In 1945, the USSR built “City 40” along Lake Irtyash for workers and families linked to its Mayak plutonium production plant. It was a “closed city,” fenced in by barbed wire, heavily guarded, and left off of all maps to protect its nuclear secrets. (Russia had 28 such closed cities during the Cold War; the U.S. had five.)
During the first 8 years of City 40’s existence, residents were forbidden to leave or contact outside family members. The city’s denizens felt lucky, however: They had good schools, tree-lined streets, stocked grocery shelves. But the community was no paradise, notes the chilling documentary City 40. Nowadays, locals call placid Lake Irtyash the “Lake of Death.” Mayak has dumped tens of millions of cubic meters of radioactive wastewater into the lake and the Techa River, the region’s primary drinking source.
In 1994, City 40 received an official name—Ozersk—and appeared on maps for the first time. But the city is still shrouded in secrecy. No one talks about the chronic and often deadly illnesses that afflict many residents; nonresidents are still prohibited from entering without permission from the Russian secret police. Filming in the area is forbidden (residents helped smuggle the documentary crew and cameras inside).
Enter human rights activist Nadezhda Kutepova, born and raised in City 40. Her organization, “The Planet of Hope,” educates Ozersk’s residents on the health effects of radiation and on their rights to seek recompense from the federal government. But her position feels precarious and increasingly desperate, as Russian authorities escalate from harassing her with tax audits to coercing her landlord to threaten eviction to ominously visiting her children’s schools. In a postscript, the film reveals that in 2015, shortly after filming ended, Kutepova was accused of industrial espionage and fled Russia with her family. The fate of others who were filmed and are still in the city is unknown.