Similar to the neighbor republics of Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia was occupied by the Soviets a first time in 1939 and again in 1944, when after some years of occupation by Hitler’s forces the Red Army started to successfully repel the German Wehrmacht from within Russia back towards Poland and central Europe. Differently from other European Countries later to become satellites of Moscow’s central communist power, the three ‘Baltic States’ were directly annexed to the Soviet Union.
History – in brief
As a matter of fact, the process of annexation was not a very peaceful one. Having had already a short but intense experience of the Stalinist dictatorship as a consequence of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact before the German invasion in 1941, as soon as it became clear that Stalin’s forces would regain power hundreds of thousands from the Baltics left the Country for abroad, while the communist regime rapidly started to put in practice its deadly ideas, with the collectivization of all private activities, abolition of free elections and non-communist associations, and the imprisonment and deportation of all who disagreed with this plan.
The reason for the different fate of these Countries – annexed – with respect to those of central Europe – which became satellites of the USSR – may be understood on one side looking further back in history – the territories of the three republics had been for long under the direct influence of the Russian Empire. On the other hand, as testified by the relevant military presence in these areas since immediately after the beginning of the Cold War, the government of the USSR considered the Baltic region of high strategic value. Taking control of the coast of the Baltic States, and also thanks to the annexation of the region of Hanko in Finland, the USSR could protect the access to the Gulf of Finland and Leningrad, profit from military and commercial ports which do not freeze in winter and deploy strategic military resources – especially aircraft and missiles – within range of most European capitals.
Bases for all branches of the military flourished in all three new Soviet Socialist Republics. Soon after the fall of the Wall in Berlin, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were the first of the USSR states to declare independence from the Union in 1990 – almost two years before the actual collapse of the USSR – following massive protests which unveiled the high level of intolerance for the Soviet rule. As a result of the withdrawal of Soviet/Russian forces, these three small republics found themselves in control of many military installations, totally disproportioned to the new size and needs of the new states, and making for a not-so-welcomed memento of many decades of hardship – as a matter of fact, some measures to limit the spread of Russian influence in culture and politics have been implemented in all three states, which also joined NATO and the European Union as soon as possible.
The attitude assumed towards the huge military assets left from the Cold War has been slightly different in the three republics. All three are basically getting rid of them, Estonia being the quickest – not much remains there of the many missile bases, and the once prominent strategic air base in Raadi has been totally closed down and partially converted into a museum on national history. Until some years ago many missile sites remained in quite a good shape in Latvia, but most of them have been actively demolished in recent years, including the most iconic Dvina silo sites – as of 2017 the job was completed and no Dvina complex remains in Latvia. Yet visible remains of surface bases and many ghost towns and bunkers are reportedly still there, and while some can be visited ‘officially’ as museums, many are left to urban explorers and archaeologists, while some hardware like warehouses and service buildings has been reused by local companies for storing logs, gravel and other raw materials. Lithuania bolsters possibly the last surviving Dvina missile complex in Europe, which has been turned recently into a museum on the Cold War, totaling 20’000 visitors per year. The demolition process is perhaps slower there.
Prisons constitute non-military but possibly more disturbing leftovers from the communist era. There are some in the Baltics – as basically everywhere in the former eastern bloc including Eastern Germany – all opened as museum, and in one instance also partially turned into a curious and evoking ‘jail hotel’.
This post presents some highlights and examples of remains from the Cold War era from both military and non-military sites in Latvia. Photographs were taken in 2017, during a visit to this lively and nice country in Northern Europe.
Zeltini Nuclear Missile Base
This missile base is one of the best conserved in the three republics. The storage and launch complex was originally built for the R12 liquid fueled, 2.3 Megaton single-warhead nuclear missile, known in the West as SS-4 Sandal. This missile system – the same deployed to Cuba in 1962 – was pretty modern for the end of the Fifties, yet it lacked the extra range required to reach strategic targets in Europe from deep within Russia. This made the Baltic region very interesting for the military, and a place of election for installing missile complexes in that age.
