SAROV (Andrei Zolotov, Jr., RIA Novosti) – After an overnight trip from Moscow, the train chugs into a tiny, single-track station and stops at closed metal gates crowned with barbed wire. Some passengers disembark and walk to the nearby checkpoint where soldiers match their IDs against a list of authorized guests; others wait to be checked on board. Beyond the checkpoint’s wobbly turnstile, a billboard rises from the wintery morning darkness: “Sarov – Center of Russia’s Strength and Spirit.”
The city of Sarov, surrounded by a thick forest, is one of the most secretive places in the former Soviet Union – the birthplace of its atomic bomb and still a center of the Russian nuclear industry. But it is also home to one of the country’s most revered monasteries, now inaccessible for pilgrims and manned by just four dedicated monks. In recent years, a long-simmering debate around the city – to open it up or keep it closed – has drawn in a powerful new player, the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Here, people simultaneously pray for peace throughout the world and make things that can blow that very same world to pieces,” Pavel Busalayev, a prominent iconographer, said last month at a gathering where local residents and church-affiliated visitors from Moscow and St. Petersburg met to discuss the city’s dual-identity dilemma.
Nuclear City, Repurposed Church
Sarov disappeared from Soviet maps in 1946, transformed by fiat from a minor provincial town into a key site for the research and development of nuclear weapons – some of which stand on display in a strict-ruled museum. The location was ideal: not too far from Moscow, hidden by woodland, but with functional buildings already in place.
Some of those buildings had once belonged to the sixth largest monastery in pre-revolutionary Russia. Its bell tower still dominates the skyline, but has no bells: It survived only because it was topped with television transmitters, which were removed just last year. The town’s main street barrels through the monastery’s 18th-century compound. The main churches were blown up by Soviet authorities in the 1950s, a quarter-century after the cloister had been closed and converted – first, to a juvenile prison, then to a military factory. One of the churches left standing served in Soviet times as a theater.
Today, Sarov – best known by its longest-lasting Soviet code name, Arzamas-16 – prides itself on facilities such as Russia’s largest supercomputer, Europe’s largest station for laser-induced thermonuclear fusion and Europe’s largest linear particle accelerator. The beating heart of the town is the Russian Federal Nuclear Center – also known by its Soviet-era acronym VNIIEF – which employs about one-fifth of the total population of 92,000.