stories

Like a day of war 30 years ago, a train explosion ripped through the Soviet city of Arzamas, and locals to this day believe it was part of a plot to destroy the USSR

Meduza
The explosion in Arzamas on June 4, 1988. Image recorded by amateur photographer Nikolai Bloshenkov.
The explosion in Arzamas on June 4, 1988. Image recorded by amateur photographer Nikolai Bloshenkov.
I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History

On June 4, 1988, not far from the railway station in the city of Arzamas, a train car carrying munitions from a nearby weapons factory suddenly exploded. The blast damaged buildings for two kilometers (1.2 miles), completely destroying many homes. According to official reports, 91 people died, 744 were injured, and hundreds of families were left without roofs over their heads. The government investigated the incident for several years, but many victims and local authorities to this day still believe the state is hiding the truth from the public. Meduza special correspondent Daniil Turovsky went to Arzamas and met with victims and emergency responders to learn more about what happened 30 years ago.

Chapter 1

The explosion

The barracks at the railway

On the morning of June 4, 1988, an engine operator named Yuri Mikanovich was on shift and having an ordinary day. Having worked in the Gorky region for many years, he knew the local railways’ every turn, slope, and climb. On this particular day, Mikanovich and a coworker had run a freight train to Gorky (known today as Nizhny Novgorod), and now they’d come to the Oskaya station for a new train that was loaded with explosives manufactured at the Sverdlov Factory in Dzerzhinsk. According to official instructions, these train cars were usually placed immediately behind an electric locomotive and shielded by ordinary train cars, but often there simply weren’t any of these train cars on hand. Today was one of those days.

Around eight in the morning, the train left for Arzamas; the cargo was meant for miners in the southern part of the country.

At 9:30 a.m., after waiting for 23 minutes at a way station to be let into the city, the operators started bringing their train into the Arzamas-1 station. The train came in along a railway embankment that rose slightly above many homes built close to the tracks.

Then there was an explosion and everything went black.

When Mikanovich came to, his partner was shaking him and the engine cabin was still dark. The two climbed out and realized that the shockwave had carried a couple hundred meters (more than 200 yards). The locomotive comprised two pieces, and the part closest to the train cars had taken the full force of the blast. They hailed a ride to the hospital.

The explosion’s epicenter: a railway crossing on approach to the Arzamas-1 station.
The explosion’s epicenter: a railway crossing on approach to the Arzamas-1 station.
I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History

That same morning, 30-year-old Valentina Mitrofanova was also at work. She had a job at a local cafeteria and they were expecting a large crowd that day. Outside, it was sunny and hot. Mitrofanova had just started to cook when a rumble suddenly shook the building. Assuming the boiler had broken down yet again, she looked outside and saw children evacuating a school across the street through blown-out windows. She decided that some chemistry class experiment had apparently gone wrong, and one of her colleagues guessed that a gas cylinder had exploded.

The women went back to work. Twenty minutes later, a man dropped off groceries and told them that the blast had come from seven kilometers (4.4 miles) away, at a railway crossing where a train had derailed.

Mitrofanova’s sister, husband, their two children, and her niece all lived in an apartment at that crossing, and they spent most mornings at home. The apartment was one of seven in a solid, one-story barracks, however, and Mitrofanova assumed they would be safe. Just in case, though, she bolted for the train station. She had the run the entire way — the city’s transportation had come to a halt.

It took her almost an hour to reach the station. The closer she got, the clearer it became that something terrible had happened. At first, Mitrofanova saw broken glass and branches scattered on the ground. Then she started running into people covered in blood, staggering toward her. Some people’s clothes had been torn, and others had been left with none at all. One woman was running for the hospital, carrying a bloodied child in her arms.

Police officers and soldiers had surrounded the area near the station. Mitrofanova didn’t see where the train car had exploded, but she realized that her sister’s home was just 50 meters (165 feet) from the epicenter. “I just want to have a look, guys,” she begged one of the officers. At first, he refused to let her pass, but the crowd soon started shouting, and Mitrofanova was able to slip through. She ran up the hill and saw a deep pit scattered with the train’s wreckage. The small corner of a wall was the only piece of her sister’s home left standing.

Valentina Mitrofanova in Arzamas, June 2018
Valentina Mitrofanova in Arzamas, June 2018
Maxim Sher for Meduza

Next, Mitrofanova ran another four kilometers (2.5 miles) to the hospital. “I ran without thinking, on autopilot, completely out of it,” she recalls. She ran into a nurse she knew and asked her to find out about her relatives, but all the woman could tell her was: “Whoever’s alive is asleep, and whoever isn’t is not here. And they won’t say who’s who.”

