Unruly Places

An investigation into lost spaces, secret cities, and other inscrutable geographies.

September 24, 2014

Abandoned ship in the Aral seabed. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“We are a place-making and place-loving species,” writes Alastair Bonnet in the introduction to his recently published book Unruly Places. Yet, as he goes on to acknowledge, we also live at a time of rising placelessness—cities looking ever more homogeneous, marked by the same brand names and fads in architecture, underscored by the sense that the whole Earth has by now been mapped and surveilled.

The antidote? To explore those places—the secret, the ephemeral, the emergent, the  forgotten—that still have the power to surprise us. Here we excerpt from Unruly Places passages detailing three such destinations, respectively falling under the rubrics of “Lost Spaces,” “Hidden Geographies,” and “Spaces of Exception.” 


(from Lost Spaces)
The Aralqum Desert
44° 45′ 37′′ N, 62° 09′ 27′′ E

The Aralqum Desert is too new, too large, and its outline too changeable to be on any maps. It’s a desert that used to be called the Aral Sea. The new name is gaining favor, although it’s not quite as exotic as it sounds. Qum is Uzbek for “sand.”

The map captioned “Geography: Physical” is usually seen as an impassive affair when compared to “Geography: Political.” We are used to the latter requiring regular updates but continue to imagine that the physical outlines and natural features of the planet are slow-moving or even rock-solid. The love of “natural places” is, in part, built around the conviction that, unlike our fragile settlements and fickle borders, they are self-reliant and age-old. It’s an outdated perspective,as New Moore (see page 20) demonstrates, and encourages a belief that natural systems can always cope with change; that when one set of flora and fauna die out, a new set will happily move in. The Aralqum is a natural place, an empty desert, but also an unnatural one that shows that organic adaptation can no longer keep pace with human impact.

It’s also a place of disconcerting memories. The Aral Sea was once enormous. At 426 kilometers long and 284 kilometers wide, it was the fourth-largest lake in the world. Any schoolchild tracing her finger across the map of Central Asia will still find it and pause and wonder how such a big blue shape could have formed so many miles from the ocean. It was once called the Blue Sea and was first mapped in 1850. Soon the Aral Sea was supporting several fishing fleets and a cluster of new villages, and by the middle of the last century it was fringed by nineteen villages and two large towns, Aralsk in the north and Muynak in the south. Today these towns’ harbors are many miles from water.

The Aral Sea was fed by one of the longest rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya, which flowed north for 1,500 miles to spawn an island-flecked delta. Along with the Syr Darya, which fed the Aral’s northern shore, the Amu Darya pumped the Aral Sea full of fresh mountain water. Soviet planners were not slow to see the potential of these rivers to feed cotton and wheat irrigation systems. Starting in the 1930s, huge channels were constructed, diverting water from both the Amu Darya and Syr Darya and spreading it out over millions of acres of fertile land. One of the Soviet Union’s most eminent experts in desertification, Professor Agajan Babaev, explained in 1987, in an article for a Soviet economics magazine, that “the drying up of the Aral is far more advantageous than preserving it.” Even more oddly, he also concluded that “many scientists are convinced, and I among them, that the disappearance of the sea will not affect the region’s landscapes.” The death of the Aral Sea was not only foreseen but actively pursued.

As the Aral Sea began to shrink, in the 1960s, the irrigation continued, the volume of water drained off the rivers only peaking in 1980. Without the rivers’ infusion of fresh water, many of the Aral’s shallowing pools became almost as salty as the ocean. A new dusty and denuded landscape emerged. Windblown pollutants turned the area into one of the world’s unhealthiest places to live, and infant mortality rates shot up along with respiratory diseases. The loss of the Aral Sea also had an impact on the climate. Such a large body of water had long kept the land warmer in winter and cooler in summer. With its disappearance came more extreme and more destructive localized weather systems.

