Did you know there was an operational nuclear base in Ukraine up until 1997? And that if you want to, you can visit it and even descend 12 floors underground to the command centre where the ‘red button’ itself was located, ready to launch an incredibly destructive missile? And that if you really want to, you can even press the red button for yourselves? (Spoiler, no actual missile is launched). Today I have a guest post from @italianinkiev about visiting this intriguing museum and what you can expect to see there.
Roughly 250 km south of the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, close to a tiny town named Pobuz’ke, lies the catchily-named “Strategic Missile Forces Museum”. It’s an actual nuclear missile base, the biggest in Ukraine, and has been in use (and secret) until 1997 – which is practically yesterday, right?
The location was chosen based on the following criteria:
– Very low population density, both to help keep the place secret (it was a no-entry zone), and to ‘safeguard’ densely populated cities in case of reprisal
– Decent roads and railroads to carry materials and missiles to the location (the best road in Ukraine is the Kyiv-Odesa highway)
– Geologically stable ground (not seismic, not overly moist ground)
Here’s a brief recap of the history of the period for context:
During WWII, there were three “blocs” – the Totalitarians (Nazi Germany, Imperialist Japan, Fascist Italy, plus allies like Hungary and Romania), the Eastern bloc (USSR and satellites, China and few minor allies), and the Western bloc (UK and ‘commonwealth’ coutries, France, later the US, and other minor contributors like Brasil).
The Eastern and Western blocs had to join forces to stop the Totalitarian bloc.
At the end of WWII, the Eastern and Western blocs – with diametrically opposite models about society, economy and welfare – were left without a common enemy!
The two remaining blocs were heavily ideological, and weaponized to the extreme – just like the bloc they defeated – and created two military alliances: NATO vs. Warsaw Pact – the major stakeholders of which, the USSR and the USA, competed for influence in Latin America, Middle East and former colonies of Africa and Asia.
While the conflict never put the two blocs directly one in front of the other, each side kept producing weapons, to “be ready” in case of a war. Mid and long-range nuclear missiles were the option of choice.
Historians say that the Cold War lasted until the dissolution of the USSR. Boxing Day 1991. From that moment across the world many nations started dismantling their nuclear arsenals – because even keeping those weapons functioning, ready, and secure was (and is) incredibly expensive.
This explains why a relatively poor country like Ukraine decided to quickly resign from its membership at the Club of Nuclear Nations, and in 1994 sent most of their nuclear missiles to Russia to ‘recycle’ what could be reused for peaceful goals. For example many of the biggest long-range missiles have been adapted and now function as Space Vectors to put satellites in orbit and to carry personnel and material up and down from the ISS!
What can you find here?
The base is a masterpiece of military architecture. Everything is designed to resist to multiple nuclear explosions on the surface – the retaliation from the ‘enemy’ – and guarantee the survival of the operators in charge of firing the missiles for up to 45 days in total isolation.
What would have happened after those 45 days, God only knows – this was out of the scope of the design.
The ‘holes’ in the ground go down up to 15 floors – for rockets – and to 12 floors for Command Centres. Both rockets and Command Centre units are ‘on springs’, with enough space to allow for (Armageddon-like) vibrations. Also all the various blocks of the nuclear base are connected with underground tunnels, with radiation-resistant doors.
I don’t want to spoil you the pleasure of the visit, or steal the job from the guides* who work in the site. I’ll just add here that you’ll be taken into the Control Centre, and that it looks like a spaceship from a 70s SciFi movie.
A lot of military material is left outside, and you would imagine, to rust. And here you can see how ‘military-grade’ equipment differs from ‘civil-grade’ stuff. Some of the pumps and missile engines, built in the 50s and left outside since 2001, are still shining and rust-free. A different story for trains, planes and trucks, where the sign of time and weather is leaving its mark.
On the majority of the aircraft and tanks in this site, the USSR markings have been erased, and covered with Ukrainian colours and symbols. My initial reaction was disappointment: in my opinion this was the equivalent of covering the Colosseum with advertising from Aperol and Lavazza! You may not like what Julius Caesar did (especially the French), but this does not mean that you are allowed to ‘amend’ historical evidence to suit the audience’s taste. Those MIGs, those tanks, all *had* soviet insignia. But then I noticed that in the museum you can still see СССР red flags and soviet propaganda prints. So my idea is that tanks have been ‘repainted’ after the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine, to serve for the following 6 years, until the base went officially ‘off duty’.
In conclusion, there is a lot of incredible stuff to see in this Base/Museum, and thinking that it was in a restricted area, secret, protected by armed soldiers 24 hours a day, with the potential to destroy the world 500 times – and now you can walk in it and take pictures, makes me have goosebumps.
*We visited the base with an English speaking guide, who charges 350 uah per hour for a tour, which lasts approximately 2 hours. You can find her on Facebook if you’re interested in visiting. Entrance to the base itself is 120 uah per person, with an extra 250 uah per person if you want to go down into the command centre.
If you’re interested in reading more about the base, my friends Kate and Kris from What Kate and Kris did also wrote a very detailed post about their visit which you can read here.
Would you be interested to visit this nuclear base? Let me know in the comments! Please also let me know if you can recommend some other interesting and unusual spots in Ukraine. For more recommendations from me, see the Ukraine section.