In The Half Life of Valery K, the titular Soviet scientist is released from a Siberian prison and transported to a town called City 40, which seems to be absolutely suffused with unhealthy levels of radiation. The most frightening thing? As Natasha Pulley reveals, towns like City 40 really did exist.
In the 1960s, across the Soviet Union, there were cities without real names. Instead, they had numbers that corresponded to P.O. boxes in towns miles away: Semipalatinsk 21, Chelyabinsk 40. Sometimes, even more ominously, they had code names like the Installation, the Terminal and the Lake. These cities did not appear on maps, the people who lived there couldn’t leave—many couldn’t even contact relatives on the outside—and they absolutely could not discuss what went on there.
These places were atomgrads: secret cities that hid the Soviet nuclear program.
It sounds like the plot of a Bond novel, but this system was actually an answer to the biggest problem the Soviet Union ever faced: how to keep the Americans from doing to Moscow what had been done to Hiroshima. The Soviet Union had a formidable nuclear arsenal, but the atomgrads made it so that very few people knew where all the parts were, how they fit together—or what the consequences would be if someone tried a hot war instead of a cold one.
I didn’t know about any of this until recently; I just stumbled over it. When the TV show “Chernobyl” came out a couple of years ago, I loved it so much I read Serhii Plokhy’s brilliant Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe for background. In it, he mentioned something that nearly knocked me off my chair. One of the reasons the scientists at Chernobyl had some idea about what to do when the plant’s nuclear reactor melted down was that this had happened before, at a place called Ozersk. Plokhy didn’t say anything else about it in his book, so I started looking into it.
Ozersk is a code name, derived from the Russian word ozero, which just means “lake.” Its other name is Chelyabinsk 40, meaning City 40. It was—and still is—part of that network of secret atomgrads. In the ’60s, City 40’s speciality was producing weapons-grade plutonium.
Late in 1957, something happened in City 40. We still don’t know exactly what. But we do know that thousands of kilometers of land around City 40 were irradiated. We also know that hundreds of people in a city 90 kilometers away were admitted to the hospital with radiation sickness. If people that far away were that sick, the amount of radiation released must have been enormous.
But unlike Chernobyl, hardly anyone in the West has heard of City 40, even today. In fact, when Soviet scientist Zhores Medvedev broke the news of it to the Western press in the 1970s, nobody believed him. A lot of Western scientists outright rubbished what he said. Nobody could accept that there had been a major nuclear disaster that stayed secret. But it did.
After I read Medvedev’s book about the disaster, and saw the declassified CIA documents he attached to it, I started writing. I started learning Russian and looking at archive footage and poking through the website for Rosatom, Russia’s current nuclear agency, which has plenty of information about City 40. I did a course on nuclear physics so I could actually understand the documents I was finding. The picture that emerged was so strange it could have been from a comic book, and I think that’s partly how it stayed secret. The truth is so bizarre that it doesn’t sound like it can be right: hundreds of thousands of people exposed to radiation and radioactive land that remains dangerous today; widespread health problems even now because of it; and at the heart of it, a facility called Mayak—the Lighthouse—that actually produced the polonium that killed Alexander Litvinenko, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in 2006.
All this led to The Half Life of Valery K, which is about a scientist sent to work at City 40 in 1963, and what happens when he starts staring too hard at its secrets.
Photo of Natasha Pulley © Jamie Drew.