Since 1960 the Aral Sea has shrunk by more than 80 percent and its water volume has fallen by 90 percent. The size and shape of the Aral Sea on recent maps varies enormously: sometimes it is represented quite accurately, as fragmented and shrunken, but it is still common to see it portrayed as undiminished and unbroken. With cotton production still an economic priority in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and no real prospect of rehabilitation in the foreseeable future, it is time the Aral Sea was removed from the world’s maps and the “Aralqum Desert” inserted.

Visitors to the Aral today are faced with whipping winds across a barren plain. It is littered with bleached seashells and the remnants of scavenged boats — a desiccated land that stretches to the horizon. The Aralqum Desert is fringed with ghost towns, abandoned fish factories, and rusting boatyards. Barsa-Kelmes, which translates as “the land of no return” in Kazakh, was once the Aral Sea’s largest island and used to be a nature reserve, renowned for its eagles, deer, and wolves. Today it is just another dead stump of land. By 1993 it was empty except for one resident, who refused to leave, and a few stubborn wild asses. It seems that the holdout, an ex-ranger named Valentin Skurotskii, was rooted to the island by the fact that his mother was buried there. His body was discovered in 1998, sitting in a chair with his head in his hands.

In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan people have grown tired of sad tales and bad news about the Aral. Much of the regional news coverage about the Aral over the past two decades has been about the damming and “rebirth” of the so-called Small Aral Sea in the north. The implication is that the rest of the Aral should be abandoned to the sand. The newly built dam that keeps the waters of the Syr Darya in the Small Aral further restricts their flow farther south. In 2008 the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, stood on a new dam near Aralsk and declared that one day the waters would return to the town’s harbor. Thanks to the new dams and locks, he may be right. The waters of the Small Aral have risen and become fresher. But it is a meager triumph compared to the loss of the “Large Aral Sea.”

The Aralqum is not simply a vast new desert; it is also a huge experiment, the world’s largest example of anthropogenic primary succession. Primary succession refers to the development of plant life on land that is devoid of any vegetation. The classic examples are volcanic islands like Surtsey, which emerged from the Atlantic, twenty miles south of Iceland, in 1963. The first plant on Surtsey was spotted two years later, and today much of the island is covered with mosses, lichens, grasses, and even some bushes. While it’s a natural process, it’s the anthropogenic, or humanly caused, part that turns it into something less predictable. These days most examples of primary succession are caused by humans, and they have nothing to do with volcanism or glaciers. They occur in the wake of the dead landscapes caused by nuclear testing or are found on top of slag heaps or at battle sites or in the cracked tarmac and paving stones of our cities.

These plants seem such doughty invaders that it is easy to assume that, given time, the green world will always grow back and take over. It’s early days yet, but at the moment it seems that the Aralqum is suggesting otherwise. The salty, dust-blown, and often poisonous seabed makes conditions very hard for new life. A German team from the University of Bielefeld has studied the limited plant life that is taking root. Along with other experts they predicted that the desert will only be greened by people going in and planting species that are not just salt resistant but can withstand the extreme temperatures and winds of the dry sea floor. Yet 70 percent of the Aralqum is salt desert. To turn it into something living would be an expensive, long-term, and probably thankless task. The Aralqum appears to be showing us that, at least in the short term, nature cannot cope. A problem created by us can only be solved by us, but so far it appears to be beyond us. We have gotten used to seeing natural places as places that can be protected and nurtured, but the story of the Aral Sea indicates a daunting challenge, of moving beyond designating zones of conservation toward rebuilding entire ecosystems and landscapes on a vast scale.

In the meantime, the new desert is sharing its secrets. It seems this is not the first time that the area has been dry. On the old sea floor Kazakh hunters have found the remnants of a medieval mausoleum along with human bones, pottery, and millstones. Satellite images have also revealed the courses of medieval rivers meandering through the desert. These findings confirm a local legend that the Aral Sea was once land. The area’s folklore has since been updated. Now old-timers look forward to a second inundation, a new flood to give them back their blue sea.

