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Red Ink Run: playing with nuclear bombs in Bunker 42

To get to Kotelnichesky Lane from Moscow’s Taganskaya Metro station you have to go through an outdoor market. From streetside stands babushkas, with their head wrapped in kerchiefs, peddle fresh and pickled vegetables, homemade cheeses, flowers and kielbasa.

To one end of these rows of stalls is building number 11. This unassuming, pre-revolutionary structure is painted beige and exhibits nothing suspect, except for a windowless ground floor. The interior is a different story, for the building is little more than a façade and houses a massive dome used to shield the entrance of an underground military complex from a nuclear strike on Moscow.

Marty and I entered from the alley, through a military green gate emblazoned with a massive Soviet star. Sitting beneath camouflaged netting, on wooden benches, other people began to arrive, including a group of young New Yorkers who cut through the quietly building anticipation like a bandsaw, with their loud nasal tones.

One particularly vocal American announced she was a real estate agent. “I sold four million last year. Sweetie, everything I touch turns to sold!” This was quickly followed by crass Boratesque imitation of Russian accents.

Just as I was thinking that these people were the reason I avoid tours, our guide entered the yard. Dressed in a camouflage jumpsuit, he yelled “OK tour starts now” in a thick Russian accent. There are advantages to an inexpert grasp of the English language, one of which is economy with words. I appreciated this in contrast to my fellow New York travellers who maintained a steady warble.

Our guide continued on in his monotonic voice, from which I detected just a slight whiff of ham, with a brief history of Bunker 42. The bunker is part of Tagansky Protected Command Point, a vast underground and once top-secret military complex. Building began in 1951 and used the same method of tunnelling as the Moscow Metro. Its purpose was to serve as a military command post for long distance aircraft and nuclear weapons. It contained enough stores to last 3000 military personnel 90 days entirely independent from the outside.

We entered the building, went down a hall and through a two tonne concrete blast door. “The purpose of this blast door is to shield us from shock wave of nuclear attack,” our guide announced. We next approached a 400 kilogram blast door, and when a few people including myself had gone through the guide pressed a button and the door began to close. You could hear the squeaking of unoiled wheels followed by a hefty clenching sound as it shut. I felt a slight tingle of irrational anxiety at having the exit shut off, an extremely diluted version of what cavers must feel when they realise they’re trapped. “OK I open again,” he yelled through the door.

We then proceeded down a stairwell 18 stories (60 metres). After about six floors it was possible to smell wet concrete and, after about nine, the air got cold. At the base of the stairs was a long corridor. The walls and roof were heavy metal, painted the colour of rust. Dotting the walls and roof were square blocks which looked like the heads of long bolts that went deep into the earth as structural support.

We were then ushered into a projection room. The film was divided into two sections — the first was a brief history of nuclear escalation during the cold war while the second was about Bunker 42. Occasionally the narrative would border on propaganda, like wartime newsreels. It turned out “only super weapons could beat invincible Soviet red army”. Very informative.

After the film our guide took us to a room in a long tunnel. The walls were thick ribbed metal, so that it felt as if we were in the guts of a giant metallic creature. Along one wall of the room was a raised platform, and on it were two large Soviet era work stations. Our guide got on the platform and yelled:

“OK. I need two volunteers.”

Two of the Americans, including the real estate agent, raised their hands immediately. The guide smiled.

“Good. You sit down at these controls.”

The lights darkened and a projector shone, showing a wireframe map of the world above the two controls. The entire scene began to feel very James Bond.

“OK. Now we show you how to fire a nuclear weapon. Of course United States fire first so this is retaliatory attack.”

“Oh this is fucked up,” said one of the Americans at the controls.

The guide was unphased and gave no hint of irony or pleasure.

“Each of you open the box in lower right of panel. There is a key there. Turn it together in three, two one. Good. Now there is a box above, do the same in, three two one. Good.”

On the screen above played an aerial clip of Manhattan, followed by a clip inside a typical American classroom, following by people shopping, then crowds along a busy city street. All scenes as American as apple pie. A severe orchestral piece began to play over the top.

“Oh I can’t believe I’m gonna do this,” whined the American.

“Don’t do it,” said someone from behind me in the dark in an American accent.

“Now you type in the codes one, four, six, eight, seven, zero. Now open the last box on your panel. Flick the switch in five, four…” — everyone is counting down at this stage,  like we’re about to jump out at a surprise party — “…three, two, one. Go!’

“Mine’s stuck,” said one of them.

Our guide leaned over and flicked it. The screen switched to stock footage of a missile rising from the inferno of a silo. An audible rumble, coming from the walls, began. We could feel the floor vibrate. The music was reaching its crescendo synchronized with the footage of nuclear blasts. Then clips spliced together of the ensuing Armageddon began. I was sure from movies I had seen: a shockwave arching out, trees buckling in the blast, cars being tossed from the road, buildings disintegrating, people exploding like balloons. The floor vibrated again. The music took on a melancholy tone as it slowed and the screen went off. Our guide declared loudly — still with no expression — “You can be free!” and then the lights came back on.

Everybody was blinking, not quite sure exactly what had just happened. We all knew it was fake but it turned out that Bunker 42 was at the same depth as the metro line which we had come in from and the rumble was another train passing through. Everyone seemed a little stunned by the experience.

Along with the spliced stock footage we had just seen, whose grain kept changing from clip to clip, I remembered a film, Eleven Lessons in War. In this film Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence during the Cuban Missile crisis, is interviewed. He tells of a conversation he had with Fidel Castro about the event, many years after. Castro admits to being prepared to use nuclear weapons against the US in the event they invaded Cuba, which they were within a hair’s breadth of doing. This would have certainly kicked off nuclear war. So this cold shiver was the realisation that if the world had faced a nuclear holocaust it would have begun in a room just like this, with a procedure just like that.

We were then taken to another room, which displayed racks of communication devices and weapons, gas masks and a locker with AK-47s. The tour continued into sections which had clearly not seen restoration since they were used for their intended purpose.  In some parts the roof had buckled in the middle and drops were collecting above, tiny rivulets were forming in the cracks on the concrete below. After numerous corridors, the size of this vast underground complex became apparent. It extended all the way under the outdoor markets on one side nearly to the metro station, which was a good few blocks of real estate above. It’s actually an astounding engineering achievement especially considering that it was completed in secret.

While we were all walking along one corridor a siren went off. The lights were cut and a caged red bulb was activated bathing us in all in a wet, ruby coloured light. The guide yelled that we were about to be hit by a nuclear weapon. Then the sirens stopped and the lights went back to normal. It was nowhere near as effective as the earlier piece of theatre, not least of all because we were in a bunker, and if there was a nuclear war this is exactly where I would like to be.

After we had ascended back to the surface, we stood blinking in the sun. It was warm. We left the Americans, just as they were talking about investments, and went back through the open air markets to buy some pickled vegetables, bread and cheese for lunch.

K Johnson is blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.

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