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In Russia there is a word for the country's closed cities - ZATO. These are military towns that are so secret they are shut off from the world. Stalin built them during the Cold War to give Russian military technology an edge. Today there are still dozens of these closed cities scattered across Russia. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly heard about one where they build ships for the Russian navy. It was just open to the world this past year, so she decided to go.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: To get to Roslyakovo, you fly north from Moscow - two-and-a-half hour flight to Murmansk airport north of the Arctic Circle. Then you hop in a car, and 45 minutes or so later, you pull up to a cluster of squat, blue buildings, a now-abandoned checkpoint.
Until last year, every single car coming up to this would have been stopped. You would have had to show your papers, showing you had some sort of security clearance, showing you had a reason to come into this town. Forget foreigners. Most Russians would never have been able to cross past this barrier and continue down this road where we're headed.
Down the road lies Roslyakovo, a town of about 8,000 people. Most of them are navy or civilian contractors for the navy. Now Russia's state-owned oil giant RussNeft is moving in, which is why the town has been ordered to open. The day we drove in, it turned out they were having a party.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Russian).
KELLY: This is a youth-day rally on what passes for the main square in Roslyakovo. Close your eyes and picture four young women in skin-tight black, shaking it on stage. Kids, parents, grandparents are shaking it right back - also a few dozen navy sailors in uniform. They're trying not to dance, but they are staring appreciatively.
We got talking to Yevgeniya Spushkina. She was hard to miss - head-to-toe leather biker gear, straddling a motorcycle. Spushkina is not a fan of the city opening up. She complains it has made life harder. There used to be a medical clinic in town. Now you have to travel to the hospital in the big city. But Spushkina had a more immediate concern as my translator and I learned when we asked, where should we head for a cup of coffee?
YEVGENIYA SPUSHKINA: (Through interpreter) I wanted coffee myself, and I couldn't find it anywhere. So I'm not really sure to be honest (laughter). And I want it now still. I'm looking for coffee.
KELLY: Turns out she's not kidding. There is no cafe in Roslyakovo, no restaurant, a few 7-Eleven-sized grocery stores, one church and a cultural center. At the rally, we met Pyotr and Innokenti, who run Roslyakovo's House of Culture. They love the changes that opening has brought.
INNOKENTI: (Speaking Russian).
KELLY: "Imagine running a theater that people can't come perform at," they say. "Now we can invite artists from all over the world." As we say goodbye, Pyotr asks shyly to pose for a picture together. Now I've met a real American, he says. I've seen them but never close up.
This is the paradox of a place that's been closed to the world for decades. People like Pyotr were always free to come and go, but friends and relatives couldn't visit. And with the military subsidizing everything from health care to housing to food, there wasn't much incentive to leave. Closed cities like Roslyakovo, have been places to perfect Russian military technology - also perfect places to hide things, like here, down by the harbor.
This is where they towed the wreckage of the submarine Kursk after the tragedy back in 2000 when all 118 Russian sailors onboard died.
You stand here, and it starts to make perfect sense that this is where Russia would bring the Kursk, that they would bring it here to Roslyakovo because back in those days, there were no reporters, no prying eyes who could come here and see it and ask questions.
Whatever happens next in Roslyakovo, it'll happen in the open. But locals aren't yet sure what this huge change in their lives will mean. As we were packing to leave, we noticed a woman on her knees in the dirt, tending a garden she scratched out next to her apartment block.
In this brutal Arctic climate, Yelena Guzyonova has coaxed primrose, even tulips to grow. She has two daughters - 22 and 17. And I ask, does she hope one day they'll raise their families in Roslyakovo?
YELENA GUZYONOVA: (Speaking Russian).
KELLY: "This isn't the easiest place to find a job," she says. "We'll see. I'm their mom. I just want what's best for them." Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Roslyakovo, northern Russia.
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