As a parent, losing your child creates the greatest panic imaginable. You’re helpless, only capable of hoping that, at some point, authorities miraculously find and return them. Throw in some political turmoil as well, and the situation becomes a bonafide disaster.
So imagine the panic when four-year old Ivan Mishukov left his parents behind as he ran away from his home outside of Moscow. Fate, however, wouldn’t have him on his own for long. In a move that’s still leaving historians and sociologists scratching their heads, little Ivan joined a new family. Only this time, he chose them.
Ivan Mishukov was born in Reutov, Russia, in 1992. While everything on the outside seemed safe and normal for the Mishukov family, domestic troubles were brewing beneath the surface.
See, Ivan’s father was an alcoholic. During his drinking binges, he left the toddler alone to fend for himself for days at a time. So, even at a young age, Ivan was fighting for his life. His problems didn’t stop there.
He received little help from his mom, as she was young and unprepared to take care of a small child. To make matters worse, the family often struggled financially. Before his fourth birthday, these tensions reached a boiling point.
At four years old, Ivan knew he had to make a change. He was used to fending for himself anyway, so, he figured, things couldn’t get any tougher outside his home. After giving the situation as much scrutiny as a four year old can, he made a tough decision.
Desperate, Ivan ran away from home, planning to take care of himself. The second he left his family behind, however, he realized the world he’d just entered wasn’t going to be a kind one.
After all, the Russian winter was harsh enough to stop armies in their tracks! Ivan was just a child without winter clothing fending for himself in sub-zero temperatures — a recipe for disaster.
Beyond the weather, he had another factor to fight against: hunger. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian society was thrown into disarray. Even when food was available, citizens waited in line for scraps.
Nevertheless, every morning, homeless Ivan made his way to a bakery for breakfast. The employees felt bad for the child and would give him pieces of old bread. But, one day, someone else was looking for a meal.
On that day, a pack of feral dogs showed up at the bakery. While they easily could have turned on him, Ivan did something most hungry adults would never have thought of.
Rather than fighting back, Ivan shared the bread with the dogs, who gratefully accepted his gift. Day after day, the ritual repeated itself. Ivan and the dogs would visit the bakery and share the spoils.
Over time, the dogs, known as Jesse, Goga, Masha and Seva, came to know him, and soon, they grew to consider Ivan part of their family! Bound by shared bread, their relationship only grew stronger.
For instance, beyond sharing food, the dogs protected Ivan and curled up with him on frigid Russian nights. Even at four, Ivan new the importance of this: “I understand that if it wasn’t for those dogs I wouldn’t have survived,” he recalled. Back at home, though, people had not forgotten about Ivan.
Moscow authorities began to plan a way to rescue him; it simply wasn’t acceptable, they said, for a child to be living in the streets with a pack of feral dogs. But getting Ivan into safe hands proved to be harder than they imagined.
On two separate occasions, the police tried to pick Ivan up and take him to safety. But the pack simply wouldn’t let their youngest member be taken away. So the authorities had to come up with a cunning plan.
On their third attempt to break the boy from the group, they resorted to something no dog or human could resist: food. After distracting the pack by leaving some meat in a nearby kitchen, police could finally take Ivan to an orphanage. It was bitter sweet.
Because while of course it was great authorities could get Ivan off the streets, for two years, Ivan and the dogs had been a family. Now they were apart. Thankfully, it wasn’t the end of this odyssey — they’d see each other again.
Workers at the orphanage were shocked to find Ivan in good health. Beyond fleas and lice, the pack had taken perfect care of him! But questions still remained. Could this feral child be reintegrated into society?
During his years on the streets, Ivan’s mother had passed away, meaning he had to stay in the local children’s center. All the while, the dogs remained outside the gates, doing their part to make sure he was well taken care of!
Thankfully, authorities found Ivan a foster mother before long. Once he was living with humans again, his Russian language and social skills started coming back. This forgotten child still had a bright future ahead of him.
