The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged USSR

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.

IMG_0798 IMG_0800

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.

Novorossiysk: Brezhnev

I’ve bagged Lenins by the dozen.  And even a couple of Stalins.

But a Brezhnev?  In the wild?  Now there’s a real rarity.  But there he was, striding casually down the street in downtown Novorossiysk.  So I nabbed him.

This isn’t the doddering, geriatric Brezhnev of the 1980s.  This is the rising apparatchik, posed with a hint of rebellious informality, a loosened tie and a jacket casually slung over one shoulder.  Not the wooden politburo veteran, but the younger man-of-the-people getting ready to grab power.  The Brezhnev who recklessly sped in (and sometimes crashed in) high-end foreign cars.

The most amazing thing about the statue is that it was erected in 2004, long after the fall of the USSR, paid for by local public contributions.

Why does Novorossiysk love Leonid Brezhnev so?  Well, Brezhnev liked to emphasize his heroic war record, centered on the Northern Caucasus, including Novorossiysk.  As Brezhnev rose in power, so did his remembered heroism and so did the remembered importance of (among others) the heroic battle of Novorossiysk.  And so in 1973 Novorossiysk was awarded the prestigious Soviet title of “Hero City”, one of only a dozen such.  And the citizens are no doubt grateful for this favor.

Balaklava: Giant Secret Lair

In Balaklava, Ukraine, I visited one of the USSR’s super-secret  bases, “Facility 825”.  This is a giant semi-submerged underground lair, where submarines could enter, be refueled or repaired, and be entirely invisible from the air.

Oh yes, and it was designed to survive a 100 kiloton direct hit.

The base seems to have been conceived in the early 1950s. It was constructed by the teams who had built the Moscow and Kharkiv metro systems, so it isn’t too surprising it takes the form of a giant tunnel, with a concealed entrance in the Balaklava harbor and an exit into the Black sea.  The tunnel is wide enough to allow subs to be docked at one side for maintenance, while others slid past in the main channel.

The base is also chock-full other tunnels, for the supporting humans and for the various arsenals.

Facility 825 was super-secret in its day. The entrance is designed to be invisible from the air.  They were initially worried about spy planes, but of course this also worked well against satellites.  The Soviets apparently hoped to keep even the existence of the base entirely secret, using various ploys to conceal the construction work.

But where are the nuclear wessels?

It was decommissioned in the early 1990s, but even today it’s hard to find reliable data on what was actually based there.  It is generally cited as a “nuclear base”.  But as far as I can figure, it was only used for Whiskey and Romeo diesel powered subs (the tunnel was probably too narrow for the later nuclear subs).  There were probably nuclear warheads, but even that is a little unclear.

It’s all a wonderful relic from the Cold War.  It’s rather sad to see it turned into a rather desultory museum.  Where are the international super-villains when you need them?  Why aren’t aspiring megalomaniacs bidding frantically to “borrow” it for “historic renovation”?  Alas, we live in banal times.

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Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m in Sevastopol, Ukraine.

The city was formerly host to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. After 1991, the fleet was partitioned between Ukraine and Russia and both halves are still based at Sevastopol, although most of the warships I spotted had Russian ensigns.

Like Vladivostok, Sevastopol was a closed city during the Soviet era, so it feels strange to be able to wander freely and admire the once guarded fleet.

The city also hosts an eclectic mix of memorials from the Crimean War, WWII and Soviet periods.

Crimean War Cannon, Malakhov Mound.

WWII Artillery, Malakhov Mound.

Brest Fortress, Belarus

The Brest Fortress complex commemorates the heroic defence of the Soviet garrison against the German invasion of June 1941.

I entered the Hero Fortress at its new ceremonial entrance: a giant concrete slab with a Soviet star cut into it. Stirring martial music plays as you enter. The gateway was rather grayer and drabber than I expected, but still very impressive. It looks better seen from inside the fortress than from outside.
[Brest Fortress Entrance]

[Brest Honour Guard]

I arrived just in time to see a set of local teenagers do a “changing of the guard” ritual at the eternal flame, complete with high-stepping precision marching. In a small concession to the intense cold, they had their ear flaps folded down.
The fortress complex includes various large Soviet-era memorials. There is a fine concrete sculpture “thirst” of a soldier reaching his helmet out to gather water.
["Thirst"]

[Obelisk]

The main monuments are a giant obelisk (100 m) in the form of a Soviet bayonet and an enormous concrete head of a scowling Soviet soldier. Unfortunately while the head is large, it is poorly formed and unsympathetic.