Lost places have an uncanny presence in our lives. In a century that has seen the obliteration of so many places, it might be thought that these ghosts would have been exorcised. But that’s not how humans work; place means too much to us for its disappearance to ever feel easy or complete.


(From Hidden Geographies)

56° 15′ 00′′ N, 93° 32′ 00′′ E

In April 2010 two white-coated scientists laid flowers on top of the control rods of a nuclear reactor in Zheleznogorsk, a town founded in 1950 for the sole purpose of making nuclear weapons. For forty-seven years the reactor had been producing weapons-grade plutonium in a city that officially did not exist and was closed to the outside world. The ceremony on the reactor marked the end of an era, and it might have looked like the end of Zheleznogorsk itself, for its ninety thousand residents were nearly all in some way dependent on this one site.

Zheleznogorsk is a grid city of wide boulevards, a place of calm solemnity and perseverance. It was once a secret city. It did not appear on Soviet maps and is still missing from many. For most of its existence it didn’t even have its own name and was referred to by a post office box number, Krasnoyarsk-26 — Krasnoyarsk being the nearest big city, forty miles away. It was only in 1992 that its existence was officially confirmed, when President Boris Yeltsin decreed that closed cities could finally be revealed.

Yet Zheleznogorsk is still closed and entry is highly restricted. The hosts of any visitor must submit their request to the security services and the Ministry of Atomic Energy, and even local residents need to get permission to come and go. Surprisingly, Zheleznogorsk remains closed because its residents like it that way. In 1996 they voted to remain shut away from the world. It is at this point that the story of Zheleznogorsk begins to contradict our preconceptions about life in secret places within authoritarian regimes. Closed places and secret cities fitted snugly into the paranoid mindset of Soviet communism, but in a postcommunist era there are other reasons why communities might decide to be cut off from the rest of us. It’s not only about hanging on to secrets; it’s about holding on to a lifestyle.

Closed cities were once among the best-funded and most prestigious settlements in the USSR, with well-paid jobs that attracted high-achieving technicians and scientists. They were aspirational destinations. The tranquil, kempt character of Zheleznogorsk, with its large park, lakeside setting, and forests and hills, is something its residents want to preserve. They have witnessed what “opening up” has done to the rest of Russia, and they aren’t keen to go the same way. Soviet nostalgia hangs heavy in Zheleznogorsk: it’s the kind of place that the USSR always promised its citizens. The adulatory website “Zheleznogorsk: Last Paradise on Earth” appears not to be ironic. It’s where one local writer, Roman Solntsev, describes the town’s appeal as a “wonderful feeling of relaxation, calm and peace of mind.” Solntsev goes on to point out the “sharp contrast with the soot-covered, noisy industrial centers and big cities.”

Zheleznogorsk is part of a club of approximately forty “closed administrative-territorial formations,” which are home to 1.3 million Russians who embrace what might look to the outside world as something imposed. One ex-resident of another closed city labeled with a box number, Kuznetsk-12, posting on a chatroom about why, even though he lives in the United States, he comes back every year with his daughter, writes: “It is a unique place on earth where my child can experience a freedom of exploring a small town, independence and beautiful walks in nature without the fear of anything happening to her since everyone knows each other.”

Sarov, formerly Arzamas-16, a city of ninety-two thousand, which is still an important center for nuclear missile development, has also fought to restrict entry. It was disappeared from the map in 1946 but remains closed off through local determination rather than Moscow edict. A town tour guide, Svetlana Rubtsova, explained to Russian journalists, “Being part of a closed city gives you a feeling of comfort and protection — that people of this city are all together your family.” Sarov, like a number of other restricted cities, is also an ethnic Russian enclave, situated as it is in the ethnically mixed and potentially separatist region of Mordovia. By remaining closed “we defended it from chaos,” says Sarov resident Dmitry Sladkov. An urban planner by training, Sladkov moved with his family from Moscow in 1992 in order to escape the disorder engulfing the capital.

