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Closed cities and the Democratic Deficit

If you thought that the demise of the Soviet Union meant the demise of closed, or secret cities, then you’d be wrong. Today, it is thought that there are up to forty closed cities (also referred as ZATO’s, or Zakrytye Administrativno-Territorial’nye Obrazovaniia) in Russia, although the Russian government will only confirm the existence of ten. These ten alone are home to 1.7 million people, who are severely restricted in their movements and their ability to participate in the democratic process, compared to their compatriots in neighbouring cities.

Freedom of movement is the biggest practical problem. True, movement generally is still quite restricted in Russia – for example, the need for residential permits means that many people who have moved to Moscow are living there illegally and have limited legal rights – but the issues facing closed cities are a class apart. Roemer Lemaître of the Belgian Institute for International Law [pdf file] observes that:

Apart from the right to freedom of movement the entry and residency restrictions imposed by the ZATO Law infringe directly or indirectly on a considerable number of other rights belonging to natural and legal persons resident within the ZATO as well as to outsiders. Identity checks and searches of bags and vehicles upon entry or exit from the ZATO run afoul of the right to privacy (Article 17 of the ICCPR and Article 8 of the ECHR). According to the same provisions, the right to family life might be violated if someone is not allowed to live with his/her close family because he/she did not get the required security clearance. Limitations on property rights (especially those that largely exclude property rights for outsiders) contradict Article 1 of the First Protocol to the ECHR.

Foreigners also face many restrictions, as this news report about the announcement that the mining city of Norilsk was to become a closed city indicates:

Under the restrictions, as of Monday the city is closed to all non-Russians – except Belarusians. Any foreigner wishing to travel to Norilsk must first obtain special permission from the FSB, the Russian state security police.

Lebed stated that he will demand that all foreigners – whether living as residents or presently visiting – leave Norilsk.

The restrictions placed on residents in closed cities also directly inhibit their ability to participate fully in the democratic process – such as it is in Russia these days. The role of the media, in particular, is heavily restricted:

Federal and local mass media have no access to closed cities. Besides, local media are poorly developed, scanty and usually controlled either by agencies that they belong to, or by commercial price of information. Almost the whole volume of information flow in and out of ZATOs is censoring in order to assure its safety for ZATOs system’ existence. None of independent pressmen are allowed to visit ZATOs.

I haven’t specifically seen any sources mentioning it, but I would imagine that freedom of association – for example, in the sense of the ability to join protests – is also heavily restricted.

No other democracy today has closed cities. Today, with the exception of Russia, they are the preserve of crackpot dictatorships, like North Korea. Even China doesn’t feel the need to close off whole cities from its own people.

Unless there is something that Russia and North Korea know that the rest of the world doesn’t, I think it is safe to conclude that closed cities are no longer necessary for security. And, if that is the case, then Russia’s justification for restricting the human rights of almost 2 million of its own citizens rings hollow.


  • I have never visited a closed city, even a former one. I came close to visiting Sebastopol in July, and am still kicking myself for being too lazy to make the short trip up the coast for a day.

  • I’ve visited one ex-closed city – Angarsk. As far as Soviet planned cities go, it was a model. Angarsk was built up from almost nothing in the 1940s to become a city of several hundred thousand people by the 1980s.

    And, yes, as you’d imagine – it was filled with nothing but square Soviet appartment blocks and, as cities go, was not very attractive. It wasn’t entirely ugly though – I noticed that there were far more open spaces and wide, tree-lined streets (I hesitate to call the boulevards) than we tend to see in Western Europe, and many of the buildings were painted, which did brighten the city immensely.

    Still, I wouldn’t want to live there…

  • I didn’t think there were still any such cities. I am convinced that if you ask any person on the streets here in Portugal they will tell you the same. The simple fact that we have many immigrants from the former Soviet Union made most of us think that all the “old” restrictions had vanished.
    I thank you for demystifying that, although I would much prefer to have been right in my illusion.

  • Wow. I had no idea such closed cities still existed either and that so many people live in them. Are these cities controlled by old hardliners? (Aside from Putin being KGB, that is). This should be made a public issue.

  • I’d bet some enterprising bloggers could do some research and could find out about some of these cities and publish maps and/or photos, etc. (maybe using Google Earth).

  • During the Cold War these closed cities were probably of very real benefit, and both Russia and the US had them – mostly Russia, but the US also had a few (Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos, for example). But to be honest, their time is long gone.

    For Russia, the benefits to national security are clearly still thought to be worth the costs of damaging human rights and making Russia continue to look secretive and anachronistic in the eyes of the world. The benefits are pretty intangible to measure though and, in my opinion not really worth the costs I’ve outlined.

    Interestingly, many Western countries – particularly the US – seem relatively supportive of Russia’s decision to maintain some closed cities around nuclear facilities, and criticism is almost non-existent as far as I can tell. This largely centres around the West’s desire to keep nuclear scientists safely in Russia, rather than see them defect to potential nuclear powers such as Iran. One potential benefit of this is that the extra funding given to prevent nuclear scientists from defecting may well improve the quality of life in these cities to a certain extent.

  • Isn’t this issue, the closing of Russian cities, part of a larger picture? After the fall of Communism, the Cold War was over. US’ greatest threat was gone. The world was to be, we hoped, peaceful, finally. Russia began to decrease the mfg of nuclear and other weapons. But, the US did not. In fact, the US increased its military capabilities and it would not agree on the NPT! This is a bit threatening; isn’t it? After 9-11 and the declared war against terrorism (against only a band of renegade fanatical Muslims) and especially after nearly unexplicable Iraq War II, it seems that Russia feels further threatened? (Although, this isn’t articulated by the ever so diplomatic Putin et al) Now, we have Russia developing nucs, China increasing its build up, India taking on nucs from the US, which of course makes Pakistan . …

  • I found this interesting paragraph while trying to have some valentines day flowers delivered by the florist website based in Kazan. Apparently even a russian florist can’t cross the checkpoint of these cities…

    “There are cities in Russia that can be visited by residents of the cities only (so called “closed” cities). For “closed” cities a contact phone number of the recipient is necessary, the flowers will be delivered to the check-point of the city. The cities are Zheleznogorsk, Zarechny, Seversk and Zelenogorsk.”

    Sounds like the plot to an old cold war movie. No one enters, no one leaves…

    Regards, DCB

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