An hour later, Mitrofanova returned to the blast site with her husband, who worked as a bus driver. (He’d been called to the area to help with the evacuation.) This time, she’d grabbed a white robe from the cafeteria, and the authorities let her through without any hassle, mistaking her for a doctor. At her sister’s home, there were police officers digging through bricks and splintered wood. “Get her out of here,” one of them said. “Even we can’t handle this.” Mitrofanova glanced back and saw the body of a young girl in white stockings.

Tatyana Shchegoleva, a local factory worker, also saw the wreckage that day. The plant sent her and several others, including a few medics, to help clear the debris. When the explosion happened, Shchegoleva was still at home, eating breakfast. She says she ran outside and saw a black mushroom cloud rising above the blast site. A bus later delivered her to the same barricade where police had tried to keep out Valentina Mitrofanova. They found no one alive in the rubble. Soon they dug out the body of a 17-year-old girl — Mitrofanova’s niece. One of the men working with Shchegoleva found the remains of his own wife.

Has it really started?

After the Second World War, there were only 30,000 people in Arzamas. The city’s population spiked in 1950, however, when it opened an instrument-making factory and a design bureau (where they developed systems for the “Buran” Soviet spacecraft, among other things). Arzamas also got a brewery, beloved by locals for its kvas and lemonade. Eventually, high-rise apartment buildings started appearing among the single-story homes and their gardens. By the late 1980s, there were almost 100,000 people living in the city. The explosion on June 4, 1988, affected almost all of them.

In 1988, about 70 kilometers (44 miles) from Arzamas, there was a closed town called Arzamas-16 (modern-day Sarov). People in the city knew about this place, and they knew it was where the military developed and built nuclear weapons. When a black mushroom cloud spread across the city, many people assumed there had been a nuclear blast. Some saw street-cleaning cars and feared the worst: In Pripyat, after the Chernobyl disaster, they washed the city’s roads and sidewalks for several hours. Vyacheslav Lomakin, an Arzamas local, said he thought the Americans had attacked Soviet nuclear weapons silos. A pensioner told the newspaper Pravda: “The first thing that came to my mind was ‘Has it really started?’”

When one doctor saw the mushroom cloud and feared a nuclear strike, he asked the nurses to cover the windows with wet sheets (which he’d been taught would mitigate radiation infiltration). Soon the hospital’s doors flew open and the wounded started pouring in — dozens at first, and then hundreds. Officials sent six brigades of paramedics — the city’s entire emergency medical staff — to the blast site. The hospitals ran out of room, and injured people were brought to a courtyard and laid out on top of quilted jackets. Doctors treated them right there on the ground. The running water failed, and nurses had to clean patients’ wounds with well water brought from neighboring areas.

The wounded are loaded into an ambulance. June 4, 1988.
The wounded are loaded into an ambulance. June 4, 1988.
I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History

When paramedics moved the wounded from one hospital to another, crowds of people looking for their relatives mobbed the ambulances. Some patients were taken to Gorky, others to Moscow, and so on. Within 48 hours of the explosion, surgeons had treated roughly a thousand injuries and performed seven craniotomies.

On the morning of June 4, Tatyana Kuklina waited with her mother at a bus stop, planning to visit their dacha outside the city. The Arzamas bus — notoriously uncomfortable and known colloquially as the “cattle wagon” — was running late. When it finally showed up, the Kuklins and several other people asked the driver to let them out at the railway crossing. (The bus line didn’t go all the way to their dacha, and they would have to cross the train tracks and walk.)

Kuklina later woke up on the ground. She was lying in darkness, and something black was sprinkling down on her, when she lost consciousness again. Awaking a second time, she tried to understand how long it had been, but her wristwatch had stopped working. The woman ran to look for her mother, whom she found crushed between two fallen poplars planted alongside the railway. Firefighters helped pull away the trees, but Kuklina’s mother died at the hospital. Her body was put with the other corpses, stacked on top of each other in a hallway.

The bus in which Tatyana Kuklina was traveling on June 4, 1988.
The bus in which Tatyana Kuklina was traveling on June 4, 1988.
I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History

Andrey Zakharov, one of the local Communist Party members, says he still remembers the “sickly sweet smell of burning human flesh.” He ran to the blast site, still in shorts and sandals, and helped clear the debris. Together with police officers and soldiers, they surveyed the crater, collecting body parts in black plastic bags. Not everyone had gloves. Every bus in the city was commandeered to move the dead and wounded.

