April 01, 1996

Life in a PO Box

Tomsk-7 is a walled city. Cars are checked through the gates one by one, each closely scrutinized by soldiers. Only KGB cars are waved through without inspection. Average Russians wishing to visit Tomsk-7 must obtain a special visa. The only way to call into the city is from a pay phone at the border, miles away from any other town. All mail directed to the city must be addressed to a single postal box. Which is why they call Tomsk-7 pochtovi, literally “post box.”

Tomsk-7 (pop. 100,000) is one of ten post box cities in Russia. Also known as The Nuclear 10, these military-industrial complexes remain closed despite the end of the Cold War and the fall of Communism. Tomsk-7, for its part, contains the largest nuclear facility in the world, the Siberian Chemical Combine. Now, even after nearly a decade of societal change, the city is an isolated pocket of the Soviet era.

Just inside Tomsk-7’s perimeter fence stands the city monument, an indescribable bit of Soviet art, something like an atom. The name on the atom has been recently changed from Tomsk-7 to Seversk, which means "northern town." Each of the cryptically-named Nuclear Ten have been quaintly renamed. It is seemingly an attempt to redeem the cities in the public eye -- to forget that they were once A-bomb factories. Krasnoyarsk-26, for instance, sounds much less threatening as Sniegersk (Snowville). Interestingly enough, to the local residents the town is still Tomsk-7.

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