It is early morning and still dark. The camera zooms in on a tall block of flats, and we see a couple of windows with lights on. The camera cuts to inside one of these illuminated flats. A single mother is getting her three young children ready for nursery and school and herself ready for work. She utters a sigh of relief as she bids goodbye to her oldest son who takes himself off to school. One down, two more to go!
The above scene could be in any town, in any country. Except that we soon learn that the children’s father is absent. He is often ill, which the film later suggests to us is a tragic long-term effect of working at the nearby radioactive nuclear power plant.
Built in 1946, Ozersk has opened up but is still restricted to outsiders, both to Russians from other towns and to foreigners, and surrounded by a double fence.
This is the opening scene of a new documentary about life in one of Russia’s closed nuclear towns, CITY 40. Ozersk (previously known as Chelyabinsk-40) was created in the 1940s as part of the Soviet Union’s response to the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki in August 1945. Up until 1954, it was a totally closed town to the outside world even within the rest of the Soviet Union. Since then, it has opened up but is still restricted to outsiders, both to Russians from other towns and to foreigners, and surrounded by a double fence. The town was built to house the scientists and workers of the nearby Mayak nuclear power plant complex from 1946. In 1945, Soviet agents managed to get hold of classified information about the US nuclear weapons Manhattan Project; then the Soviet Union used that knowledge to start its own nuclear weapons programme to catch up with the US. Mayak remains the biggest processing centre of nuclear waste and decommissioned material from nuclear weapons in Russia – the likely source of the polonium-210 used to poison former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006.
(Trailer of CITY 40 on youtube)
The Soviet Union’s political and scientific leadership’s determination to not be left behind in the nuclear race meant that they overlooked the possible negative effects on the health of the scientists and workers at Mayak and other nuclear power plants – and on the health of their families who lived with them, and residents of surrounding areas. One result of this oversight is that half a million people in Ozersk and the nearby area are contaminated with five times the amount of radiation of people living in the areas of Ukraine affected by the 1989 Chernobyl nuclear accident.
A kind of social contract between the Mayak management and political leaders on the one hand, and the population on the other hand.
To persuade people to work in Mayak and move with their families, the authorities lauded the town with privileges and luxuries unimaginable in ‘ordinary’ towns and villages of the Soviet Union. So we can think of a kind of social contract between the Mayak management and political leaders on the one hand, and the population on the other hand: the former provided the latter with comfortable, private apartments to live in, supported excellent kindergartens, schools, and healthcare provision, maintained well-stocked grocery stores, and offered them a plethora of cultural activities such as cinemas and theatres. In exchange, the latter were expected to maintain the secrets of the town, and not even tell strangers where they live in the pre-1991 period when the city did not appear on maps. Many residents had no idea that they were living in a highly radioactive area and the damage this had on their bodies or their offspring.
Samira Goetschel’s documentary ‘CITY 40’ manages to get a hidden camera past the security gates of Ozersk – we do not see how the film crew managed to get their cameras through the gates to protect their fixer’s and gatekeepers’ identity and that of the film crew. The documentary films the brave work of a handful of nuclear scientists, human rights activists, and residents as they help others living in Ozersk and surrounding villages pursue their legal claims for compensation against the Russian state for the long-term radiation exposure they have faced over the past half century. We hear from a young man who does not want to be identified on camera but states that he loves his lake, his fish, and mushrooms: in brief, he loves his ‘little homeland’ but dislikes the political regime. We hear most from the brave and feisty Nadezhda, the mother of three young children whom I described at the start of this blog post. She was born and grew up in Ozersk, trained in sociology and law, bringing up three young children single-handedly and co-founding a non-profit organization to help other Ozersk residents and those living in the surrounding villages on contaminated land claim seek compensation.
I do wonder about the effects of the undercover filming on the people who agreed to participate and cooperate. Clearly, they had an informed choice whether or not to participate in the film. They chose to do so at substantial risk to their and their families’ lives. We learn from the end credits that in October 2015 several months after filming, Nadezhda and her three young children fled Russia after the Russian Security Service (the FSB) interrogated them as to why they were seen filming in public spaces in the town. She was accused of industrial espionage under the 2012 ‘foreign agent’ law (a law that requires non-profit organizations in receipt of foreign donations and engaging in ‘political activity’ to register and self-declare as foreign agents). Shortly after fleeing Russia, the film tells us that Nadezhda and her family were granted political asylum in France. Did Nadezhda see participation in the filming process as a possible way out of her hometown and motherland, or did she take part purely to enlighten the world about how the Russian state has pursued its nuclear ambitions?
It tells a global story about the environmental, security, and human rights implications of nuclear production.
Goetschel’s documentary is an incredibly brave film that tells a global story about deceitful authorities and nation-states’ superpower nuclear ambitions at the expense of their citizens, unknowing victims of long-term radiation exposure. It tells a global story about the environmental, security, and human rights implications of nuclear production. It is not, however, the first attempt by an outsider to study this particular nuclear town near the Urals mountains of Russia, about 1700 km east of Moscow. In 2013, Oxford University Press published Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by the American historian, Kate Brown (http://www.plutopia.net). The book has won 7 awards. Brown meticulously documents the origins, governance, and ways of life in two closed nuclear towns created within just a few years of each other: Richland in Washington state, US and Ozersk in the Soviet Union. Despite being located in two rival superpowers, Brown finds surprising similarities in Richland and Ozersk.
It is this human dimension that makes the film so powerful.
CITY 40 nevertheless manages to make an original contribution to our understanding about nuclear towns through its efforts to get a film crew into the town. It creates a human connection between viewers and its protagonists, letting the latter speak in their own words about their everyday lives residing in one of Russia’s closed towns. It is this human dimension that makes the film so powerful.
CITY 40 (released in 2016) had its European premiere at the Sheffield Doc Fest on June 11 2016 where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Award – https://sheffdocfest.com/films/6000
It is showing in London on June 14 at 7pm at the Frontline Club followed by a Q&A moderated by the Guardian’s Luke Harding – http://www.frontlineclub.com/screening-city-40-qa/
By Imogen Wade, PhD candidate at University College London writing a thesis on the role of the Russian state in supporting innovation through special infrastructures such as science towns and science parks.