In an era when claiming to be open to the world can seem mandatory for cities that wish to prosper, the dogged survival of closed places may appear shortsighted and misanthropic. But Dmitry Sladkov’s desire to flee with his family from the “chaos” of open cities is not a uniquely Russian sentiment. It isn’t just in Russia that people are building closed communities. As modern cities around the world have become increasingly unpredictable and fragmented, people with enough money have either moved out to villages, turning them into urban exclaves, or created gated, safe havens within the city. If we don’t call Zheleznogorsk a closed city but a gated community it suddenly becomes not an echo from history but a very contemporary reflection of urban distrust and consumer choice.

But living in a gated community still has its problems. In Zheleznogorsk, besides being vetted by the security services before being allowed to visit, there isn’t much for visitors to do. The Motherland movie theater in the center of town and one restaurant seem to be pretty much it. “It’s difficult to start a business in a closed city,” one local resident told the Russian Gazette. “The process requires many agreements, so there’s no competition.” For a fun night out she has to drive the forty miles to Krasnoyarsk.

How can it survive? Although its anchor industry, plutonium production, has been shut down, Zheleznogorsk has learned to reinvent itself in a number of ways, and there are plenty of other types of manufacturing that are attracted by complete privacy. Zheleznogorsk now nurtures a range of high-tech and “sensitive” forms of production. Three-quarters of Russia’s satellites are produced in the city, including all of the GPS satellites. Israel, Indonesia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan have all bought satellites made in Zheleznogorsk. Another niche that is opening up for the town is storing nuclear waste. An underground laboratory is being built that will investigate how much nuclear waste can be buried in the surrounding hills. It’s the type of project that would be controversial elsewhere but that is facilitated in Zheleznogorsk by the pliant mindset of the locals, who have learned not to question those in authority: of its ninety thousand residents, only fifty bothered to look at the application details for the waste storage project.

Zheleznogorsk has successfully made the transition from a communist to a capitalist closed city. Its broad avenues may look like a Soviet stage set, but this is a place that says less about the past than about the high levels of privacy and security that are being demanded by contemporary companies and contemporary citizens.


(From Spaces of Exception”)
Bright Light, 4 Mures Street, Bucharest

44° 28′ 04′′ N, 26° 02′ 45′′ E

Number 4 Mures Street is an off-white single-story office building with plenty of large windows. It’s a cheaply built, rather rundown 1960s construction and doesn’t appear especially secure. It is fronted by modest metal railings. Behind this block, which lies on a dusty residential street in north-east Bucharest, there is a larger building painted in the same municipal shade, and behind that, some train tracks. Number 4 Mures Street looks like a place where officialdom is slowly churning and employees watch the clock, waiting to go home.

Between the end of 2003 and May 2006, 4 Mures Street had the CIA code name Bright Light. It was a secret interrogation and detention center, a so-called black site, and acted as a link in an international chain of covert detention and staging points used in the war against terror. For those detained here and for the rest of the world Bright Light did not exist—it was a non-place. We can call such sites non-places for two reasons: because these are spaces no one notices, and because they complete the bewilderment of the inmate— even when the hood is removed and the landscape glimpsed, it means nothing, it could be anywhere. One person who has made this connection is Bruce O’Neill, an anthropologist at Stanford University who has taken a special interest in the geography of “extraordinary rendition.” In the journal Ethnography, he argues that secret detention facilities appear to “thrive in the non-places.” They can grow and breed in these empty zones because no one cares about them: they are “generic and highly functional spaces that we pass through without establishing significant social or historical relations with them.” It is places that “escape our serious attention or observation,” O’Neill concludes, that provide “the ideal infrastructural site for a new kind of camp.”

