Zheleznogorsk unfolds its wings

In the depths of the Siberian taiga, on the banks of the Yenisei River lies the city of Zheleznogorsk. Founded in 1950 as a center for plutonium production, it isn’t a place people move to. They can’t. Even local residents must have permission to leave and return.

Going through the fence that surrounds the city is like crossing a time warp into the Soviet Union of the 1950s. There are wide avenues flanked by five-story apartment blocks; in the center of town stands the Rodina [Motherland] movie theater and the main entrance to the factory that, before the days of perestroika, built the world-famous Kosmos and Molniya satellites, the most powerful of their time. At the beginning of the 21st century, the city gained a new lease on life, thanks largely to the program to develop the Glonass navigation system, the Russian answer to G.P.S.

“In the 1960s, the whole Soviet Union dreamed of space! It was prestigious to work in the industry,” said Vladimir Khalimanovich, now director of the Information Satellite Systems company (I.S.S.), which dominates the city’s economy. He moved to Zheleznogorsk 47 years ago from the central Russian city of Kazan. At that time, nearly every student dreamed of the opportunity to move to a place like Zheleznogorsk, because it was thought that only the best of the best were recruited to closed cities.

The prestige was one of the things that helped make the difficulties of living in a closed city worth the trouble. Living in a closed city meant that visiting friends and relatives had to be vetted by the security services. “That procedure applies today, too,” said Yelena Prosvirina, an I.S.S. engineer. “At first it’s inconvenient to have to ask permission every time, but you soon get used to it.” During the Soviet era, there were other benefits, too. For example, certain types of food that were unavailable in ordinary Soviet cities could be bought in the closed ones. But unlike the residency restrictions, this changed with fall of the Soviet state.

During the 1990s, the residents of Zheleznogorsk, like the rest of Russia, were plunged overnight into the harsh conditions of capitalism. Like the majority of Russian enterprises, I.S.S lost the lion’s share of its state financing. The factory continued quietly building satellites for military purposes, but there were few new projects and the factory’s workforce of more than 8,000 was cut almost in half.

In the 2000s, however, the government began to invest funds in the creation of the GLONASS satellite navigation. Today the state provides two-thirds of I.S.S.’s annual operating budget of 20 billion rubles ($625 million); the rest comes from commercial orders.

I.S.S. began getting international contracts in 2008. That year, Israeli satellite operator Space-Communication Ltd ordered the AMOS-5 satellite; then, in 2009, Indonesia’s PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia Tbk bought the Telcom-3 telecommunications system. Later, contracts were signed with Ukraine and Kazakhstan. “Every year we take part in four or five tenders, of which we win one. One international contract per year is enough for us. That’s all we can handle at the moment,” said Khalimanovich. Today about 40 satellites are in production at the same time, including secret military systems, Glonass satellites, and telecommunications and geodesy satellites for Russian operators.

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