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Russia: Chemical Weapons Center Remains A 'Closed City'

St. Petersburg, 4 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - According to a recent presidential decree, the city of Shikhana, also known as Volzhsk 18 and located about 130 kilometers north of Samara, has become shut again to the outside world, joining dozens of other "closed cities" that still dot Russia.

Shikhana, with its 15,000 civilian residents and tens of thousands more soldiers, is home to one of the Russian army's chemical weapon manufacturing and testing grounds.

"Closed cities" are one of the lesser known legacies of the USSR that Russia has inherited. There were more such cities in the Soviet period, but in the early 1990s many, such as Nizhni Novgorod (Gorky), were opened.

Closed cities are often centers of military significance, or so-called "scientific cities" that service the military industrial complex. All of them are subordinate directly to either the Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of Interior, and are devoid of the normal civil mechanisms of government.

To this day, none of the currently closed cities are mentioned in any reference book, such as The Cities of Russia or the 1997 Big Encyclopedia. And none are shown on maps.

Like in other closed cities, entrance to Shikhana is allowed only to close relatives of the city's residents. The Ministry of Defense screens and controls their coming and going through a special "invitation" process.

A recent report in the liberal weekly "Obshchaya gazetta" claims that the Ministry of Defense has sinister motives for wanting to keep Shikhana closed. Vladimir Petrenko, co-director of the Samara ecological group, "For Chemical Safety", told "Obshchaya gazetta" that, "the closing of Shikhana is nothing more than the sabotage of the process of the destruction of chemical weapons according to international agreements that Russia has signed and which is preparing to sign. With this decree, the president has given back total secrecy to the manufacture and testing of chemical weapons".

Petrenko is one of the Samara region's leading environmentalists. His credentials are both impressive and tragic. He served at Shikhana in the 1980s, when it was also a closed city and chemical weapons center, and was part of a special brigade that was used as guinea pigs for experiments with new chemical weapons. Today, nearly all of them are invalids.

Another environmental group from the Samara region, "Ecology and Legal Defense", has even more disturbing news. They claim that the military has created its own commercial firm to manufacture and sell high-grade arsenic. Petrenko adds to this that the head of Russia's chemical warfare troops, Stanislav Petrov, is one of the founders of this company, but in the capacity of a private individual.

In the end, the people of Shikhana are the first victims of chemical warfare. According to health officials in the Samara region, the level of cancer victims from Shikhana is about 8.5 times higher than the norm in the region. Skin cancer is the most common affliction.