In the evening, officials tried to calm the public, broadcasting the following statement over the radio: “Comrades! Earlier today, a powerful detonation of explosive cargo occurred in three cars of a freight train from Gorky approaching the Arzamas-1 station. There are casualties, residences were destroyed, and communications were disrupted. The security services have tested the air, finding no harmful substances in the atmosphere. There is no reason to fear another explosion.” Locals soon started gathering downtown for a protest. Several city officials went out to talk them down, insisting that World War III hadn’t started, and assuring people that there was no radioactive contamination.

chapter 2

There’s nothing left

A crater the size of a nine-story building

Yuri Grigorev, the head of the Arzamas KGB, arrived at the blast site about 30 minutes after the explosion. The city’s leaders demanded that he tell them immediately if the train was carrying radioactive cargo. “When I got there, what I saw was terrifying. Mangled train cars were scattered across an enormous crater. But I needed the engine driver,” Grigorev remembered 20 years later. “As you know, the engine driver carries a special suitcase that contains the train’s manifest. It turned out that the engine driver survived, but he’d been taken away with a concussion.” Some time later, Grigorev’s subordinates brought him a bundle of documents discovered a few hundred meters from the train. Tearing through the records, he finally exhaled: the train had been carrying several tons of explosives, but nothing radioactive.

I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History
I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History
I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History

The three train cars that blew up had been loaded with 120 tons of explosives: 30 tons of cyclonite, 30 tons of engineering charges, 13,000 oil extraction charges, 25 tons of ammonal, and five tons of ammonite. The blast’s epicenter formed a crater 26 meters deep with a diameter of 53 meters (85 by 174 feet) — the size of a nine-story building. A man who served on the commission formed to investigate the explosion would later say, “It wasn’t an atomic blast, but you could compare its destructive power to a nuclear bomb.”

The explosion destroyed everything within a radius of 350 meters (382 yards) — including 84 apartment buildings. All structures within a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) radius sustained serious damage, and there were noticeable traces of the blast as far as two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the epicenter. The shockwave reached roughly 1,000 homes, two hospitals, and several kindergartens and stores. The train station and 250 meters (273 yards) of railway were destroyed completely. The blast knocked out gas pipelines, water lines, sewage lines, and power lines. A piece of the railway broke off and crashed into an electrical substation, taking it offline. Fifteen hundred families were caught in the disaster, which left more than half of them without housing, and about 4,000 people were forced out of the impact zone in an evacuation. Officially, 91 people perished in the explosion, mostly at the site of the blast, though some victims died at the hospital. At least 744 people sustained injuries.

Partially destroyed buildings not far from the railway crossing.
Partially destroyed buildings not far from the railway crossing.
I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History

Just a stain

In 1988, Vyacheslav Khrabalov was working as the head of the Arzamas State Motor Vehicle Inspectorate. On the morning of June 4, he and some colleagues closed off a road about one kilometer (about a half a mile) from the railway crossing, to clear the way for a work crew to replace some underground communication cables. As he watched the excavators dig a foundation pit, he heard a distant rumble and felt as if something had suddenly squeezed him. A moment later, Khrabalov looked up and saw a cloud of broken glass flying at him. He hit the floor, probably saving his life.

When he got up and looked toward the blast site, Khrabalov saw the same “mushroom cloud” that others witnessed. “It was like in school when they showed us videos of nuclear explosions,” he recalls. He and several subordinates jumped in a police van and made their way downtown, radioing out orders to “put the area under lockdown.” Khrabalov thought the city’s oil depot had exploded, but that turned out to be fine. The officers made their way to the center of Arzamas and eventually came upon the twisted remains of the bus that had carried Tatyana Kuklina. Bodies were scattered in the gray dust: some people were still alive, and others weren’t moving. The bus wasn’t alone at the intersection when the train blew up: there were another 12 cars, including an ambulance and a cement truck. The explosion erased almost every trace of these vehicles. Of everyone in the ambulance, Khrabalov says, rescue workers were only able to find one paramedic’s finger. His wedding ring was still attached.