It is the forgettableness and unseen nature of 4 Mures Street, along with numerous windowless rooms elsewhere, that make it ideal for the covert extension of state power. The building, then as now, was owned by the Romanian National Registry for Classified Information. What a spokesman calls “media speculation that the building hosted a CIA prison” has been “categorically denied,” and Romania’s foreign affairs minister has confirmed that “no such activities took place on Romanian territory.”

But the German media, specifically the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and the ARD television network, have done more than speculate. Their interviews with former inmates and CIA agents pinpoint Bright Light in great detail. Journalists have been able to build up a plan of the complex and uncover the names of those who were kept there and what happened to them. What they found out was that the back building has a basement with six specially designed cells, each one built on springs. The idea appears to have been that a permanent sense of imbalance would disorient inmates, though ironically the cells also had an arrow painted on the floor to indicate the direction of Mecca.

Bright Light was used for particularly high-value inmates, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is accused of having planned the 9/11 attacks and was kept there before being transferred to the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. Other prisoners included Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was accused of carrying out the attack on the US warship Cole in Yemen, and Abu Faraj al-Libi, Al Qaeda’s third-in-command. Al-Libi identified Osama bin Laden’s personal courier, a piece of in- formation that eventually led to bin Laden himself.

During their short tours at 4 Mures Street, the CIA interrogators ate and slept in the compound, shut up with the inmates. A report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, published in 2007, on the treatment of the kind of high-value detainees that passed through Bright Light, detailed the “fairly standardized” procedures that were intended to wear them down through a combination of humiliation and disorientation. In transit, the detainee “would be made to wear a diaper and dressed in a tracksuit,” the report said. “Earphones would be placed over his ears, through which music would sometimes be played. He would be blindfolded with at least a cloth tied around the head and black goggles.” Having reached an interrogation center like Bright Light, the “maintenance of the detainees in continuous solitary confinement and incommunicado detention” meant that many had no idea in which country they were. Kept in isolation, often for years, and without any information about their surroundings, the inmates were unable to provide a coherent account of their time in detention.

Even before the story of Bright Light broke, a Council of Europe report had concluded that “secret detention facilities run by the CIA did exist in Europe from 2003 to 2005, in particular in Poland and Romania.” A couple of years later the New York Times established that the CIA’s European head- quarters in Frankfurt had overseen the construction of three detention facilities in Eastern Europe, “each built to house about a half-dozen detainees.” One of these was in “a renovated building on a busy street in Bucharest.”

It is not just the ordinariness of 4 Mures Street that deflects suspicion. Like many other government buildings in Romania, it was once used by the Securitate, Romania’s secret police. Romanians have learned to leave such buildings well alone. Although the Securitate was dissolved in 1989, it had had four decades to mold Romanian society, and at its height it had 2 million people on its payroll, or 10 percent of the country’s population. Romanians have vivid memories of the power of the security forces, who at one point had 180,000 forced laborers under their watch and a further 1.1 million political prisoners, held in more than 120 camps. While Romania’s gulag days are over, they have left the country with both a physical and cultural infrastructure, a network of secret camps and public indifference to what might be going on in nondescript government buildings. Surrounded by an unseeing world and occupied by disoriented inmates, 4 Mures Street is a perfect example of a place beyond reach, a non-place where old rules and old identities can be broken or forgotten.

Yet by the time we hear about such places, they are usually long gone. Bright Light closed down years before its story emerged. At the very moment that global attention homes in on one particular instance of secret detention, thousands of other camps and millions of other detainees sink deeper into the dark. In many countries, such “spaces of exception” continue to expand. In 2009 the Indian magazine The Week revealed that in India between 15 and 40 secret detention camps are operated by the intelligence services. In 2012 the Chinese government passed a new law giving the police the legal right to do something they had been doing all along: hold detainees at secret locations. It is estimated that today between 150,000 and 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea are held in dozens of secret camps. Windowless and unmapped, such non-places have become a resource for regimes that appear to have little else in common.

Excerpted from Unruly Paces: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies (Viking), by Alastair Bonnett.