The Harriman Institute in New York was recently exhibiting the exhibition: ZATO – Secret Soviet Cities during the Cold War on the dynamics between politics, urbanism, and cartographic manipulation. Unfortunately we couldn’t go there, but secret cities based on the communist ideology of ‘the Party’, for sure drew our attention.
These closed cities or so called ZATO sites (Closed Administrative-Territorial Formation / Zakrytoe administrativno-territorial’noe obrazovanie) were areas for secret military or scientific research and production in the Soviet Empire. Weapons were produced there and medical experiments took place on nearly 250,000 animals to understand how radiation damages tissues and causes diseases.
Built in the remote areas of the Soviet Empire, they followed a unique architectural program – inspired by ideal cities, based on perfect geometric plans, articulated by progressive modernist architectural language, reflecting the ideology of the Party. However, these “realized utopias” were camouflaged and blurred into the environment. The cities were not to be found on official maps and those who worked there had special passes to live and leave, and were themselves hidden from public view. Most of the scientists and engineers who worked in the ZATOs were not allowed to reveal their place or purpose of employment.
Today there are still 43 ZATO on the territory of the Russian Federation. Their future is uncertain: some may survive; others may disappear as urban formations within the context of Russian suburbs.