Vyacheslav Krabalov, head of the Arzamas State Motor Vehicle Inspectorate in 1998. Photo taken in June 2018.
Vyacheslav Krabalov, head of the Arzamas State Motor Vehicle Inspectorate in 1998. Photo taken in June 2018.
Maxim Sher for Meduza

Expecting backup, Khrabalov started pulling people out of the wreckage himself. He guesses that he sent upwards of 30 people to the hospital in his police van, driving them in stages. At one point, he got behind the wheel himself. After repeated trips over the broken glass now scattered across the roads, the car’s tires where almost shredded.

Seated next to Khrabalov, a mother was holding her preschooler. “The girl’s face had been cut in half,” he remembers. “Every time we went over knocked-down tree branches, the two halves of her tiny face would clap and blood would gush out. I don’t know if the girl survived.”

Khrabalov knew a man who was at the railway crossing when the explosion happened. A shard of glass cut his neck, and he died later at the hospital. “I served two tours in the North Caucasus. I know what war is,” Khrabalov says. “But when I was there I never knew what it was like to be covered in someone else’s blood. It flowed down toward my waist and dried up. It flowed and dried up. The feeling drove me mad.”

When he finally got home, Khrabalov discovered that the blast had also shattered several of the windows in his apartment, damaging the television set and some of the furniture. His six-month-old son only escaped by happenstance: the boy refused to eat breakfast and had been moved to another room, where the windows didn’t break. For the next few weeks, Khrabalov was busy clearing debris around the city and barely came home. In one of the damaged buildings, he saw something that still haunts him: “A man had been burned into the wall. All that was left was a stain. A silhouette.”

The search for missing persons was prolonged, and rumors spread rapidly about hundreds of fatalities. With some victims, they only ever recovered body parts, and that’s how they were buried: in dresses and suits left half empty. On the radio, they broadcast statements from doctors and local officials denying the spreading gossip, such as one claim that every wounded person transferred to Grozny had died.

The blast site in Arzamas, 30 years later.
The blast site in Arzamas, 30 years later.
Maxim Sher for Meduza
An abandoned gardeners’ partnership, destroyed by the explosion.
An abandoned gardeners’ partnership, destroyed by the explosion.
Maxim Sher for Meduza

Just something you have to live with

On June 6, Arzamas started burying its dead. Saying goodbye to her mother, Tatyana Kuklina boarded a helicopter for Grozny, where she spent almost the entire summer. Doctors pulled a half-inch-long chunk of iron from her leg (she held onto it for years, but lost it recently when she remodeled her home). To this day, she still has some shrapnel in her body, for example, under her cheek, in her neck. “They decided not to take it out, to avoid further damage and scarring,” Kuklina says. “It’s as if I survived a day of war, but nobody acknowledged it.” She was never granted any disability benefits and the state refuses to award her a special pension.

Natalia Galanina was 14 years old when the explosion happened. She was standing at a window when the blast struck, tearing off one of her hands. Debris disfigured her and nearly rendered her blind. The shock wave demolished her home, trapping her under the rubble. Galanina’s parents dragged her out from under the wreckage.

“I used to feel crazy with despair. I’d cry, but then it dawned on me: What’s the use in whining? What right did I have? How many people spent their time and energy to get me back on my feet?” Galanina said in an interview with the newspaper Arzamasskie Novosti. “I sensed beforehand that something unusual would happen to me. One day, I suddenly wanted to experience pain — I wanted to feel an intense pain. What am I supposed to make of that? Just before the explosion, I was sitting in front of the TV, they were showing something about disabled people, and I turned to my mom and said, ‘What’s the best thing to lose? Your legs? No, then you wouldn’t be able to get around or run. Your eyes? That’s unthinkable. The best would be your left [arm].’ I predicted it myself.”

Dozens of people suffered grave injuries to their faces in the explosion. One victim told Meduza that she didn’t leave her home “for a very long time” after she was discharged from the hospital. “The director of the factory had a granddaughter whose face is now completely disfigured,” says Vyacheslav Khrabalov. “It’s just something you have to live with.” The authorities planned to build a treatment and recovery center for these people, but in the end the state only managed to provide new housing.

Damage caused by the explosion
I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History

Convinced that the little girl in the wreckage — the one in white stockings — was Svetlana, her niece, Valentina Mitrofanova decided to call her father. It later turned out that Svetlana had left town to visit her relatives, and the girl in the rubble was a different niece, Tatyana. When Mitrofanova got through to the family on the telephone, Svetlana answered. She didn’t understand why her aunt was asking if she was alive. “There’s no one left, and the house is gone, too,” Mitrofanova told her.

Soon rescue workers found the body of Mitrofanova’s sister, and days later they found the corpse of her sister’s husband. At their funerals, relatives put photographs in their coffins. Valentina didn’t dare look at their mangled remains.