I also ambled through the Fortress Museum, which has some displays of the 19th c. fortress, and even a very short display on the 1939 Polish defence, but which is naturally focused on the 1941 defence, with many photos of the defenders.

Commentary: In 1941 the Soviet Union desperately needed some heroic myths, and the “Defence of the Brest Fortress” fit the bill.  A small group of heroic defenders, stemming the flow of the German invasion.  It’s a good story and I don’t doubt the defenders were truly heroic.  However the German advance seems to have been focused on deep penetration and encirclement, which implies bypassing fortresses and fixed defence points and leaving those to be mopped up later by secondary forces. So the leisurely siege is unlikely to have impacted the main invasion.

The following day: At the Brest station, I met three unhappy travelers, two Americans and a Dane.  They had been taking the train from St Petersburg to Warsaw and hadn’t realized that their train took a non-obvious detour through Belarus.   There are no immigration checks at the Russian-Belarus border, so they had been able to enter Belarus, but then when they were exiting at Brest they were caught by Belarus immigration.  Traveling in Belarus without a visa: not a good situation!  They were removed from the train and delayed for two days in Brest.  They were finally allowed to exit after signing “a big stack of forms” and paying moderate fines (about $200 for the American couple) for having entered Belarus illegally.

Baikonur: Soyuz TMA-20 Launch

I was at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to watch the Soyuz TMA-20 launch.  It was spectacular.  I strongly recommend it.  (Tour Logistics.)  (More Baikonur photos.)

I found myself in a tour group of six: our guide told us we were all the tourists visiting the launch. There were also some press, and various Roscosmos/ESA/NASA guests, but it looked like there were still well under 200 observers in total. So it was a much more intimate event than a shuttle launch at Kennedy.

Before the launch we got to see lots of cool toys from the Soviet space program, including a lot of the machinery for the Energia/Buran shuttle. This included sitting in the pilot seats of a full-scale Buran mock-up, clambering over a giant Buran transporter vehicle and then waking around a launch pad. The transporter and launch pad felt like relics from some alien civilization: enormous, exotic, and standing mysteriously abandoned.

Our hosts still suffered from a little Cold War competitive spirit: we were vigorously assured that the N1 rocket was the most powerful launcher ever, and that Buran was much larger/better than the shuttle. (This is not quite how Western sources see it!)

They let our little group into the Soyuz assembly building, so we got to see some Soyuz boosters and then a complete Soyuz launch vehicle up close. A lady guard wagged an indulgent finger when I dared to reach over and touch an engine.
The TMA-20 launch itself was striking. On the pad, the Soyuz sits slightly below ground level, with about half of the first stage boosters below ground. So we couldn’t directly see the initial ignition, just a sudden out-pour of smoke and spreading fire across to one side, which for a fraction of a second made me fear an accident, but no, the craft started to rise and then abruptly there was an intensely bright flame, presumably as we could now see the engines directly for the first time, a dazzling bright fireball, rising very quickly into the sky. Then a few second later a very loud rumbling sound arrived. After we first saw the engines, I never saw the craft itself – the engines were far, far too bright.
It was spectacular. Much more striking than the STS-129 shuttle launch I saw, probably both because we were so much closer (0.9 miles versus 6 miles) and because this was a night launch.
They let us visit close to the launch pad (which was the original Gagarin pad!) about an hour after the launch. So we could see the re-assembled launch gantries and the launch pad itself up close. But they wouldn’t let us into the flame pit, so we couldn’t actually feel the residual launch heat. Drat.

If you are a space buff, I highly recommend this tour.  I’ve posted a page on Baikonur Logistics to provide more information on entry formalities, flights, tour companies, etc.