The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Magnetic Termite MoundThe Magnetic Termites of North Australia are extremely cool.

Their mounds look rather like tombstones. They are some 5-8 ft tall, very thin East-West (about 4 inches) and long North-South (2-3 feet). They are aligned like this to reduce the impact of the sun on the nests.

The termites are known as magnetic termites or compass termites because of this alignment. But the worker termites are blind, so how do they actually manage the alignment? By sensing the sun’s heat? No…

Recently, Mad Scientists ™ experimented by using magnets to distort the local compass direction. The termites then obediently built a nest aligned with the magnets rather than with true North. So they really are magnetic termites, doing magnetic sensing! Way cool!

The nests I saw were in Litchfield National Park. There is a large array of the tombstone like mounds in a small area, looking like a grave yard. This made me wonder if the name “Litchfield” might have come from “Lich Field”, but no, it turns the park name comes from a famous Northern Territory pioneer.
Magnetic Termite Mounds

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.

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.