Missile base near Pervomaysk, Ukraine, tells story of Cold War's fragile 'peace'
The road is narrow and straight, the fields of wheat and corn around spread far and wide under an endless sky. Here and there, huge, recently repainted metal road sculptures indicate that nearby, hidden behind lines of poplars, villages exist.
P-06, the road from Kiev to Pervomaysk, is like any other road in provincial Ukraine. The only thing that makes it different is a sign by the village of Pobuzke which reads, in Ukrainian: Strategic Missile Forces Museum.
During the Cold War, the location of nuclear missile bases, armaments and staff were among the top secrets of the Soviet Union.
Now, all you have to do to visit one is to drive the 300 km from Kiev and follow the sign which leads to a dirt track, running through corn fields. It ends at a gate with a bunker and a barbed wire fence. Behind awaits a place which tour guides advertise as "the most remarkable Ukrainian site."
While still a part the USSR, Ukraine had five strategic missile bases, plus a submarine nuclear base at Balaklava, in Crimea. The bases and the nuclear weapons of Ukraine were decommissioned in 1994, three years after the collapse of the USSR, as a result of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance when Russia, the UK and the United States agreed to guarantee the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine.
In 1996, the bases shut down, but in 2001 the one at Pervomaysk was reopened as a museum. The naval base at Balaklava is a museum, too.
There are about 20 minutes to opening time at 10 am (museums in Ukraine tend to open late) but a man in his 50s, dressed casually and with an energetic walk, crosses the former military compound. "Welcome," he says in Russian, and opens the gate.
The grounds are manicured in the way one associates with Warsaw Pact military bases – the curb stones are neatly painted and the flower beds are immaculate. Lining the pathways, disemboweled mid-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles and other hardware shine in their military grey and green. Some of the items have been cut open, revealing the technology which, during the Cold War, was capable of destroying the world as we know it.
The guide points to a mammoth at the end of the line of ballistic rockets. "This is RS-20V Voevoda, the largest intercontinental missile the USSR ever developed," he says. The missile's NATO reporting name was Satan, and rightly so. Created in 1967, this rocket was 32 m long and had 10 warheads and an operational range of between 10,200 and 16,000 km. Its speed exceeded 7.9 km/s and, if launched from the European parts of the USSR, it could hit the East Coast of the United States in about 20 minutes. A later version of Satan is still deployed in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
"We didn't have Satans here, they brought it here from another base. We had RT-23s, with the NATO reporting name being SS-24 Scalpel. They could reach just Western Europe," the guide clarifies. His pride has an explanation; he and some of his colleagues were officers at the base of Pervomaysk.
The USSR began their nuclear programme as early as 1943, while the Second World War was still raging, and there were two years to go before the world witnessed this weapon's terrifying power with the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Soviets' first successful nuclear test was conducted in 1949, and in the 1950s, nuclear bombs were already being deployed.
Ballistic missile tests began in 1946, based on stolen German technology. In 1957, the USSR launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 Semyorka.
In the 1980s, the USSR already had six strategic rocket armies with 40 divisions, which were located around Moscow, in the Ural mountains, around Omsk and the Transbaykal in Siberia, and in Belarus and Ukraine.
The story of the nuclear weaponry of the USSR and its technology is being shown on new TV set, the only piece of modern technology in a former officers' building which seems unchanged since the Cold War. There is further information, models of Soviet ballistic missiles, equipment and samples of soldiers' food rations in the small museum.
Each nuclear missile base controlled several silos (there were 10 at Pervomaysk) about 40 metres deep, with one missile in each. Silos were spread over a distance of about 10-15 km each and were guarded by what the guide claims to have been cutting edge technology plus two soldiers on a week long shift.
The DVD and the dusty exhibition are not capable of giving you the whole picture. One needs to go out and walk around the base, to cross the barbed wire and hear the singing of the communication wires and antennae, to have a look under the 120-tonne lid of a silo, and to measure oneself against the gigantic lorries and the mobile launch pads. Only then will you begin to properly understand the effort, the ambition and the resources that were poured into the nuclear weapons race during the Cold War.
All of this – and it is only a tiny part of the arsenal – could have ended the world at the touch of a single button.
Today you can press that button button yourself.
To do that, you have to follow the guide into a tiny lift, which descends 40 m in a 3.3 m wide shaft until it stops at the 13th level. This is where the command centre of the base was.
In case of nuclear war, they could stay there for 45 days, supplied with food, water, electricity and clean air by the air conditioning equipment in the 12 levels above them.
A manhole in the control centre leads down to the living level. It is a dark space, complete with bunk beds, a kitchenette with a samovar and a Soviet-era train-like toilet.
Back in the command centre, the most fascinating part of the visit is about to begin.
Elevator to command centre
"Sit," the guide commands, pointing to two uncomfortable stools. Command boards are all over the place, their yellow surfaces with crude buttons and switches and cryptic labels looking terribly dilapidated for the danger to mankind they could pose.
The guide stands in front of one of the boards and puts his finger on a red button.
"Find the red button on your board and press it when I say," he says, and then explains the procedure. In case of war, the officers inside would receive orders from headquarters to launch the missiles under their control. Yet, procedure envisaged one last precautionary measure. All three men had to press their red button simultaneously. If even one of them had second thoughts about the desirability of thrusting the world into a nuclear war, no missile would launch.
Something similar happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962. When a Soviet nuclear submarine approached a group of American destroyers, the three officers on board knew that they were allowed to fire. One of them, the second-in-command Vasily Arkhipov, disagreed. There was no attack during the Cuban Crisis, and Arkhipov is now hailed as the man who stopped a nuclear war.
"Now!," the guide murmurs and presses his button.
The scratchy noise of an alarm horn, familiar from war and disaster movies, fills the air. "Good," the guide beams. "Now say 'Goodbye' to New York."
Is he sorry about the decommissioning of the missiles by Ukraine? "It was a mistake," the now retired lieutenant-colonel says. "If we still had them, we would be much more important than we are today." Above him there is a sign: "Bribing the staff is not only immoral, but also illegal."
The exit from the command centre is through a 150 metre underground corridor. The air and the light outside look fresher and brighter than ever.
The guide waves and heads off to greet new visitors, a group of Chinese being driven in a minibus. Yes, the Chinese tend to love gadgets.
Meantime, in Bulgaria
Officially, there were no nuclear weapons stationed in Bulgaria but evidence suggests three secret bases, staffed by Soviet personnel, were in existence right up until 1989 near Sofia, Kalofer and Yambol. 25 years after the fall of Communism the Bulgarians are yet to see declassified information about those.