Svetlana wasn’t the family’s only survivor: Mitrofanova’s nephew, her sister’s 12-year-old son, Volodya, had been sent away on the morning of the blast to visit his grandmother. Afterwards, he moved in with his aunt and befriended her son. That fall, the state gave them a three-bedroom apartment in the new neighborhood built for the victims of the explosion. After grade school, Volodya enrolled at the Nizhny Novgorod River College. For years, Mitrofanova tried to avoid the city’s train station. When she had to pass by, she always looked the other way.

Do you want to scare the whole country?

Unlike many other tragic events during the Soviet era (such as the Novocherkassk massacre and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster), the state media reported the explosion in Arzamas the day it happened. In TV broadcasts and newspaper articles, the Soviet media briefly described the official cleanup effort, without saying anything about the number of casualties or the reasons for the incident.

The next day, the front page of Pravda featured stories about Pushkin’s birthday, the latest theses from the Communist Party’s Central Committee, and demonstrations in the U.S. against the Israeli occupation of Arab territories. The same issue also had an article about the “biggest coal mining catastrophe in the history of West Germany,” where more than 50 miners were trapped underground. On that issue’s very last page, the newspaper printed a story about the explosion in Arzamas, quoting a rescue worker who said “people barely showed any panic before they got down to business.” The same official also emphasized that the train “wasn’t carrying any chemicals.” Pravda said the force of the blast would make it hard to determine the number of people killed.

A local journalist named Alexander Tsyrulnikov filmed a news segment from Arzamas for the program “Vremya,” but the network cut most of what he sent them. When he called the editors to find out what had happened, they told him, “Your footage was a horror show. Do you want to scare the whole country?”

Soviet television’s evening news report on the Arzamas explosion, June 4, 1988, from Pervyi Kanal’s archives
Meduza Project

Immediately following the explosion, the USSR’s Council of Ministers created a state commission to investigate, handing the matter over to Gennady Vedernikov, the council’s deputy chairman, who’d become the Soviet state’s go-to man in the aftermath of major catastrophes (including Chernobyl and Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, where a train crash killed 106 people in 1987). By the evening of July 4, Vedernikov and a team of intelligence officers and ministerial officials were on the ground in Arzamas.

Vedernikov’s first priority was restoring the city’s access to the railways, and within a few days the first train returned to the city, rolling in on tracks laid over the filled-in crater. Coming from Vorkuta and headed for a resort outside Sochi, one of the passengers recalls how everyone on the train gawked at the window, when they rode through Arzamas. The Vedernikov Commission also ordered the evacuation of some parts of the city, stationed guards at damaged stores (locals say there were some instances of looting), and helped organize funerals for victims. Officials were told in a written protocol: “If relatives wish to perform religious ceremonies at the funerals, do not object or intervene.”

On the evening of June 5, the commission met with locals in one of the city’s streets. Vedernikov expressed his condolences to the victims and asked people to remain calm. “They’re moving people who lost their homes into the dorms, but what are we supposed to do with our belongings? Who’s going to watch them?” a man in the crowd asked. “We advise you to store your belongings at your place of work,” a state official answered. Others said they feared the city’s oil depot might explode and wanted to know if the government would move it somewhere else. The commission's members promised to consider it.

In the following days, the city’s cafeterias started hosting funeral receptions. The newspaper Arzamasskaya Pravda began publishing letters sent in by people from across the country, offering to take in victims of the explosion — either children or entire families. Many of the people writing these letters were refugees from the evacuation of Pripyat or former “liquidators” mobilized in response to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

chapter 3

The calendar

A few weeks later, the prosecutor’s office in Novosibirsk received a special delivery without a return address. Inside, there was a 1988 wall calendar featuring photos of the actor Oleg Yankovsky.

This calendar was one of millions, and you could find them posted inside buses across the country. On the calendar, the date “June 4” seemed to be circled, and Yankovsky’s wrist watch, it turns out, showed the exact time of the explosion in Arzamas. This parcel sparked rumors that the blast had been orchestrated.

I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History

Investigators even tracked down Yankovsky’s photographer, learning that the picture was part of a screen test for the 1984 film “Success.” Apparently, “some little blip or eyelash” landed on the negative, just where June 4 appears on the calendar. Investigators also started receiving anonymous letters from people claiming responsibility for the explosion.

