Residential area of Baikonur

The main residential area of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, home to generations of Russian servicemen and their family members, lays on the right bank of the Syr Darya River in Kazakhstan, near the Tyuratam station on the Moscow-Tashkent railroad. Originally dubbed simply as "Desyataya Ploshadka" (Site 10), this closed military town was called Zarya, Leninskiy, Leninsk and Zvezdograd over the four decades after its founding in 1955. In the mid-1990s, President Yeltsin's decree named the town "Baikonur," as it had previously been identified in the Soviet press.


The monument informally known as "fisherman" greets visitors to Baikonur on their way from the Krainiy airport. According to a local joke, the cosmonaut on the mural brags about the size of the fish he caught in the nearby Syr Darya River. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

On May 5, 1955, Soviet military workers started building a town adjacent to the Kazakh village of Tyuratam, however the new settlement was closed to the local population. As a hub of the top-secret NIIP-5 missile test range, the new settlement was designated Site 10. The first two temporary wooden buildings, completed by October 1955, served as military headquarters and barracks. One of them became known among the Soviet officers as "Kazanskiy Vokzal" -- a sarcastic reference to the Kazan train station in Moscow, famous for its crowded and messy atmosphere.

On June 25, 1955, an industrial zone, originally including a cement-producing factory, was founded at Site 9, directly adjacent to the future residential area at Site 10. Another plant, producing rocket propellant, was founded north of Tyuratam at Site 3. On November 7, 1955, the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, the first trees were planted along a future alley at Site 10, later known as Soldier's Park.

During the early years of the cosmodrome, many pioneers of the test range, including soldiers and junior officers lived in tents and dugouts. Luckier were officers with families, who would be usually accommodated in Kazakh villages along the Moscow-Tashkent railroad.

Despite horrible living conditions, the active construction at Site 10 did not take off until 1956. (51) Bricks for the foundations of the first permanent buildings had to be brought in from sites hundreds of kilometers away, however, locally quarried construction materials were used to build top floors. The early facilities at Site 10 included a canteen, military barracks, stores, a four-story school, a beach on the Syr Darya, a park and a wooden cinema. Until beginning of 1957, when the original water supply line was built, movable tanks were used to deliver water from the Syr Darya to the city.

In May 1957, workers completed the yearlong construction of an air-strip near Tyuratam, which could receive transport and passenger planes. Before that, engineers and officers primarily traveled to the test range by rail and they often had to get off in the nearby town of Dzhusaly, because passenger trains did not stop in Tyuratam. Later, trains started making one or two-minute stops at the local station.

1960-1990: Growth

The residential area at Site 10 sprawled during the 1960s, as the Soviet lunar program was taking off. By the 1970s, the closed city at Site 10 boasted its own TV-transmission center, several stores and cinemas, a stadium, a branch of the Moscow Aviation Institute, health-care infrastructure, a soft-drink factory and two concrete-producing plants.

According to the official data, the town had 356 appartment blocks, nine schools, 31 kindergardens, 18 hotels, capable of accomodating 4,000 people. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the population of the city was reportedly approaching 100,000 people.

Even bigger development in the town was planned, but never implemented. According to one Baikonur veteran, in 1967, Evgeni Moiseev, the chief of a test directorate responsible for the lunar program, described to his subordinates an impressive development plan for Site 10, aimed to support the lunar landing effort. The plan envisioned 10 new residential districts, a bridge spanning the Syr Darya and a residential area across the river, which would be open to outsiders and would feature non-secret industry. Modern roads, a park with an artificial lake and a restaurant would adorn the city. (111)

According to another source, the construction of a nuclear power station in the area was also under consideration to address ever present problem of energy shortage. The idea was reportedly dropped over the objections of the local administration, leaving the town vulnerable to frequent failures in the local power grid. (90)

To accommodate the center's swelling population, the authorities erected numerous 5-7-story-high apartment blocks, the construction of which was widely practiced across the Soviet Union. In the harsh climate of Kazakh steppes, these concrete structures turned out to be traps for heat and sand storms. "During windy periods, especially in March and November ... sand was everywhere in the air, on the roofs, in hallways and apartments, on your teeth, in your hair, nose and ears," wrote a veteran of the town... "On the balconies real sand dunes would form, like somebody was shoveling sand in there." (111) During the hottest months of summer, everyone tried to escape on vacation or at least to send away family members. When air conditioners became widespread in Baikonur during the 1970s, the local power-supply system started experiencing overload during long hot summers.

Post-1991: Crisis

In the wake of the Soviet Union collapse in 1991, the town's infrastructure began to crumble. Failures of the water-supply system often left the residents without even the rust-colored water they had used to in the previous years. Entire districts in the town were abandoned and fell to the bands of thugs and vandals. Many facilities, including prominent Officers' Club, facing the city's central square, burned.

During two visits to Baikonur in 1993, the author of this essay got a taste of Baikonur's inhospitable climate as well as of the town's disastrous economic state. In midsummer, temperatures in the non-airconditioned rooms of the notorious Tsentralnaya (Central) hotel would exceed 30 C degrees, even after dusk. In a struggle to get some sleep, inventive reporters would put pillows in refrigerators and soak sheets and blankets in water dripping from the tap.

Many daily routines, such as taking a shower and brushing one's teeth would turn into complex procedures, since swallowing the tap water had to be avoided due to the risk of hepatitis and other diseases.

