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Postscript : An Unsentimental Journey to Russia's Bomb-Making City : You won't find Arzamas-16 on any map. But it is famous anyway. And its 100,000 residents are heirs to a long tradition.

March 22, 1994|SERGEI KOZYREV and IGOR MOROZOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: The writers, Russian television journalists, were given permission to visit Arzamas-16 after six months of negotiations with the city's officials

ARZAMAS-16, Russia — The journey begins at an unremarkable pharmacy stall at Moscow's smallest airport, Bykovo.

A clutch of people, most carrying just their briefcases, gather around an official who checks their names against a list.

Ignoring passport and security controls, and not even producing their tickets, the passengers then move across the airfield to a small transport plane.

Their flight is not on any of Aeroflot's schedules. Both the plane and the flight do not exist officially. And when the plane touches down about 45 minutes after taking off, it lands in a town that cannot be found on any map of Russia.

Nevertheless, this city is quite real, and even famous in its own special way.

Here, about 250 miles east of Moscow, Russian atomic bombs are made. This is the Russian Los Alamos.

The city, home to 100,000 people, has had many names, from KB-II to Object No. 550. It was also nicknamed New Jerusalem, a reference to the predominance of Jews among top Soviet atomic physicists.

Now it is known as Arzamas-16. It is the most significant and most clandestine of Russia's 10 most secret cities, the main bulwark of Russia's military-industrial complex.

It is a unique city. At its well-equipped maternity hospital, we are shown an infant, newborn and still wet. The doctor slaps him lightly on the backside and tells us proudly: "What a wonderful baby! Some day he will make the best bomb in the world!"

This is a joke, of course.

But in a local cemetery, which the residents of Arzamas-16 call Arzamas-17, symbols of the atom and of fat little bombs are found amid the usual crosses and stars. And this is no joke.

Construction of Arzamas-16 began in 1946 at the site of a small provincial Russian town called Sarov, known as the home of a Russian saint and as the site of a spring held holy by Russian Orthodox faithful. With the arrival of the wave of new people to the area, the spring was cemented over. The new residents had a different religion, a different driving idea.

They had to master the secrets of nuclear weapons as fast as possible. By the summer of 1949, they had produced an atomic bomb ready for testing at Semipalatinsk.

The physicists of the city believed that in case of failure they would almost surely be severely punished. They were right.

Newly opened archives revealed recently that the notorious chief of Soviet secret police, Lavrenty Beria, had drawn up a list of leading physicists who were to be executed or imprisoned if the bomb failed. But it worked, and instead they all got medals.

Beria so dominated Arzamas-16 that the first street was named in his honor. He demanded a level of secrecy so intense that scientists used to joke that the Soviet Union could have other, competing centers of atomic weaponry and they would not know about it.

Needless to say, scientists knew how to keep secrets in the Soviet Union. Through the 1970s, all the Arzamas-16 residents were officially registered at the same address, according to their passports: Moscow, 1 Oktyabrskogo Polya, Apt. 36.

(On our return to Moscow from Arzamas-16 we visited this apartment, just out of curiosity. It is an ordinary Moscow communal apartment. The inhabitants were shocked to find out that at one time as many as 100,000 people were 'living' in their flat.)

In fact, leading scientists in Arzamas-16 were lodged in spacious cottages. The nicest villa in the city--on the banks of a pond, right in the middle of a splendid park--was built for Andrei D. Sakharov, the brilliant physicist who later became a human rights activist. He refused to live in it.

Until recently, this city had nothing to complain about at all. For instance, when Arzamas-16 still did not have a town laundry, dirty linen would be delivered to Moscow and back by air. The regional center, Gorky, was closer, but Moscow laundries had better reputations and Arzamas-16 was entitled to the best.

In 1958, during preparations for a series of tests, the scientists from Arzamas-16 demanded several pounds of mercury. It was delivered, and for the next four years it was impossible to buy a mercury thermometer in Soviet drugstores.

The standard of living seemed at least twice as high here as in any other region of the country. Nearly every family owned a car. There was negligible crime. The KGB took care of that. Even today, a woman alone is not afraid to walk along the empty streets of the city at night.

Residents still prefer to live behind their barbed-wire boundary, with all the security features of a national frontier: a strip of sand to show footprints and border guards with submachine guns and trained dogs who guard this state-within-a-state day and night. This is what they are used to.

The last several years, which have turned Russia upside down, have made little difference in Arzamas-16, at least outwardly. Its walls are not covered with graffiti as Moscow's are. There are no political groups. And the state still calls the shots.

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