people live in those 27 cities plus the 10 listed by the Atomic Energy Ministry. By far the biggest closed city among those listed above is Zheleznogorsk, with more than 260,000 inhabitants.
Decree No. 755, meanwhile, adds Norilsk, Talnakh, Kaierkan, Dudinka, Snezhnogorsk and Igarka to that list, with a total population of approximately 295,000.
But whereas military bases, border zones and nuclear cities were closed for security and secrecy reasons – warranted or otherwise – Norilsk and its neighbors were not.
Local and regional officials, together with executives of the area’s largest company, Norilsk Nickel, asked Kasyanov to ban foreigners from the region in an effort to stem migration to the city of citizens of former Soviet republics, primarily from Central Asia, according to Norilsk Nickel spokeswoman Yelena Kovaleva.
And although Decree No. 755 limits access for all foreigners bar none, Kovaleva said the rules will be waived for visitors "from further abroad," especially Norilsk Nickel’s foreign investors.
"In other words, this has nothing to do with secrecy or security," said Vladimir Oivin, deputy director of the Glasnost Foundation. "It is supported by neither strategic nor tactical needs. It is simply an ill-though-out policy, just like the way [Mayor Yury] Luzhkov tries to limit foreigners in Moscow."
Such a drastic policy, however, has tended to backfire. According to a report from the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, economic conditions in closed cities are dire, as potential investment is blocked and markets – especially real- estate markets – stagnate. Indeed, in almost every closed city there are massive housing problems, the report said.
And what’s more, according to human rights activist Alexander Podrabinek, the continued existence of closed cities, and the naming of new ones, violates Article 27 of the Russian constitution.
"But that doesn’t seem to concern anyone," he said.