The base of Zeltini is one of three missile launch sites around the town of Aluksne, in northeastern Latvia. This base was updated and kept in an active state until the end of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of the Red Army towards Russia, who obviously carried away all the weapons and technical rigs. Soon after, the locals started to take away anything of any value, including extensive piping, cables, any metal and so on, leaving basically the empty buildings and bunkers. More recently, as typical also to other such places in Latvia, private businesses were allowed on the premises of the former installation. A timber storage and processing facility today occupies the area where the nuclear warheads used to be stored, separate from the missiles.
The complex in Zeltini could accommodate four missiles in two couples of neighbor storage bunkers, built about .3 miles apart, and launch them from two twin surface launch pads. At least two launch pads can be seen today. They are large flat area with a pavement made of concrete slabs, recognizable by a steel crown on the ground with an approximate diameter of 5-6 feet. This was used to anchor the low gantry holding the 72 ft long missile in vertical position when being readied for launch.
One of the pads is in the center of the best preserved part of the site – the southeastern one -, but the position of the missile gantry is today occupied by a pretty big head of Lenin, reportedly moved here from Aluksne after the end of communism, sparing it from being blown up.
The grounds around this launch pad are rich with interesting bunkers, which once hosted support machinery and control gears, including anything necessary for missile servicing, launch preparation and control.
There are bunkers of basically two types – smaller ones with a single entrance on one side of a cusp-roofed tunnel and a lower height, and bigger ones, much roomier, longer, and with doors on both sides of the barrel-vaulted tunnel.
A ubiquitous feature of these missile complexes are concrete T-shaped frames planted in the ground. These were used to carry miles of pipings at the time when the base was active.
Aligned with the main axis of the launch area it is possible to spot the corresponding missile bunker ‘N.3’, which is unfortunately locked. The construction and size are like those of the bigger support bunkers, the only visible difference being the slightly wider doors on the front façade, and the absence of a back door on the other end of the bunker.
Many traces of plaques with mottos and citations in Russian from Lenin & Co. can be found on the exterior of the bunkers, whereas tons of ‘Warning!’ signs and other technical information are painted in the inside.
A second launch pad can be seen in the in the northwestern part of the military grounds – with no Lenin’s head. Here traces of stripes on the ground for easing maneuvers or indicating the place to park ancillary rigs – like generators, gas tanks,… – can still be seen. Also here the corresponding ‘N.2’ missile bunker is locked.
In a land strip where nature is growing wild between the two main launch areas, it is possible to spot a little bunker with a kind of concrete sentry-box. This was presumably a storage bunker for light weapons, a small reinforced shelter for watchmen, or something similar. Wooden shelves can still be found inside.
Another interesting sight is what appears to be a ‘living bunker’. This is half interred, with small doors on both ends and a sequence of rooms aligned on a long corridor. The center room is the biggest, and may be a canteen or something alike. There are traces of a decorated white and blue linoleum pavement, but there are also very unique frescoes on the walls. These include an artist impression of the SS-4 Sandal missile and also of the typical mushroom-cloud produced by a nuclear explosion!
A conspicuous part of the Zeltini base is the command area with living quarters for the troops. This is the part you see first when entering the base. The buildings here are totally abandoned and possibly dangerous to access.
There is not much left inside, but relevant remains of plaques with inscriptions and artistic drawings can be found on the walls outside. A highlight of the area is a former small park with a typical communist monument – a distinctive feature of all Soviet bases. The small park is a bit creepy, there are still benches around a former flowerbed, and a rain shelter, all now emerging from a field of nettles! The monument is basically a long wall with the silhouette of a stylized head. The inscription is fading, but the face painted on the red head can still be seen.
Getting there and moving around
The former missile base of Zeltini can be easily found driving on the P34, about 1.2 miles west of the town, exactly where P44 leaves from P34 to the north. There is also an official sign on the P34 pointing the way in. The area is preserved to some extent, and some of the former connection roads inside can be seen on Google Street View, yet the grounds are unfenced and there are no opening times. You can go in and move with your car, the only risk is that of getting a flat due to the road not being very clean.
Close to the head of Lenin there is also an explanatory panel with some quick notes and a basic map. A museum can be found in Zeltini, which was not opened when I visited, and they reportedly offer also guided tours of the place. This might be interesting especially for those less used to exploration activities, and possibly also to get access to the missile bunkers, which are usually closed. I couldn’t arrange a guided visit though, so I don’t know what they are offering on guided tours.