Roughly 100 investigators worked the case, questioning nearly 700 witnesses and victims. Leonid Vinogradsky, the head of the KGB in the Gorky region, recalls that the initial leading theory was that someone had sabotaged the train to “harm the state.”

The agency thought the explosion might have been a terrorist attack organized by a “probable enemy” or by a group of domestic extremists, like the 1977 Moscow subway bombing, which the KGB pinned on members of an Armenian nationalist organization.

The secret train

Several men who used to work in law enforcement agencies in Arzamas told Meduza that on June 4 there was a second train — a secret train — at the station. This other train had come from Arzamas-16 and it was guarded by a team of special forces. The men believe it was carrying nuclear weapons, and they say they’re sure that the explosion was supposed to happen as the two trains passed each other, but engine operator Yuri Mikanovich got there late.

“What were they bringing from Arzamas-16? We all know that’s where the All-Russian Nuclear Center is. It’s not like they were making porridge or canning meat over there,” says Anatoly Migunov, who served as mayor of Arzamas from 2000 until 2012. “They were transporting missiles or nuclear warheads,” agrees Yuri Galkin, the deputy chairman of the city council when Migunov was mayor. “It was sabotage. If everything that was there at that moment had exploded — the oil and the secret train — it would have been a second Chernobyl,” sources at the Arzamas instrument-making factory told journalists.

Witnesses say some of the special forces agents guarding the secret train were killed in the explosion, but their names don’t appear on the official list of the dead.

Immediately after the blast, a flock of army helicopters descended on the city. “The generals got out and saw that the military train wasn’t blown up and everything was intact. And then they flew away,” recalled Yuri Kudryashov, who served as the head of the city’s police department. Almost instantly, he said, they sent the secret train back the way it came.

The KGB carried out dozens of investigative experiments at the Kapustin Yar development site in Astrakhan, trying to understand what could have detonated the explosives. They set train cars on fire, blew them up, filled them with gas, and shot at them from different weapons. The KGB destroyed roughly 150 train cars in what may have been one of the costliest investigative experiments in history. But the results were inconclusive.

“They set them on fire, they crashed them together, they shot at them, and they recreated the same path. And they saw nothing like [what happened in Arzamas]. So why did the train explode back then? Maybe the cargo wasn’t what they say it was?” wonders a man who worked on the city’s police force at the time of the explosion. “The investigative materials aren’t published and they’re still classified. We’ll never get answers.”

Archived footage of the KGB’s investigative experiments, 1989, from Pervyi Kanal
Meduza Project

In addition to sabotage, officials also considered other explanations, such as a gas explosion, and investigators even tried to pin the blast on a construction crew doing pipework under the rails. Or maybe a train guard, angry with the government because his son was convicted of robbery, had fired his pistol at the explosives? Or the supplier could have made a mistake and sent explosives with a higher detonation coefficient? After all, several train cars were recalled to the Sverdlov factory in Dzerzhinsk that same month, after crews found explosive cargo leaking from torn packaging onto the floor.

In the end, the KGB’s analytical report classified the disaster as an accident caused by violations of the rules on transporting explosives. According to investigators, a metal plate struck and ignited explosive powder scattered on the floor of the train car. But many people, including several state officials in Nizhny Novgorod, still believe the blast was an act of sabotage. “It was a catastrophe on the same level as Chernobyl. Or when there were the tragedies in Ulyanovsk and Ufa,” says Nizhny Novgorod Mayor Ivan Sklyarov. “This was during the destruction of a great empire, and I think it was one in a chain of organized catastrophes.”

Gennady Khodyrev, who served as the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region from 2001 to 2005, agrees with Sklyarov. On his official website, Khodyrev published the following statement: “Somebody profited from leading the public to believe that the authorities in those years were incompetent and unable to manage the state or protect people. The SS Admiral Nakhimov sank, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant blew up, and there was the explosion in Arzamas. A year later, exactly to the day, there was another explosion in Sverdlovsk. Nowhere did they find those responsible.”

“Black marketeers” and “extras”

The explosion in Arzamas is one of the most-discussed topics among Russian-speaking conspiracy theorists.

