Aktau was once one of the Soviet Union’s closed city, a secret work camp that few outside of it knew existed.
“This is a new city,” said one of the lawyers I was riding with into Aktau from the airport at night. The city lights could be seen glowing in the distance, like a giant orb rising up from the desert. “It’s kind of an artificial city.”
“In the Soviet era it was a closed city,” he added nonchalantly.
“What does that mean? Closed city?” I asked.
“It means it was a secret city. Nobody knew about it.”
The role of Aktau, which now sits on Kazakhstan’s Caspian coastline in the west of the country, was nuclear energy production. There was a giant nuclear power plant here and also an uranium mine. Besides the people who worked there, nobody knew it existed. It was a giant planned city in the desert — more or less a giant work camp — that was closed off to all outsiders.
These closed cities of the Soviet Union began in the 1940s under Stalin. Places with sensitive high-tech, nuclear, or military capacities were often surrounded in barbed wire and removed from all maps. To send mail to one of these places, you had to send it to a post office in other city, which led to them being dubbed simply as “post boxes” — as that’s pretty much all they were to the outside world.
The people who lived in these places needed special passes to exit and reenter, and were forbidden to tell anyone where they resided. However, they received a 20% higher pay rate for their troubles.
While most of the Soviet Union’s closed cities have opened up, there are still around 40 of them that are publicly known in Russia today, containing a total population of around 1.5 million people. They are now known as ZATO, the Russian acronym for their official name: “closed administrative-territorial formations.”
However, it is often posited that Russia has an additional 15 closed cities, however they are still about as secret as they’ve always been. Imagine that, secret cities where thousands of people live in the era of globalization. They’re still out there, and probably exist in more countries than just Russia.
Aktau is now about as open as a city gets. It’s packed full of foreign oil companies and foreign oil workers. There are international style bars and restaurants, but the set up and structure of the city is still maintains its work camp legacy.