Some timber companies work in the former base, and you should not interfere with their operations, nor intrude in those parts of the base which are now used by them. Apart from this, this installation is rich of interesting sights and not much risky nor too big or difficult to explore, and it will make for a good 2 hours (minimum) exploration even visiting on your own, without accessing the locked or forbidden parts.
Note: Nearby Dvina Missile Site, Tirza – Completely Destroyed
There used to be other two ‘sister sites’ of the Zeltini complex in the area around Aluksne. One was in Strautini, a design very similar to the one in Zeltini. To my information this has ceased operations but is still today part of a military installation, so it cannot be approached. The second one was built in Tirza, and it was a Dvina site, i.e. a complex of four interred silos built for a suitably modified version of the R12 missile, called R12U. This kind of missile site started to be installed in 1964. Standing to the Google map of early 2017 the Tirza site should have been still in relative good shape. Unfortunately, in very recent times the local government hit very hard, having the site totally destroyed, flooded and buried under a monumental pile of land. The photographs below show what remains of this site – literally nothing.
Even though the silo may have represented an uncomfortable reminder of the relatively recent occupation by the Soviets, as the only remaining site of the kind in the country it should have deserved possibly a different treatment – similar to the site in Siauliai, Lithuania, recently turned into a museum on the Cold War. Another option – probably the most obvious – would have been to leave the site to nature, as it happened in most cases to former Soviet installations scattered around Europe, at no cost and without any relevant risk for the local population – the site in Tirza was extremely remote, hidden deep in the trees, far from the main road and from any village of appreciable size, in a part of the country of limited touristic interest. Only those interested, like explorers and historians, would have looked for it. The choice of the government, which judging from the proportions of the demolition work must have implied the use of a very relevant amount of money for the job, appears really hard to justify – especially in face of an infrastructure system still well below the European standard.
Anyway, as a practical suggestion, don’t waste your time trying to reach the Tirza site – Dvina missile complexes are not to be found in Latvia.
Skrunda Military Ghost Town
Located in the hilly countryside of southwest Latvia, about 50 miles from the port town of Liepaja, the area around the village of Skrunda has been for long a primary strategic site for the USSR. Due to the geographical position on the northwestern border of the Union, this place was selected for the construction of an early warning radar device – a system capable of detecting incoming enemy ballistic missiles, leaving enough time for deploying countermeasures and for retaliatory actions. The type built in Skrunda was called Dnestr-M, and was the first early warning system type deployed by the USSR. Actually, the Skrunda radar site, codenamed RO-2, was the first to become operative in 1971, marking the foundation of the entire Soviet ABM (anti-ballistic missile) system. This was just a component of a series of similar sites intended to cover the entire border, constituting a ‘invisible fence’ against missile attacks from the US and their Allies.
Early warning radar systems are not just small radar antennas like those you can see in airports. Instead they are very (very) big and powerful systems, digesting a huge flow of electric energy to stay alive, and where all the required hardware – including the antennas – is often stored in suitably designed, tall and imposing buildings. The RO-2 system was made of two Dnestr-M fixed antennas, each assembled in a special construction 650 ft long and 250 ft tall!
The staff required for running the facility and all connected businesses was numerous, so a military village was built anew in Skrunda deep in the years of the Cold War just a few miles north of the old town. The village was intended for troops, technicians and their families. The relevance of the Skrunda site is testified also by the selection of that area for the installation of another antenna of the type Daryal-UM, with a range of almost 4’000 miles, 1’000 more than the Dnestr-M system. The decision was taken in the late Eighties, and the Daryal-UM system in Skrunda was never operative.
Following the collapse of the USSR an agreement was made between the governments of Latvia and Russia to gradually phase out the early warning systems in Skrunda, which had to be kept under Russian administration for some more years. As a result, the village of Skrunda was inhabited until 1998 by Russian troops.
