A Once-Closed Russian Military Town In The Arctic Opens To The World

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A typical apartment building in Roslyakovo. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed papers ordering the town to open its doors to the world on Jan. 1, 2015.

In Russia, there are closed cities that are so secret they're shut off from the world.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin built them during the Cold War, to give Russian military technology an edge. Some are devoted to building rockets or satellites for the space program. In others, researchers conduct top-secret chemical, biological or nuclear research.

They are known collectively by the acronym ZATO, which stands for "closed administrative-territorial formations."

Today, there are still dozens of these closed cities scattered across Russia. No foreigners are allowed to visit. Not even Russians can enter, unless they have a security clearance or special papers.

So my ears perked up when I heard about one closed city that had recently opened.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Roslyakovo — a town that has been closed for generations — to open its doors to the world on Jan. 1, 2015.

Roslyakovo lies north of the Arctic Circle. It's tiny, with about 8,000 people. Most of them are Russian navy, or civilian contractors for the navy, and the local industry is shipbuilding.

Now, Russia's state-owned oil giant Rosneft is moving in — which is why the town has been ordered to open.

A 'party' in the Arctic

To get to Roslyakovo, you fly north from Moscow. It's a 2 1/2-hour flight to the airport in Murmansk. Then you hop in a car, and 45 minutes later, you pull up to a cluster of squat blue buildings: a now-abandoned checkpoint. It's an odd feeling to fly past the barriers, knowing that to do so not so long ago might have gotten you shot.

The day we drove in, Roslyakovo was having a party. A couple of hundred people were gathered on what passes for the town's main square for a Youth Day Rally. Russian pop songs blared from speakers. Four young women clad in skintight black clothes started shaking it on stage; kids, their parents and grandparents were shaking it right back. A few dozen navy sailors in uniform stood by, smoking and tapping their feet. They were trying hard not to dance, but they did stare appreciatively.

We got talking to Yevgeniya Spushkina. She was hard to miss in her head-to-toe leather biker gear, straddling a motorcycle. After retiring from the military, she started teaching driving lessons, and is something of a local celebrity: Children kept mobbing her for her autograph.

Spushkina is not a fan of the city opening up. She says it has made life harder. There used to be a medical clinic in town when it was closed, and therefore had special status. Now you have to travel to the hospital in the big city, she says.

But Spushkina had a more immediate concern, as we learned when we asked where to head for a cup of coffee.

"I wanted coffee myself," she told us, laughing. "And I couldn't find it anywhere, so I'm not really sure, to be honest ... I'm [still] looking."

Turns out she's not kidding. There is no cafe in Rosylakovo. No restaurant. A few 7-Eleven-sized grocery stores. One church.

What Roslyakovo does have is a cultural center. At the rally, we met two men who identified themselves by their first names, Pyotr and Innokenti. The two retired naval officers run Roslyakovo's House of Culture, a performance hall. They love the changes that opening has brought.

"Imagine running a theater that people can't come perform at," Innokenti said. "Now we can invite artists from all over the world."

As we said goodbye, Pyotr asked shyly to pose for a picture together.

"Now I've met a real American," he said. "I'd seen them, but never close up."

The perfect place to hide things

This is the paradox of a place that has been closed to the world for decades. People like Pyotr were always free to come and go, but friends and relatives couldn't visit. And with the military subsidizing everything from health care to housing to food, there wasn't much incentive to leave.

Closed cities like Roslyakovo have been places to perfect Russian military technology — and also perfect places to hide things.

Roslyakovo is where the wreckage of the submarine Kursk was towed in 2000, after a tragedy in which all 118 Russian sailors on board died.

Standing down by the harbor, as seagulls circled and waves lapped, it struck me that this makes perfect sense. The Kursk became a symbol of one of the worst naval disasters in Russia's history. If you wanted to bury it somewhere — somewhere with no reporters, no prying people asking questions — it's hard to imagine a more appropriate spot.

Whatever happens next in Roslyakovo, it'll happen in the open. But local residents aren't yet sure what this huge change in their lives will mean.

As we were packing to leave, we noticed Yelena Guzyonova. She was on her knees, in the dirt, tending a garden she's scratched out next to her apartment block. In this brutal Arctic climate, Guzyonova has coaxed primrose, even tulips to grow.

Guzyonova told us she was born in Kazakhstan and moved to Roslyakovo 23 years ago. She has two daughters, ages 22 and 17. Does she hope one day they'll raise their families in Roslyakovo?

She smiled, a little sadly.

"This isn't the easiest place to find a job," she said. "We'll see — I'm their mom — I just want what's best for them."

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