The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Russia

Magitogorsk
I’m in fabled Magnitogorsk, Stalin’s Steeltown USSR. The steel plant is truly vast, running for miles along the Asian bank of the Ural River. Some parts are old and decrepit looking, others appear sparkling and ultra-modern. On a snowy day like today, the plant is covered with a pall of smoke and steam, as hot smokestack gases hit the icy air.

This was the mighty steel works that Stalin decreed should exploit the ores of the Magnetic Mountain, safely behind the Urals, far from any invader. In its heyday it was a symbol of Soviet industrialization, a vast new plant built from scratch in the middle of nowhere at enormous human cost. For detailed histories see Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, John Scott’s Behind the Urals, and Kotkin’s Steeltown USSR.

Lonely Planet is mostly silent on Magnitogorsk, so here are a few pointers for your visit:

Urals to the Front in Victory Park (53.407248,58.992398) is a giant WWII monument showing a steelworker handing an enormous sword to a Soviet soldier. The monument is on the European bank of the Ural River and provides a good view over to the Steelworks on the Asian side.

The Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Kombine Museum at Pushkin Prospkt 19 (53.394086,59.061326) (8-12 + 1-5) covers the history of the plant construction, its WWII contributions, and its more modern history. There are some small dioramas and a giant scale model of today’s steelworks. But pride of place is taken by several large models of the latest ultra-modern sections of the plant, with animated equipment and with moving lights or metal foil representing moving steel.

The fine Local Lore Museum at Ul. Soviet Army 51-A (53.392004,58.988903) is dedicated to the city’s history, from the Kazakh and Tsarist periods, through the crash industrialization era, and into the Soviet glory years. This includes a fine selection of Soviet posters exhorting steelworkers to new heroism.

There is also a small City History Museum at Ul. Soviet 145/3 (53.39584,58.963577) but that is mostly a subset of the MMK and Local Lore museums and can be skipped.

Two smaller monuments are the Tent Monument at 53.426009, 58.997673 commemorating the incredibly harsh initial living conditions in tents on the frozen steppes; and a Socialist Realism statue of a Heroic Steelworker at 53.437145, 58.981434, in front of the train station.

There is a hilltop viewpoint at 53.385607, 59.055632 at the south end of Ul. Kirova, which provides good vistas over the factory area.

The symbolic Factory Gates at 53.41524,59.05416 feature a blackened but resolute Lenin fronting a series of bas-reliefs of striving steelworkers.  The statue of Stalin used to stand here.

Practicalities: I stayed at the very pleasant Hotel Laguna at 9 Ul. Naberegnaya, which includes an indoor water park and a good sushi restaurant. I’d recommend Coffee House at 37 Pr. Lenina as a relaxing place to gorge on lattes, cakes and muffins.

Urals to FrontMMK MuseumMagnitogorsk Local Lore Museum

Magnitogorsk Tent Monument Magnitogorsk Steelworker Statue

Magnitogorsk Lenin

(Lattes, muffins, sushi and water slides. What would Stalin think?)

There are frequent buses (5 hrs) to and from Chelyabinsk. The main bus station (outside the train station) is a little confusing. There seem to be three competing bus companies, each with its own ticket office. They overlap on routes, but have separate schedules and separate departure areas. On departure make sure to check with one of the ticket controllers that you are waiting in the right place, and don’t just trust the signs!

I mostly used the tram network to get around. Here’s a route map. Tram 4 runs from Ul Leningradsky on the West side across the Ural and past the MMK Museum.

The city has a reputation as being heavily polluted, but I didn’t notice any particular problems in my short visit. Rather to my surprise, given the rather alarming appearance of the steel plant, the air at ground level seemed fresh and clean.

Moscow: Bunker 42

Bunker 42 is an authentic Soviet era nuclear bunker in Moscow, now open as a museum. It is extremely cool.