However, life for the full-time inhabitants of the town was way more tragic. In the winter of 1993, a large group of Russian officials and reporters, which had arrived for the launch of a new mission to Mir, instead witnessed a protest by local residents on the town's central square.

The visitors to a local post office during this period would find it packed with residents, waiting in line for a few pay phones to make long-distance calls to their friends and relatives on the "continent." One could overhear the frantic pleas of officers' wives, trying to arrange their escape from the dreaded place, peppered with colorful descriptions of the hardships and hopelessness of their lives.

1995: Rebirth

In 1995, in accordance with an agreement between the Russian and Kazakh governments, a Russian civilian administration was set up in Baikonur. It took responsibility for the industrial and residential areas of the town and for the remnants of its infrastructure. Genady Dmitrienko was appointed a mayor of the city on January 4, 1995. Since January 1, 1996, the town has officially been under Russian economic regulations. The "Baikonurenergo" energy directorate and the ZhKKh residential and communal directorate have been formed within the town's administration.

In 1996, the Russian federal budget allocated 761 billion rubles to the city of Baikonur, but only 296 billion was actually provided. Due to a lack of funds, all residential construction or upgrades in the energy-supply infrastructure was stopped. At the time, around half of the facilities in the city required repairs.

2000: Wild wild east

The situation in the town started improving slowly in the second half of the 1990s, as money accompanying commercial launch activities, made its way to Baikonur. By the turn of the 21st century, streets of the town looked inhabited again, stores and communal services reanimated, local bazaar flooded with everything from fresh vegetables to cloth to electronics and video cassettes. An open-door restaurant in the bazaar offered delicious shish kebab with Finnish vodka -- in stark contrast to the poison-like soups in the local Soviet-style buffets just few years earlier.

Along with the recovery of the old, Baikonur saw new things, which have been unimaginable recently: a local post office offering Internet access, the local newspaper, a magazine and a local TV channel, covering the life of the city, a prayer house in the ground floor of an apartment building.

A new hotel, called the Sputnik, catering to the foreign visitors of the launch center, offered conveniences also unknown before. Among them were such "firsts" for Baikonur as irrigated and trimmed lawns, a large swimming pool, a western-style gym, perfectly purified water, and, reportedly, ... "full-body massage" offered upon request. The $250-per-night rate for Sputnik's rooms and its gated property ensure that the hotel is essentially reserved for the foreign guests of the cosmodrome. On the eve of major manned launches, in the Sputnik's bar one can see a US astronaut, a French space official, or a British reporter, drinking Stoli and flirting with Russian women.

In the meantime, on the central square of the city a former officer's club has been converted into a discotheque. Open to locals and foreign visitors alike, the place has become a center of Baikonur's nightlife. Local folklore abound with stories about broken hearts and stolen valets in and around this discotheque, however, the majority Baikonur veterans agree that walking around at night in the town has become a lot safer in the past five years.

Overview of the main residential and support infrastructure in Baikonur:

Completion date
Construction directorate
Oxygen and nitrogen-producing plant (KAZ)
Hydrogen processing site
Rocket storage facility
Dugouts and tent camps of the original NIIP-5 construction teams (51)
Krainiy airfield
Main residential area of NIIP-5 test range
VIP cottage, Cosmonaut, Baikonur, Sputnik hotels, FKTs headquarters


Article and photos by Anatoly Zak; last update: February 26, 2024

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For several decades, the Krainiy airport has been a main gateway into Baikonur. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Cars and goats coexist on the outskirts of the closed town of Baikonur, formerly Leninsk. Multistory apartment blocks built around town during the Soviet period proved to be ill-suited for the harsh climate of Kazakh steppes. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

After a turmoil of 1990s, a former officer's club, facing the main square in Baikonur (on the background), was converted into a discotheque -- a popular destination for young residents of the town. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A majority of population in Baikonur is young people, which is evident on these photos taken near the main square of the town. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A popular promenade in the town of Baikonur became known as "Arbat" for its resemblance to a historic street in Moscow. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A decade after the fall of Communism, the portrait of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, still adorned a facade of the main post office in Baikonur. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A monument erected in the Soldier's Park in Baikonur commemorates the victims of the Nedelin's disaster of 1960. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

A popular beach on the shore of Syr Darya River in Baikonur. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A half a century after the Space Age began here, a lot of things are still done old-fashioned way on the shores of the Syr Darya River. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

The so-called 7-apartment cottage located at Site 17 served as a VIP residence in Baikonur during the Soviet period. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the French president Charles De Gaulle were among the guests who stayed here during their visits to the Cosmodrome. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Standing at the edge of the Air Force compound in Baikonur, the famous "Gagarin's gazebo" provided a backdrop for numerous historical photographs at the beginning of the 1960s. Four decades later, it overlooked shallow waters of the Syr Darya River. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

In April of 1961, Yuri Gagarin planted a small tree in Baikonur to commemorate his pioneering orbital flight, starting a tradition for future cosmonauts, which created entire alley at Site 17 by the turn of the 21st century. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Baikonur Hotel at Site 17 tradionally houses high-level space officials and journalists. Located next door to the cosmonauts' residence, it was considered one of the best in Baikonur during the Soviet period. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A star-shaped Sputnik hotel built at Site 17 during 1990s became the first to offer western-style service in Baikonur. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak