2019 - Ongoing
In Russia, the phenomenon of secret closed towns has been present since the mid-1940s, throughout the Cold War period and the nuclear age, prompted by the two world wars. Closed towns were kept highly secretive due to a military-industrial complex within the premises of each town. The towns were built to accommodate workers, practitioners, and scientists from across Russia. The main sign of a closed town is the perimeter wall which stands between the town and the settlements surrounding it. Residence was by invitation only, and they did not appear on Soviet maps.
The regime of secrecy was created in order to house a military-industrial complex within the walls of each of these secret towns. Secret towns were positioned in various geographic locations and were non-existent on Soviet maps. Secured by a concrete wall, in the past, these closed towns might have resonated a feeling of privilege, safety, and comfort. They provided all the luxuries people could ever dream of: a theatre, schools, sports complex, ski slopes, and more importantly, food and complementary accommodation. Each town was known by a generic name, a pochtovy yashchik, or “mailbox” to which correspondence could be sent, removing the need for an address that might identify their location. A permit (propusk) was required to access each town, restricting entry for the general public. They were seen as utopias which people dreamed of living in, but never knew existed.
My grandparents were recruited to be a part of one such community, arriving from Nizhny Tagil, Russia in 1975 with their two children with the hope of a better life. Mailbox44 is an exploration of my grandparent’s town, documenting three generations of family members and locals living behind the wall and the idea of Soviet “closedness” it continues to create, even after declassification.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the functions of closed towns have changed from purely military and secret technologies to encompass innovation in energy and biotechnology. Although it is not a secret today, most closed towns still operate under a closed town regime. For them, the closed wall is a symbol of not just protection from crime and strangers (or the illusion of protection) it is also their exclusiveness and preferential treatment that they have received within. Drawing from personal stories and experiences provided by a narrative lead by locals, the intimate and covert lives of those living within this closed space is revealed.
A lack of investment has meant that there are now fewer opportunities for the youth, and as a result, many of the town’s younger generations are leaving in search of a different life. The youth are leaving this isolated and enclosed environment for a bigger and brighter future and most never return.
Drawing from personal stories and experiences, Mailbox44 delves into the contrasting experiences and mindsets of those still living in this closed, though no longer secret, space.