The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged USSR

I’ve been visiting the old Soviet nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk, aka “the Polygon”. The site isn’t actually as bad as its rather dire historic reputation – the last 25 years have seen a lot of clean up and containment. The worst areas have either been scraped off and buried, or are fenced off.

To my surprise, driving around the test area, there was mostly only normal low background levels of about 0.1 microSieverts/hour. But we did visit a couple of highlights:

The Epicenter for the First Soviet Nuclear Test

Ground zero for the first Soviet A-Bomb test is marked by a small pond. It is surrounded by an array of weird concrete observation towers, increasingly ruined neared the center. It looks like what it was, the center of an enormous occult engineering effort that “succeeded”.

At the epicenter the levels are up to 30 uSv/hr or even 60 uSv/hr at points on the ground. Nothing to worry about for a short visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Atomic Lake

The Soviets were interested in using nuclear bombs for civil engineering, so they tested a 140 kiloton bomb to create an artificial lake. Well they got themselves a nice 400 meter diameter lake, but they also got residual radioactivity around the rim and in the sediment at the bottom of the lake. My guides assured me that “the water is safe”. There are fish, and they have been tested and declared safe. (“Except for the bones and nobody eats the bones.”) Local fisherman are known to visit.

Radiation even on the crater rim was only up to about 1-2 uSv/hr.

Overall Safety

At both the epicenter and Atomic Lake, the guides were mainly concerned that we might inadvertently pick up small fragments of higher radioactive material and carry them out with us. Hence the need for face masks, shoe covers, etc. And we all got carefully scanned on our way out.

The local Kazakh farmers are allowed to graze their cattle around most of the test site area, but they are required to have the meat tested when the cattle are slaughtered. This sounds a little scary, but is probably a smart pragmatic compromise: the farmers were sneaking in anyway and this way they don’t try to hide anything and the meat gets properly checked.

It was an interesting short trip!

Moscow: Vostok-1

To my gleeful amazement, I unexpectedly ran across Gagarin’s Vostok-1 capsule yesterday!

I was out wandering in Moscow and at the VDNKh exhibition center I discovered a newly opened museum “Cosmos”. It turns out to be a big new Space Technology museum. And sitting in the lobby was the original Gagarin Vostok-1 capsule. Oh wow!  I’ve been trying to visit this for years and I was really pleased to finally and unexpectedly see it!

The Vostok-1 capsule is normally kept at the restricted-access RSC Energia Museum, which until recently was closed to foreigners. I am amazed that the Cosmos Museum guys managed to pry the Vostok-1 capsule away from RSC Energia, who normally guard it like a particularly suspicious mother bear with its favorite cub.

By an odd coincidence, I had finally managed to arrange a private visit to the RSC Energia Museum today (for a princely 580 Euros).  Here they explained, rather grumpily, that the Vostok-1 capsule was on a temporary loan to the new Cosomos museum and they were expecting it back imminently, if not sooner.

Even with Vostok-1 away, the RSC Energia Museum has lots of other good stuff, including:

  • The Vostok-style capsule that had been used for Belka and Strelka. This Vostok-style capsule had held a smaller capsule with the two dogs.  After re-entry, the smaller capsule with the dogs was ejected, just as a human cosmonaut would be before the main capsule landed.  Both the larger and smaller capsules landed safely.  The RSC Energia exhibit includes both the larger capsule and the in-situ dog capsule.  My guide assured me that both are the originals.
  • Another similar dogs-in-space Vostok-style capsule.
  • The Vostok-6 capsule of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
  • A three-crew Vostok variant, the Voskhod-1(1964).
  • The Voskhod-2, which had been used with 2 crew and an airlock for the first space walk.
  • The Soyuz-3 capsule, the first successful Soyuz mission.
  • No less than five other Soyuz capsules, including the capsule used in the Soyuz-Apollo mission.

So a total of five Vostok style capsules and six Soyuz capsules!

Soyuz and Vostok capsules

Scotsman in an authentic Soyuz capsule

I very much enjoyed the RSC Energia tour, even without Vostok 1.

Finally, note that Moscow now has three Cosmonautics museums:

  • The new Cosmos Museum inside VDNKh.  This is a good large museum, but almost all the exhibits are mockups or replicas.  The Vostok-1 is only there temporarily.
  • The older Museum of Cosmonautics, just outside VDNKh.  This is mostly replicas, but has a few original pieces, notably two Soyuz capsules and Michael Collin’s Apollo-11 spacesuit.
  • The restricted-access RSC Energia Museum out at Korolev City, which has many original capsules.

