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Visit to 'Closed' City Brings Quick Celebrity

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

By Daniel SneiderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 1992



CHELYABINSK, RUSSIA

A MAP of the former Soviet Union is pasted to the wall of the hallway in The Christian Science Monitor bureau in Moscow. We don't look at this map to locate a town or a river. It has quite another function - to tell us where we cannot go.

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Supplied by the Foreign Ministry, it shows the Soviet Union in brown, mottled with pink splotches.

As the map index so blithely explains, the pink splotches are the regions, cities, and even river systems that are "closed" to foreigners.

A more detailed second map shows the same thing for the area around Moscow. It has always been a ritual of travel by foreign correspondents here to consult these maps when planning a trip, whether to a distant city or to a friend's country dacha.

Behind the designation of the "closed" zones is a certain cold-war logic, albeit often with inexplicable exceptions. For the most part they are drawn up in the obsessive - and in this age of satellites, largely useless - desire to protect military secrets. Pink strips run along all the Soviet borders. In the Far East, the entire Kamchatka Peninsula and the Primorski Krai are colored in, sealing off the submarine pens and the wharfs of the Soviet Pacific Fleet from prying eyes. The United States, in the n ame of reciprocity, kept Soviet journalists on a similar leash.

A vast pink blob sits in central Russia, running along the far, Siberian side of the Ural mountains. Here the secrets are not Army bases or naval ports but the factories that churn out the weapons of the Soviet war machine, from behemoth tanks to nuclear warheads. 'Tankograd'

Chelyabinsk is a classic Urals "closed" zone. The region's capital of the same name is nicknamed "Tankograd," a moniker it acquired during World War II for the tanks that rolled from its huge tractor plant. By the account of the local officialdom, every factory in town - and it is full of them - is producing something for the military. Even the textile plant specializes in making uniforms and bulletproof vests.

Glasnost and the end of the cold war have shrunk the pink spots somewhat, with many formerly closed cities now off the list. As of Jan. 1, even Vladivostok, home port of the Pacific Fleet, was finally "opened." But the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, and to this day even the demise of the Soviet Union has not been enough to "open" Chelyabinsk. Something to offer

Nevertheless, during the last few years, even such "closed" towns have been accessible with the right invitation. Foreign businessmen with money to invest were welcomed in this industrial nodule in the empty Siberian lands. So were scientists coming to help study how to dispose of the highly radioactive waste stored out at the once-secret town known as Chelyabinsk-65, where the first Soviet atom bombs were built.

But an American journalist is still a mighty rare breed here, as I discovered. My path into town was well paved by the energetic and engaging head of the recently created press center of the Chelyabinsk oblast soviet (regional council), Alexander Bazaev. A phone call to Sasha, as we came to know him, produced not only the official open door but an itinerary that left time only for a few idle breaths.

In a city that doesn't exist in the guidebooks of the ubiquitous Intourist agency, which manages what pass for hotels in the former Soviet Union, Sasha also provided a reservation at the best place in town. The "hotel with no name" is a brief walk through the snow from the central square where the government buildings stand. Before the failed hard-line coup last August ended the reign of the Communist Party, the two-story building housed only the guests of the party.