Putin opens ‘town of Novichok’, but why were these cities forbidden?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree to open the closed town where Russian scientists say they developed Novichok, the nerve agent at the centre of a poisoning row with London.

Britain has said Russian-produced Novichok was used in the attempted murder of ex-spy Sergei Skripal along with his daughter Yulia in an English city in March.


London says two Britons, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, were also exposed to the chemical last month - killing the former and leaving the latter in a critical condition. Russian scientists have told state and international media the Soviet Union developed the nerve agent at the closed town of Shikhany from the 1970s.

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“President Putin on Tuesday signed a presidential decree which removes the status of ‘closed territorial administrative entity’ for our town,” Yulia Ershova, spokeswoman for the local authorities, said on Wednesday. “Our factory, a branch of the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, is still functioning but we do not know what will happen once Shikany is opened,” she told AFP.

The Soviet Union created a network of closed towns to house secret military installations and research facilities to which access was hugely restricted. Published on the official site pravo.gov.ru, the decree gives local government six months to prepare for the change of status of the town, which has a population of 5,500.

Change of status

There was no suggestion the change of status was linked to the Novichok affair. Kremlin officials have denied Novichok was stored at exactly this location, but said there was another “facility” in the southern Saratov region.

Closed cities were first built in the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Stalin had decided to launch a nuclear weapons program and it was necessary to hide it well from the prying eyes of his enemies. Thus, the nuclear and military industries were banished to the most remote parts of the country, according to allthatsinteresting.com.

Thousands of people were housed in these closed cities, also known as secret cities or forbidden cities, and renamed “closed administrative territorial entities” (ZATO) in 1993. But if you looked at Soviet censuses, these people did not exist. At least, not officially.

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The site added that “while residents of closed cities were allowed to enter and re-enter the city as they pleased, their everyday lives were to be as secret as those of KGB agents. Once outside the city, residents of ZATO were strictly forbidden to divulge information about their place of residence. Everyone adhered to this rule – failure to comply would have resulted in criminal prosecution.”

The World Cup host cities of Yekaterinburg, Samara and Kaliningrad were all once closed.

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