Perm-36 Gulag Museum

Perm-36 is the last surviving Gulag camp, now the “Museum of the History of Political Repression“, about 90km East of Perm.

It was abandoned in 1988, became extremely dilapidated, then was reclaimed as a Museum in 1994 and partially restored. So what is visible today is a mix of original buildings and reconstructions. It is all post WWII however, so there is nothing from the Gulag heyday of the 30s or the Great Terror itself.

Perm-36 went through three phases:

  • 1946-53: A conventional Gulag camp, mostly housing criminals and workers convicted of anti-social crimes such as chronic absenteeism, etc. Perm-36 was a relatively mild labor camp, not an intensive punishment camp.
  • 1953-72: A special prison for servants of the Stalinist regime who had fallen out of favor with the new regime. This included NKVD officers, politicians, etc. These prisoners were relatively privileged.
  •  1972-88: A special prison for dissident and anti-Soviet elements. There prisoners were typically well educated and their treatment relatively mild.

The most interesting surviving buildings are:

  • The entrance/administrative building. This includes the visitor rooms. The later, more privileged prisoners were allowed to either have face-to-face visitor meetings with a guard present or in especially privileged cases to have two or three day shared room stays with spouses or other family members.
  • One barracks building, which had housed 50-60 people in each of four barrack rooms. Back in the day, they would have triplex bunks, and two small stoves in opposite corners, which would be less than adequate for the colder nights.
  • A punishment block. This included some short stay cells for a first offense, and a long stay unit for 4+ weeks for repeat offenders. Guards might decided to target specific prisoners as “offenders” based on order from higher up. The main punishment was reduced rations. Long term prisoners had to work at simple factory tasks.

The main task of the Gulag camps in this area was logging, to help provide wood for rebuilding efforts after WWII. Perm-36 was originally part of that, although I got the impression that part had probably faded away in its later years with more privileged prisoners.

Before 1953 security was light as prisoners had nowhere to flee. After 1953, the camp had five levels of fencing. A reconstruction is on display. Two of the fences were wooden walls, intended to mask visibility in and out. One fence was electrified, not to kill but to stun and sound an alarm. The Museum plays recordings of angry barking dogs to add authenticity!

Since this is the only surviving Gulag camp, I’m glad I visited. But at another level, it was only mildly interesting. Both my guide and the Museum signage tended to convey an impression that it was “not that bad” and merely a labor camp. Now of course this is all post WWII, when things were probably much better that during the horrors of the 1930s. Even so, my impression is that the Museum is also sanitizing the 1940s experience – it would be easy to leave with the impression it was “just” a labor camp, and I think the reality was much harsher than that implies.  This is after all the period described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  It would have been interesting to have death rate data for example.

The city of Perm itself also offers one surprise, a gigantic bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet security police. A man who made Stalin look warm and cuddly and is still fondly remembered, by some at least.

Moscow’s Gulag Museum

Moscow Gulag MuseumMoscow’s Gulag History Museum has moved to a new, larger, building with new exhibits and a new narrative.

The building’s exterior is deliberately stark and austere, even forbidding. The interior exhibition space has been given a distinctly prison-like style. It is mostly one large multi-level hall, with many side rooms for specific topics.

Gulag Museum.2The Museum covers the history of the Gulag, describing the transition from the revolutionary optimism of 1917 to the harsh realities of the 1920s and 1930s, and then on through to Stalin’s death in 1953. There is a reasonable amount of English signage, although for some detailed topics there is only Russian. The exhibits start with a collection of cell doors and include various gulag artifacts and prisoner’s possessions. A side room shows videos (with English sub-titles) of now-elderly victims describing their arrests and trials.

Gulag Museum.3I had been concerned that as part of the move to new quarters the Museum’s messages might have been softened, as has happened at Perm. But, no, the signage is very clear and crisp in describing the use of the Gulag system not merely for common criminals but as an instrument of political repression. Unusually for today’s Russia, there is a willingness to confront some of the harsher realities of the Soviet past. For example, the description of the Great Purge of 1937-1938 speaks freely of 1.5 million arrests and 700,000 executions.

I spent a couple of hours wandering around, reading the signs, watching the videos, and reflecting.

