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A modern map showing the location of Krasnoyarsk within Russia.

Shrouded in secrecy since its birth in 1950, Krasnoyarsk-26 remains a cloaked legacy of Soviet operations during the Cold War. The military-industrial complex that characterized the USSR in the latter half of the 20th century spawned the development of closed cities such as Krasnoyarsk-26 (later renamed Zheleznogorsk) that endure to this day.

The name “Krasnoyarsk-26” is actually a postal code that refers to an area some miles away from the true location of the town. Until 2002 no official census had been taken of the city, though recent official estimates put the population around 85,500 people. When Josef Stalin ordered its construction in 1950, residents were recruited from across the USSR to inhabit the city and staff its military production facilities. In exchange for constant KGB surveillance and heavy isolation, these residents were provided with a high standard of living. Food, wages, and housing in the secret cities were the best in the USSR and thus attracted the best and brightest Soviets. However, the trade-off meant these citizens were subject to extreme control and monitoring on behalf of the government. The concrete wall that surrounds Krasnoyarsk-26 is a staunch reminder of the limits that confronted residents.

All this secrecy was meant to hide the fact that the city was home to a weapons-grade plutonium reactor, one of ten nuclear reactors in Soviet-era Russia. The Krasnoyarsk industry produced enough power to create more than 10,000 nuclear bombs from 1964 until 1998. The plant was primarily used to power the city after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but it was not officially shut down until April of 2010.

With the end of the Cold War and the scaling down of nuclear activities, Russian secret cities are facing many new challenges. Former closed cities that depended on the military-industrial complex for their sustenance are struggling to provide services and jobs to residents whose livelihoods vanished alongside the Berlin Wall. The dissatisfaction that plagues Russia’s top nuclear scientists has the West worried too. The United States has pumped thousands of dollars in aid into these crumbling cities in the hopes of discouraging any nuclear workers from defecting to Iran or North Korea.

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A sign indicating the presence of a nuclear reactor in Krasnoyarsk-26.

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