Many of these people communicate online at an Internet forum called “The 9/11 Truth Movement: A Forum About Global Setups,” where conspiracists explain how it was actually government intelligence agencies that perpetrated the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers. And 9/11, the website would have you believe, is hardly the only staged terrorist attack in recent history: People writing on the forum say the April 2017 subway bombing in St. Petersburg, for example, was really carried out by Russian intelligence agencies, and most of the victims were actually actors. There’s a whole thread on the site where conspiracy theorists share photographs of these “actors,” who were supposedly hired to play victims and federal agents. They call these people “black marketeers,” and identify them by their “uniforms” (Adidas clothing). Many of the forum’s regulars think the bodies recovered from the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site were also “fake,” and they’ve pored over video footage from the December 2013 train station bombing in Volgograd and found “stage props,” “extras,” and “corpses lying where they shouldn’t be.” The website even attracts discussions about the supposed murder of Boris Yeltsin by a secret government, and the replacement of both Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin with body doubles.

The conspiracists also study video recordings and photographs from disaster sites, trying to discern any symbols the perpetrators may have left behind for their fellow co-conspirators. In Arzamas, for example, people have noted that the explosion occurred at the 232nd kilometer of the railway line at 9:32 in the morning: “232 kilometers — 322, skull and bones. The insignia of the powerful secret society, Skull and Bones, whose members have included Secretary of State John Kerry, former President George Bush and his son, and is often inserted into video clips, Hollywood films, and is typically symbolized by its secret number, 322, where the order of numbers is often scrambled.”

Investigators at the scene of the explosion.
Investigators at the scene of the explosion.
I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History

The first responders who were on the ground in Arzamas on June 4, 1988, don’t hang out on Internet forums, but many do share the conspiracists’ suspicion that the explosion wasn’t an accident. From time to time, they meet up at the Arzamas library, where a museum commemorating the disaster opened up a few years ago. Over tea and cherry pie, they discuss again and again what happened.

“[The stuff about] Yankovsky is mysticism,” says Vyacheslav Khrabalov. “But what if you really think about it? The FSB won’t come after us now, if we start talking. It was only thanks to human error that the train ran late and didn’t make it all the way to the Arzamas-1 station. If it had arrived on time, then it would have rolled in alongside another train — a train guarded by marines that was carrying an unusual cargo from a city we know is home to nuclear scientists. Nobody knows anything about the guards who died [in the blast]. Yes, this wasn’t the only mass-produced calendar, but it was posted everywhere, on buses. Why was the date circled? And what about the time on the watch?”

“But how twisted would you have to be, not only to plan a sabotage at the highest levels of the state, but also to make a calendar like that?” asks a former member of the city’s civil defense staff.

“Maybe it was a call to action to those who carried it out. Like the flower in the window from [the 1973 Soviet TV miniseries] ‘Seventeen Moments of Spring,’” Khrabalov says.

“I think constantly about the fact that it started leapfrogging from our town, afterwards,” says an old firefighter. “There was the explosion in Sverdlovsk, and then the two trains outside Ufa.”

Exactly a year after the Arzamas explosion, on June 4, 1989, two trains collided outside Ufa. The crash completely destroyed seven train cars, and the rest caught fire. The temperature at the epicenter of the ensuing blaze reached 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit). The collision sent out a shockwave that broke windows and knocked down trees as far as 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) away. Roughly 600 people were killed, and some bodies were so disfigured that they had to be identified by their wristwatches and personal effects. Investigators ultimately determined that the catastrophe was caused by a leak in a main gas line, apparently ignited by a spark when the two trains were passing each other, or by a cigarette butt someone tossed out a window. Two construction crews accused each other of damaging the gas lines during repair work, and both sides were sentenced to probation, in the end.

“If the blast in Arzamas had happened closer to the oil depot or the train from the nuclear site, then we wouldn’t be talking about Arzamas, but about the whole Nizhny Novgorod region,” says Shamil Aidagulov, the former head of the city’s fire department. “I think foreign intelligence — our enemies — were at work here, and this is how they wanted to destroy our country.”

“It’s all a system of shocks,” says former Arzamassakaya Pravda chief editor Igor Gordeyevtsev.

“Few people know that there was also a conference scheduled on this day in the city for about 200 scientists and engineers from the country’s biggest aviation enterprises. A coincidence?” adds a former first responder.

Mikhail Balakin, an old party official, is sure the explosion was planned: “Decapitate all the aircraft manufacturing plants? Kill everyone who was developing aviation weapons?”