If you are interested in Soviet history, or in the impact of the past on today’s Russia, it is definitely worth a visit.

Practicalities: Here’s a link to the Gulag Museum Website. The Museum is at 1st Samotechny per., 9, bld. 1, Moscow. The nearest metro is Dostoyevskaya.

Scotsman at launch controlsYou enter through the basement blast doors and then ride the tiny elevator 11 levels down into the armored control silo. You and one of your comrades man the launch control consoles. A quick consultation, then 1-2-3 you each turn your launch key and simultaneously push your launch button. And the SS-24 ICBM roars into the sky!

Well, fortunately there aren’t any missiles in the silos anymore, but otherwise it was an authentic USSR missile launch sequence, in a real cold war Soviet ICBM silo. The consoles we were using were the originals and really could have launched nuclear doom back in the day, so pushing the launch button made for a very eerie experience.

Launch control consoleI’d been down a US ICBM silo (at the Titan Missile Museum) and simulated a launch there. So I was excited to have a chance to launch a retaliatory strike from inside the USSR. The Pervomaisk Missile Museum is in Southern Ukraine and is based in an old Soviet launch complex. We were told that the site had hosted SS-24 missiles targeted at the US East Coast. The missile silos themselves have now been filled in, under disarmament treaties, but the control silo has been preserved as part of the museum.

The complex has a surface museum, with models of the various silos, and there are also a few old missile and giant transporter trucks. But the high point is definitely visiting the control silo, playing with the controls and then lounging in the small crew room. As with the Titan command silo, the Soviet command silos are heavily shielded and the command structure is suspended within its silo to resist shock.

The Museum is near Pervomaisk about a 3 hour drive South of Kiev. I visited on a day tour run by SoloEast (aka TourKiev).

Into the control silo...Scotsman in the silo crew room

Samara: Stalin Bunker

I am in Samara, where I have successfully infiltrated the Stalin Bunker.

The bunker was build in great secrecy and in great haste in 1941, when Moscow was in danger and Kuibyshev (aka Samara) was the fallback Soviet capital.  But Moscow survived and Stalin chose to stay in the city even during its most dangerous moments, so the bunker was never actually used in anger.

The bunker entrance is hidden behind an innocuous steel door. You then head down 8 flights of stairs, mounted in an armored steel cylinder, to reach the top of the bunker proper. The bunker then occupies seven levels, with the “Stalin” level at the very bottom, 190 steps from the surface.

The current decor is a modern restoration of what the long ago Stalin headquarters might have looked like.  There is a large formal conference room, with a giant war map.  Opposite is a mid-sized office, with a giant “Stalin Desk”.  All ready for the great man, should he suddenly reappear on the scene.

The Bunker authorities make heavy play on the Stalin name, although he probably never actually visited. The authorities also carefully preserve a distinctly Stalinist style towards visitors.  They only admit pre-arranged groups and do not allow individuals.  It is possible to pay for of an entire group of 20, but you still need to book in advance and since the bunker authorities don’t have an email or speak English, you typically need to work through a tour agency (more below).

I was lucky enough to arrive as a group of fourteen young students and their teacher were about to enter.  I was initially given head-shakes and my entrance fee turned away.  But after a bit, after there were some discussions in Russian, I was deemed harmless and allowed to tag along with the student group.  This meant I needed to wait patiently through several very thorough lectures in Russian on the history of the bunker, but that was a small price to pay to get into a tour.

On the way out, make sure to admire the modern Stalin-themed stained glass window near the entrance.

Practicalities: The bunker is at 57 Ul. Frunze (53.196710, 50.098201), under the Academy of Culture. It has its own separate entrance around the back. Nominal hours are 11-1 and 2-3, Mon-Fri.

Stalin Bunker Plan

Stalin Bunker 1 Stalin Bunker 2

Stalin Bunker conference roomStalin Bunker OfficeStalin Bunker Stained Glass

I emailed three tour agencies to try to arrange a visit (Samara Tour, Y-RA, Samara InTour) without success. Eventually I reached a company “holiday-tours@mail.ru” who were willing to set up a tour for me, but at the group rate of 5000 Rubles, which seemed a little stiff.

The best bet is probably to try to join on to an existing tour. There seemed to be groups going through roughly hourly, on the hour, when I was there. It seems that if they are under the group size limit (which I think is 20 people) and you seem harmless, they may let you tag along. I paid 80 Rubles for my visit, but I may have lucked into a student discount.