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.”
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