Chelyabinsk-65 and Mayak are real places, with real problems. Numerous nuclear accidents at Mayak created the most contaminated place on the planet. One accident, the Kyshtym Disaster, should be acknowledged as one of the worst nuclear disasters of all time, right up there with Fukushima and second only to Chernobyl - but the consequences were (and remain) worse.
Mayak Chemical Combine, also called the tractor factory, was the frantic beginning of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons program. Everything was top secret. Everything was rushed. Accidents were frequent. The city next to Mayak was Chelyabinsk-65 (now Ozersk). Officially it did not exist; thus its name. Chelyabinsk-65 is a post office box in the distant city of Chelyabinsk. Actually, the Soviet Union had many secret cities, all addressed as post office boxes. Many had plutonium breeder reactors buried deep underground.
I spent several months in Russia in 1998. I first heard about a secret nuclear city, Krasnoyarsk-26, back in the United States. Russia (the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991) was producing more weapon's grade plutonium than it could keep track of, enough to build 10,000 nuclear bombs. This was especially a problem because unpaid guards needed cash, and terrorist governments wanted plutonium. Russia asked the United States to teach them bar coding to manage their inventory. The United States agreed, but with conditions. Thus it happened that the CBS news has allowed to visit Krasnoyarsk-26. They produced a 60 Minutes special and indicated that there were ten secret cities, each with thousands of residents, and each with a single purpose - to continue producing nuclear bombs after a global nuclear war. The Soviets assumed America had the same sort of program.</p> <p>Secret Cities never appeared on maps, and the residents were omitted from the census. Underground facilities escaped satellite detention. But the United States' CIA knew about some of them because of radiation released by accidents. However, the CIA kept the Russians' secret because they feared news about nuclear accidents would stunt the burgeoning U.S. nuclear industry. CIA agent Gary Power's U2 spy plane was shot down while attempting to document the Kyshtym Disaster.
Bit by bit, I researched and extracted more details about these cities and their inhabitants. As luck would have it, I became very good friends with a Russian who lived in a "closed" city, formerly a secret city. He said that ten cities was a very low estimate; indeed, other sources have more recently confirmed that there may be over 40. To this day, the breeder reactors continue producing unwanted plutonium, but they cannot be shut down because the cities have grown dependent on their power (electrical and heat which is distributed via hot water lines).
Secret city inhabitants were called "Chocolate eaters." To live in one of these cities, one had to "disappear" - break all contact with the outside world. Most residents volunteered to do it, both out of commitment to country and because life in the secret cities was relatively luxurious - better food and living conditions than 'outside'. But there were also a lot of gulag prisoners used as dispensable labor. Most had short lives. There were foreigners as well. Many European scientists were captured during WW II and sent to Mayak or other secret cities for the rest of their lives. Americans were involved too. Mayak was designed similar to the U.S. Hanford Nuclear Site, thanks to convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
I learned a great deal about the nuclear accidents, especially what happened after the Kyshtym and Lake Karashay Disasters, accidents made all the worse because the few people were evacuated to keep the incidents secret. I began to have an understanding about the horrific, escalating effects of radiation, three generations on. And I began to speculate on what would drive a person to knowingly visit such a spot.
And so Niki and her son Alex were born in my imagination.
One of the first readers of Belly asked if the people and plot were real. Of course that made me feel good. I wanted my characters to be as real as the historic background.
Others said that the action kept them going even if the historical 'facts' seemed far-fetched. I realized that some historical facts are beyond belief. Consequently, I created a partial bibliography that points readers to more information. I've included it here, and with it, maps of the area.
Ekaterineberg's location in Russia.
A view of Mayak.
A map of Niki's journey across Russia.