Igor Gordeyevtsev, chief editor of the newspaper Arzamassakaya Pravda at the time of the explosion. June 2018.
Igor Gordeyevtsev, chief editor of the newspaper Arzamassakaya Pravda at the time of the explosion. June 2018.
Maxim Sher for Meduza
Shamil Aidagulov, head of the Arzamas fire department at the time of the explosion. June 2018.
Shamil Aidagulov, head of the Arzamas fire department at the time of the explosion. June 2018.
Maxim Sher for Meduza

Many of the victims in Arzamas are also convinced that the authorities haven’t told them the whole story about the explosion in 1988. For example, survivors point out that the city opened a new cemetery just a few weeks before June 4. Many of the people killed when the train blew up were later buried here. “And as early as May, before the blast, they were giving the kids civil defense lessons in all the schools!” says Tatyana Kuklina.

There are also rumors that the real death toll was much higher than 91 people. One of the firefighters who responded to the disaster says, “The lists of victims they published of course doesn't correspond to reality, and in fact there were a lot more.” A soldier deployed to the city in 1988 says he saw 190 bodies at a local morgue.

Igor Gordeyevtsev says Gennady Vedernikov himself told him about the sabotage. “I was approached by three men — workers from the instrument-making factory,” the former newspaper editor recalls. “They told me how they’d seen a fuse sticking out and hissing from the back of the train. I passed this information onto Vedernikov, and he stuffed the note into his pocket. I later asked him if their report had checked out. He said, ‘The investigation is underway. Let’s wait and see.’” Gordeyevtsev says a soldier soon contacted him and claimed that he’d seen the same fuse, while outside in his garden. So Gordeyevtsev went back to Vedernikov and told him about this, as well, and the information was handed over to investigators. Later, whenever Gordeyevtsev asked about the case, he was always told to wait a bit longer.

KGB investigator Valery Kolpakov spoke to the soldier, who also told him about seeing a trail of smoke and a flame coming from one of the train cars. Another five witnesses told investigators about a trail of smoke that looked like a burning fuse.

Like all conspiracy theorists, these men believe that any other explanations for the Arzamas explosion are an attempt to cover up the truth. In the 1990s, Gordeyevtsev sent a request to the Attorney General’s Office, demanding that officials reveal what actually happened in 1988. He received an official response, saying that the train’s explosive cargo detonated when it came into contact with sparks sent by the wheels into the train car. The journalist thinks another part of the conspiracy is that he was never allowed to see the secret Sverdlov factory in Dzerzhinsk, where the train loaded the explosives.

The 11th microdistrict

The city’s new microdistrict for blast victims was built in a spot where locals loved to gather mushrooms — especially slippery jack.

Arzamas chief architect Anatoly Petryashin says he had about 90 minutes to design the neighborhood. At one of the first briefings after the explosion, he was ordered to draw up a blueprint. They gave him a day to get it done. Together with a colleague, they drafted a plan and presented it at the next meeting. While the new homes were under construction, people who lost their homes were resettled anywhere there was room: schools, colleges, hotels, dorms, summer camps, and even passenger train cars that had been taken out of service. Some left for other cities, responding to offers from people who were willing to take in victims.

Arzamas chief architect Anatoly Petryashin. June 2018.
Arzamas chief architect Anatoly Petryashin. June 2018.
Maxim Sher for Meduza
Arzamas 11th microdistrict, designed by Anatoly Petryashin. June 2018.
Arzamas 11th microdistrict, designed by Anatoly Petryashin. June 2018.
Maxim Sher for Meduza

Thirty years later, many of the explosion’s survivors still live in the microdistrict designed by Petryashin. No longer new, these homes are situated a little way from the old part of the city, near a beaten path that overlooks a ravine. Most of the buildings here are red-gray paneled apartment complexes, five or nine stories high. The area where the blast completely destroyed people’s homes (and killed dozens of inhabitants, including Valentina Mitrofanova’s sister) is now a relatively affluent neighborhood lined with townhouses. Trains pass by, all day long.

Most of the survivors who spoke to Meduza say they don’t believe the explosion was an accident, and they don’t trust the official death toll. They believe something else. They say an old man in white clothes sometimes appears on the train tracks at the site of the explosion. Locals are certain that this is the city’s patron saint, Seraphim of Sarov.

Story by Daniil Turovsky in Arzamas, translation by Kevin Rothrock

Sources: O. Kolobov, N. Rybakov, “Vzryv” (Explosion), 1998; dissertation by Anna Sagatelyan, “Central and Local Authorities’ Emergency Response to the Man-Made Disaster at Arzamas-1 Station on June 4, 1988,” 2007; the films “Disaster in a Secret City” and “Exploded City.” Photographers from the I. P. Sklyarov Microdistrict Museum of History: Gennady Anikin, Mikhail Demyanko, and Dmitry Nacharkin.