Ivan’s reintegration into society was so successful that he returned to school and gained admission to the Kronshtadt Naval Cadet School. As a cadet, he even paraded before Vladimir Putin, himself!
After graduation, he returned home to Reutov, where he worked as a factory operator. Ivan finally had the stable, happy life that he owed it all to the dogs. However, had Ivan wandered just a little bit East, he might not have needed the dogs at all.
See, during its years of operation, the Soviet Union was full of secrets. While outsiders often wondered what was going on behind the Iron Curtain, most citizens were kept in the dark as well. One of these leftover trends could’ve saved Ivan’s life… in a way.
Between the secret police force prowling the cities for dissidents and gulags in the Siberian country side, there was plenty the average Soviet didn’t — or simply wasn’t supposed — to know. The biggest secrets were kept far from prying eyes.
And where can you keep massive government projects hidden? Well, if you’re a Soviet official, you keep your biggest secrets under wraps in what are called “closed cities.”
Closed cities were special areas controlled by the Soviet government. While people lived and worked there, only authorized citizens could enter the city via checkpoint. Most closed cities were kept off official maps, hiding them from the world.
One of those cities was City 40, now known as Ozyorsk. It sits near a lake just south of Yekaterinburg, but the city was far from a rural paradise. In fact, authorities had to convince residents to live there.
Because as you might imagine, living in a secret city wasn’t exactly desirable. So, the Soviet Union had to get creative in convincing residents to deal with a life of security checkpoints and isolation.
Their offer? Residents of City 40 were provided with apartments, healthcare, and other privileges that the rest of the country could only imagine. Grocery stores were always fully stocked. But those perks came at a price.
See, those living in the closed city were subjected to some of the most dangerous work possible, as they would be the driving force in one of the world’s first-ever plutonium processing plants.
At the time, the Cold War was ramping up and the Soviet Union couldn’t fall behind the United States. Losing out in the arms race could be a death sentence for the nation. Politicians knew they had to take action.
So City 40’s citizens powered the war effort, processing plutonium for nuclear weapons. And while that job was far from a picnic, there was still something worse going on behind the scenes.
After the plutonium was processed, the plant was left with nuclear waste, which, as we now know, is a massive safety hazard. Worse, authorities weren’t disposing of that waste properly. They were simply dumping it into the environment.
Exposure to radiation can have all sorts of side effects, ranging from immediate radiation sickness to longer term cancers. How could the Soviet Union get away with poisoning their own citizens?
Well, given that the plant was in a closed city, the authorities could more or less do as they pleased. The outside world didn’t know the city existed deep in the forest, let alone that it was being poisoned.
Over the plant’s lifespan, it’s estimated that the amount of contamination released was two to three times larger than Chernobyl. But the pollution hit one area harder than the others.
City 40 was built alongside the Techa River, which felt the brunt of the dumping. While the river and its surroundings are still radioactive to this day, it also carried a large amount of the pollution elsewhere.
The river runs into Lake Karachy, which once looked like a perfect place to stop for a swim in the Russian countryside. Now, you wouldn’t want to even think about dipping a toe in that radioactive water!
Today, that ordinary-seeming lake is one of the most contaminated spots in the entire world. Known as the Lake of Death, the body of water was reportedly twice as radioactive as the heart of Chernobyl.
In fact, the pollution was so deadly that the Russian government finally took steps to contain it. The lake was filled with concrete blocks and eventually covered with layers of rocks and dirt, turning it into a permanent waste storage facility.
Despite all the hazards, some people still call Ozyorsk home. The passing of time and all sort of health risks simply can’t overpower the pull that keeps them anchored to the former City 40.
Ozyorsk is still technically a closed city, making residents hesitant to leave. Not only would they be leaving everything the government provides for them behind, but they could never return to the area.
It all comes down to a simple reality: even in a contaminated city that was kept off the map for decades, there’s no place like home.