The main tunnels provided 7000 sq meters of space, 65 meters under Moscow’s Taganskaya Hill. You enter through a fake building on the surface, which provides four meters of protective concrete around the bunker entrance. The deep tunnels are further shielded with a meter of concrete and four inches of steel. It was built in the 1950s and was an active Soviet nuclear-era installation, functioning as a hardened command and communication center for the Moscow military leadership. A prototype of the bunker design was tested at Semipalatinsk and after various domestic animals inside survived a large nearby nuclear blast, the design was approved for Moscow.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the bunker was kept on high alert with 650 military staff in full lock-down for ten days. Ten days that might have changed the world…

The tour starts by descending the 288 stairs from the entrance to the main bunker core. Then we watched a short introductory film, explaining the nuclear arms race from a Russian/Soviet perspective and describing the motivation for the bunker. It was very interesting to hear that alternative perspective, where the Soviet Union is at risk, but the Cuban Missile Crisis still a potential catastrophe for both sides. It was also interesting to hear our guide’s overtly pro-Soviet perspective, including such phrases as “… until our country was destroyed in 1991 …”.

The bunker occupies four giant tunnels, which are cross-linked and also have service connections into the Moscow Metro system. In most places the tunnels are split into two stories, but there are occasional full double-height sections. Unlike the Stalin bunker, this feels like a real hardened war bunker, full of steel and concrete. It’s great!

The canteen and living areas have been converted into a modern restaurant and conference center for special events.  (The perfect place for a wedding!)

As part of the museum, they have a pair of missile silo control panels, imported from a real Soviet ICBM site. Once again I managed to get one of the command chairs as we simulated a launch. The procedure is a little more complicated than at the Titan silo. We had to each simultaneously turn a control key, then enter the launch codes, then each of us simultaneously push a button and turn a key. Unlike the Titan silo, the Soviet crews had the launch codes in a safe and could in theory launch independently. It was fascinating to emulate a Soviet launch, though a little less spooky than doing it in a real missile silo.

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Practicalities

IMG_1151The bunker entrance is at 55.741701, 37.649088 at Building 11, 5-y Kotelnicheskiy Pereulok. The nearest metro is Taganskaya. The bunker entrance is a little hard to spot. Look for a side entrance on the South of 5th Kotelnicheskiy Lane with a barrier gate and then about ten meters in a steel gate with a large Soviet star. That’s it!

You need to book in advance. A place on an English language tour costs 1300 Rubles. Our group had twelve people, which I think is their maximum. The tour lasts 90 minutes. The Bunker-42 website is www.bunker42.com and their contact email is cwm@bunker42.com.

For the film, our group was offered the choice of a 30 minute English language film, or an 18 minute Russian film with English subtitles. We opted for the shorter film, as that would give us more time actually touring the bunker. This turned out to be an unexpectedly good choice, as we got to see the Russian/Soviet perspective on the nuclear arms race.

Moscow: Stalin Bunker

The word “bunker” evokes images of a grim concrete shelter; dark, dank and ugly. Well maybe for most people, but not if you’re the Red Tsar.

Moscow’s Stalin Bunker is positively palatial, with faux marble columns, a large domed conference room, and a paneled private office.

Between 1933 and 1939 the Soviets built a sprawling secret underground bunker complex at Izmailova, in the Eastern suburbs of Moscow, as a refuge from potential German air attacks. It was built using convict labor, under the pretense of being foundations for a giant stadium. “Stalin’s Bunker” was an even more secret refuge within this complex. The bunkers are connected by a 15km tunnel to central Moscow, with various side connections into the metro network.

The complex was abandoned in 1949, as it was far too shallow to resist nuclear weapons. It fell into disrepair and then after 1991, the Stalin Bunker section was restored and opened as a museum. Unfortunately most of the furniture and decorations are not original, but my guide assured me that they’d tried hard to reconstruct the original appearance, and pointed out a few pieces of original furnishings.

Although it was built for Stalin, he never actually used it as his main base. He probably visited on a couple of occasions, but he preferred to stay based nearer the Kremlin.

