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Without a trace in maps: The secret cities of the USSR

During the period known as the Cold War, in which the capitalist bloc, led by the United States, confronted the communist bloc, led by the Soviet Union, the location and existence of some cities where the military and aerospace industry were developed was hidden from the world.


Figure 1. Image of a bipolar world: USA vs. USSR. Source:

These were denominated as secret cities, places where the most advanced industries developed and they did not appear on the map of the USSR, because they wanted to hide from the world and the American enemy the military and technological advancements of the nation.

Secret cities started in the 1940s and they were also known as closed cities, hidden cities, or closed administrative territory complexes. Some received the name of “Naukograd” or science cities dedicated to scientific research. Other secret cities were destined to the development of military the technology, nuclear energy or the arms and naval industry.

The majority are located in Russia or ex-communist countries like Kazakhstan, Estonia, or Ukraine.

Visits to these cities were prohibited and access was only permitted to technical personnel, since most of the cities were macro-plants of nuclear energy. Large quantities of qualified scientist and researchers installed their activities there, on the fringes of the world’s research community, creating new technologies, energies, or developing the new industries of aerospace and arms.


Figure 2. City of Norilsk (Siberia). Source:

The geographic location and characteristics were fundamental to the establishment of these closed cities. The majority were built in desolated areas, where climate conditions were difficult and hostile. The places with rough terrain were also ideal for the location of these cities; many of them were in the area of the Ural Mountains and far away Siberia.

The presence of rivers, streams, and lakes was also very important since the industries in these cities needed large quantities of water for their functions and to start the processes of the nuclear reactors, the iron and steel industry, and the space industry.

It is calculated that around 1.2 million people lived in these cities, although the exact number is unknown. Some believe that some of these complexes are still hidden.

The people that didn’t live in the hidden cities needed to pass through checkpoints, because special permits were required to visit.


Figure 3. Checkpoint in the closed city of Znamensk in the south region of Russia. Source:

They were guarded by the KGB and sometimes closed off by security fences made of wires, spikes, and equipped with security towers. They almost seemed like prisons. These cities did not appear on traffic signs or train routes. The way they were kept hidden was incredible.

The changes that led to the opening and reforms of the USSR during the 80s and the 90s allowed the release of the locations and visits to these closed cities. Perm, Kaliningrad, and Vladivostok were not shown to the world until 1993.

After the fall of the Soviet bloc the new founded Russian Federation published the location and name of more of these closed cities. The list varies according to the source. The first 14 released and located by the Russian government were Biysk, Dubna, Zhukovsky, Koltsovo, Korolyov, Michurinsk, Petergof, Pushchino, Obninsk, Reutov, Troitsk, Fryazino, and Chernogolo, the majority in the region of Moscow.

Years later the list was expanded, making the number of complexes in the Russian Federation soar to 42.

In the map of figure 4 you can observe the location, specialization, as well as the year of establishment and population.

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Figure 4. Map of the location of closed cities. Source:

Lastly we will make a review of cities that were built with scientific goals: Koltsovo, Dubna, and Obninsk.


Nowadays it has a population around 12,000 inhabitants. Koltsovo was created in 1974 with the objective of becoming one of the most important and innovative scientific centers in the country. Here are located the best business centers, and incubators for science companies related to the biotech industry. One of the best known centers is the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR Institute). Nowadays there is also a large pharmaceutical industry installed here.


Figure 5. State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR. Source:


Dubna is located north of Moscow, on the edges of the Volga. About 70,000 people live here and it has one of the most important scientific centers, such as the Institute of Nuclear Investigation, dedicated to the investigation of nuclear physics.


Figure 6. Satellite image of Dubna. Source: http//

Located in Dubna is also the headquarters of the aerospace company MKB Raduga, specialized in design and production of missiles.

Their industry activity has declined, therefor investors and administrators have agreed to build a sort of Russian Silicon Valley.


Southwest to the city of Moscow is the city of Obninsk, with a population of 105,000 inhabitants. It was officially announced in 2000, becoming one of the first cities dedicated to science research that announces its existence. It is dedicated to nuclear investigation, meteorology, and medical research.


Figure 7. Image of Obninsk. Source: Wikipedia

For decades closed cities lived under the control and watchful eye of the Soviet government, however residents and workers enjoyed, unlike other compatriots, certain privileges, like better schools and higher salaries.

Nowadays some of these cities have been doomed to an economic and social decline, many forced to close their facilities due to age and high risk levels. Others have changed their lifestyle and functionality and nowadays specialize in research and development, under the free market economy, in industries like textile and timber.

The Soviet government created these cities to exert its power in a bipolar world, faced off with the capitalist bloc, and with the objective of scaring off its enemies. The obsolescence of them, the disintegration of the bloc, and the entry of Russia into the global economy were key factors to release the exact coordinates of these complexes, their size, and characteristics, even though the total number and the location of some of these cities is still unknown. The Russian government will maintain its vigilance and many of them still have restricted entrance to visitors.

Translation: Daniela Sánchez Zamora


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