After the demolition of all early warning hardware formerly agreed upon and the withdrawal of the Russian army, the military town of Skrunda was left in a state of disrepair. The Latvian government tried to sell the property in more instances, while some of the worst conserved buildings have been demolished. More recently the local municipality took control of the area, and there are plans to find a new function for the remaining part of the ghost town. Also the Latvian army is active on it. In the meanwhile you can tour this ‘domesticated’ ghost town – which can be accessed officially paying a small fee at the entrance – you are even given a map of the site!
The fact that you pay for a visit takes away much of the ghost-town-aura typical to other similar places in the former Eastern Bloc – here you know you are not alone. Nonetheless, what makes this place impressive is the size of the buildings, now totally empty, and the imposing ensemble they form together.
Besides the residential buildings, the bulkiest and more numerous, there are a hotel, a school – which cannot be accessed due to the collapsing roof -, a market and many other services you may expect to find in a typical modern neighborhood.
Also impressive are the club with a big gym and the frescoes in it. An obelisk monument can be found in the square ahead of the gym.
On the tiles on the blind side of one of the residential buildings it is possible to spot a giant, now fading portrait of a Soviet soldier.
The residential and service complex with its distinctive tall buildings occupies the northern part of the ghost town of Skrunda, while the southern part is composed of lower buildings formerly for barracks and military services, including a canteen, a command building and a small military prison.
The face of the command building bears inscriptions in Cyrillic, which are now barely visible. From historical pictures it is possible to see that at some point the Red Banner was changed into the Russian flag you can spot today.
Most of the buildings in this area are in a really bad shape, and many are inaccessible due to piles of waste material packed inside. Among the most unusual sights here, stickers of ‘Western propaganda symbols’ – including an iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron’s ‘Terminator’! – inside the door of a small cabinet, likely from the Eighties.
At the time of my visit there were some Latvian troops busy moving light material between some of these buildings.
Getting there and moving around
Getting to the Soviet ghost town of Skrunda is easy with a car. You can reach the old town of Skrunda along the A9, connecting Liepaja and Riga. Once there, take the P116 going north to Kuldiga. The entrance to the site will be on your left about 3 miles north of the center of old Skrunda.
I have to admit I had prepared my visit as a ‘usual’ wild exploration, and I discovered the place is actually a tourist attraction only when I was there. My first approach was from the side of the village opposite to the P116, to reduce the chance to be spotted by locals. To my great surprise I was soon met by a young lady walking along the main street of the ghost town. I thought she was there for picking mushrooms or something in the wilderness, instead she came closer and politely told me there was a ticket to pay! Then I spotted other visitors around in the distance. I moved my car to the P116 and accessed the place as a normal visitor. An old lady at the former control booth of the military village asked for a few Euros – no credit cards, obviously – and gave me a ticket and a map.
The reason for my error was the lack of information available online, also due to the very limited penetration of English in that part of Europe, even on websites. For the same reason, unfortunately I can’t provide an official source site nor opening times.
Due to a very tight timetable, I could only dedicate about an hour to the visit of the ghost town – I also wasted some time moving my car from the back to the official gate of the base. The site may deserve 1.5-2.5 hours depending on your level of interest, especially if you want to take pictures.
As written above, Skrunda is in the center of a renovation program, and the place may not remain visible for long.
Karosta Military Prison & Liepaja Port Town
The port town of Liepaja is the third most populated center in Latvia. It bolsters an ancient tradition as a commercial port, built along trade routes very active since the early years of the Hanseatic League. More recently, in the second half of the 19th century the port was greatly developed also for military purposes under the power of the Tzars. This time saw the construction of conspicuous fortifications in the northern area of the town, and the development of an extensive military district named Karosta.
The military port was destined to play an important role in WWI, when the agonizing Russian Empire was fighting against the forces of the Kaiser, and again in WWII, when the Soviets, who had just annexed the Latvian territory in 1939-40, started fighting against Hitler in 1941. The German Wehrmacht actually occupied Liepaja until 1945.
Back in the hands of the Soviets, the port was developed step by step into a major base of the Soviet fleet, headquartering the Baltic branch tasked with tactical dominance of the Baltic Sea. Since the 1960s until the collapse of the USSR Liepaja was turned into a closed town for military personnel only, and all commercial activities were interdicted.
Nowadays the commercial port is again very active, and the town, even boasting a university, is trying to reestablish its original status as a center for commerce and tourism.