Stalin's Bunker Entry Hallway

Entry Hallway

Stalin's Bunker Conference Room

Conference Room

Stalin's Office.   Chair is original, Scotsman is not.

Stalin’s Office.
Chair is original, Scotsman is not.

The central conference room has impressive acoustics, supposedly so that the quiet spoken Stalin could be easily heard by all his subordinates.

Practicalities

The Stalin Bunker is still well hidden, with no external signage. It’s at 55.797412, 37.751028 at Izmailova. Use the Partizanskaya Metro stop, then go North along 890th Proyektiruemyy Prospekt, past the fantasy-land Izmailova Kremlin and look for a side lane East marked “ФОП ИЗМАЙЛОВО”. At the end is a closed gate. At the pedestrian entry at the side of the gate, explain that you’re going to “Bunker Stalina” and they will let you through. Then head down the ramp to the right. At this point you’ll see the guardian tanks. The bunker entrance is through the blue steel doors opposite the tanks.

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You need to book a tour in advance and it’s not cheap. The price depends on the group size, from 4900 Rubles for a one person tour, to 1600 Rubles each for a group of six and up. That will get you a knowledgeable English speaking guide and about an hour inside the bunker.

Their website (in Russian) is at www.cmaf.ru/branchs/bun  Their contact email is sbunker@mail.ru.

The Museum of the USSR

IMG_0795The Museum of the USSR is a new and quirky museum at Moscow’s VDNKh exposition center.

It’s really a “Museum of Everyday Life” in the USSR, with several large rooms full of everyday Soviet kitsch. Old fashioned electronics, teddy bears, Soviet motivational posters, etc, etc.  It’s all reasonably amusing.

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But the star of the show is the Lenin. A faithful replica of Lenin lying in state, just as in the Mausoleum. Except as you watch, this one’s chest rises and falls. Lenin lives! A miracle! IMG_0804B

It’s not a very serious museum and not worth a special trip. But if you’re out at VNDKh it’s worth a ten minute visit.

It’s in VDNKh Pavilion 2 at 55.828668, 37.631514. Website (in Russian) is www.museumussr.ru. Hours are 10-7 every day. Entry is 250 Rubles.

space aliens in red squareWhile in Moscow, I discovered that the space aliens who landed at Chelyabinsk have now set up camp in Red Square. A giant shimmering force field covers Lenin’s Mausoleum. Of course the authorities claim it’s a bubble tent to shelter repair work on the mausoleum, but this is Russia and who believes the authorities?

More seriously, I am curious whether we will see any noticeable changes when the repairs are unveiled.

Update 15th May 2013: The Lenin Mausoleum Reopens with no visible changes.

False Dawn in Murmansk

Murmansk false dawn, in early afternoon.

Murmansk false dawn.

I was in Murmansk for the Winter Solstice.

The city is North of the Arctic Circle, so the sun never actually rises in mid-winter. I had been vaguely expecting that I would be encountering a 24 hour night, but no, the sky was actually a bright twilight from about noon to about 4:00pm, as the sun lurked just over the horizon. In mid afternoon, the rosy fingers of a false dawn even made an appearance to the South, before gently fading out again.

"Alyosha". Still guarding Murmansk.

“Alyosha”. Still guarding Murmansk.

Murmank hosts a fine resolute Lenin, the charming Museum of the Northern Fleet, and a strangely poignant 30 meter high concrete statue of a Soviet WWII soldier, nicknamed “Alyosha”, still resolutely watching the skies for German bombers.

I had arrived by train from St Petersburg and I took a local minibus over the border to Kirkenes in Norway. The Norwegian border officials asked various slightly strange questions (“Where is your Norwegian exit stamp!?”) and did a particularly thorough search of my pack. I only realized later that they had assumed I must be returning from a short trip from Norway into Murmansk and so they became very suspicious when I denied having any Norwegian exit stamp. Sigh. Normally entries to Western Europe on a UK passport are easy, so this caught me by surprise.