Most notably, the former military district of Karosta can be toured along a well designed historical trail, showing the old quarters of the military town from the years of the Tzars. A distinctive feature of Karosta is the breakwater pier, protruding into the Baltic for about 1 mile, which can be walked in its entirety. Another very suggestive sight is the dome of the Orthodox church, recently refurbished after having being closed for years in the Soviet era.
Another unusual sight in the Karosta district is the coastal fortification built by the Tzars in the late 19th century. The cannons are gone, but the mighty fortifications look still impressive.
The additions by the Soviets in terms of housing are clearly recognizable by the depressing style and poor building technique, making these buildings look worse than their older predecessors.
The military district of the Tzars included a military prison, today known as Karosta Prison (or ‘Karosta Cietums’, in Latvian). This prison has been turned into a museum only recently, and is now advertised as a local attraction.
This prison is unique in many senses. From a historical perspective, for instance, it was managed by six different military powers in its history – the Russian Empire, the newly constituted Latvian government soon after WWI, the Soviets between 1940 and 1941, the Nazis until 1945, then the Soviets again and finally the Latvian government of our days after the independence from the Soviet Union!
The place is rich of sad memories, especially from the years of Nazi occupation, when the prison was not intended to reeducate – whatever this might have meant in Soviet times -, but acted more as an antechamber for captured spies or subversive elements to be shot – something that reportedly happened in the courtyard in several occasions – or deported to Nazi lagers. Of course, the beginning of the Soviet period was a very harsh one too for Liepaja and all Latvia, thanks to Stalin’s unscrupulous deportation plans which hit hard in the region, but that was a business the small military prison of Karosta was not much involved in.
The brick building of the prison is composed of two floors. The museum offers guided visits to the small complex. The first sight is the office of the director on the ground floor, preserved from the Soviet era, and enriched with tons of collectible items. Really an impressive sight.
Another very unique room is packed with weapons, uniforms and other military gear from the years of WWII. This collection, albeit small, is extremely valuable especially for what remains of the Nazi period – somewhat paradoxically, in Germany similar collections are basically impossible to find.
I explicitly asked more than once about the originality of the pieces on show, and was punctually reassured. The prison and what is in it, with the exception of the arrangement of the ticket office and the rooms nearby, is 95% original, and what was not originally there when the prison was finally closed – like a portrait of Stalin and a wooden silhouette of Lenin’s face – is still original, relocated for exhibition purposes. No fakes.
Next, the guided tour will drive you to the cells on the top floor, which were intended for soldiers, where the ground floor was for officers. The only difference is in the color of the walls – black on the top floor, brownish on the lower floor.
Karosta is the only military prison you can visit in the Baltics… and probably the only one in the world where you can sleep, if you dare to! The standard treatment is not so rude as you may expect, and spending the night in provides also the advantage of a dedicated evening visit of the prison after the closing time, along with the other ‘inmates’.
The rooms where you sleep are the cells of the ground floor – originally intended for officers. There are two possible configurations, i.e. rooms with iron beds, or empty cells, where you assemble your ‘bed’ taking a wooden board and a mattress from piles in a deposit. Then you are given a pillow, sheets and a blanket. The sheets are marked in Cyrillic, and probably belong to the original supply of the Soviet prison.
The door of the cell is left open, so you are totally free to move around all night, and even go out in the courtyard if you need. Toilets are in common, placed in the original toilet room. They are clean, even though basic, and there are no showers. There is a guard – who is also the guide on the evening tour – on the top floor, and the external perimeter of the prison is locked, so you feel reasonably safe. You can also park your car inside the perimeter. That said, spending the night in the cell is surely unusual and provokes strange feelings and thoughts… but that’s what you were probably looking for when you decided to sleep in a prison!
The prison offers more intense experiences where you are ‘disturbed’ during the night and treated more harshly by the guards, but these are only for groups. These packages are advertised also for companies, for team-building purposes.
The small restaurant has been put in the original canteen for the guards, and they offer a full Soviet-themed menu for dinner and for breakfast. The ‘hotel’ manager speaks English, and she can help you out with the menu, written in Latvian only.