The New Life of a Soviet Base in Germany – Ribnitz-Damgarten

Most Soviet bases in the former territory of the German Democratic Republic met with oblivion following the departure of their Red Army tenants back to mainland Russia, in the early 1990s.

Most locations – including full scale airbases (see here, here or here), infantry academies and shooting ranges (see here) and nuclear warhead bunkers (see here) – have been returned to nature, demolished or converted into something else. Much on this website documents this hidden part of the Cold War heritage in Germany.

However, there exist exceptions, like the airbase of Grossenhain with its preserved Granit-type bunker (see here), or the central Soviet headquarters of Wünsdorf (see here).

Another notable exception is that of the former Third Reich, and later Soviet, airbase of Ribnitz-Damgarten. Following an exploration in a day of closure in 2016 (documented here), the site was visited again legit, this time accessing the unique Museum of Technology of Pütnitz. The museum collection is very nice in itself, covering both civil and military vehicles from the DDR age, as well as heavy Soviet military vehicles, and even a few boats and aircraft from the Eastern bloc.

The museum is hosted in a complex of hangars dating from the years of the Third Reich, when the airbase of Ribnitz was active for experimenting with seaplanes, and busy with a facility of the Heinkel aircraft manufacturing company. These concrete hangars are still standing today, undoubtedly an example of German engineering excellence.

The Soviets made good use of this facility, and Ribnitz-Damgarten became a very active base on the Baltic coast for the full span of the Cold War – until the withdrawal of the then-Russian troops, who used this airport as the springboard for their final hop to their new home in Russia.

A further reason to pay a visit to Ribnitz-Damgarten is the chance to assist to the one-of-a-kind reunion and live exhibition of preserved vehicles from the Soviet bloc. Held in the summer, this ‘Treffen’ (i.e. reunion) is really worth the effort of setting up a trip, even when visiting from abroad. It is a multi-day event, and possibly the largest meeting of aficionados of cars, motorcycles and trucks from the communist world, with the chance to see all this good old technology at work, i.e. spitting and thick-smoking, all around the base. Chance is that you will drive on the original Soviet runway to reach the event parking!

Besides this yearly event, the museum offers live demonstrations of military vehicles on a more regular schedule.

The present post and photographs cover a visit to the Technology Museum of Pütnitz in occasion of the reunion of Eastern Europe vehicles held in late August 2021.

Sights

Museum of Technology of Pütnitz

The museum of Pütnitz has taken over the hangars of the old Third Reich base to the west of the airfield of Ribnitz-Damgarten. These hangars are pretty interesting from an architectural standpoint. By using large and curved concrete frames, the inside volume is extremely big for the time. As a matter of fact, they were kept in use for decades, since they could match the size of larger aircraft and vehicles of the Cold War.

These hangars are just a handful, but complemented by smaller (regular size…) hangars they provide for a very large display area, wisely adopted by the museum for its exhibits.

One of the hangars is dedicated to the NVA, i.e. of the Armed Forces of the former GDR. Among the many artifacts on display, are a MiG-21 fighter, the skeleton of an Antonov An-2 transport, and a Mil-8 helicopter. The latter has been placed in a suspended position, with a mechanism to rotate its rotors!

In the same hangar you can find a pretty extensive collection of light armored vehicles, technical amphibious vehicles as well as full-scale tanks formerly in use with the NVA in different stages of the Cold War.

A smaller area is dedicated to a display of NVA uniforms, GDR emblems and medals, uniforms of youth organizations within the GDR, as well as detailed scale models of war material in the arsenal of the USSR or the GDR over the years.

A second smaller hangar hosts trucks of Soviet make, formerly used by – presumably – the NVA. Some are especially interesting, since they were used as missile transports, and are on display with their original trailers and… payload! Also trucks transporting Soviet-made radar antennas, for air target capture or anti-aircraft missile guidance, are on display.

To the back of the same hangar, a super-interesting collection of material connected with nuclear warfare is on display. In particular, field instrumentation for measuring radiation levels, dosimeters, anti-radiation suits and masks, specific medical kits are part of this rich and uncommon exhibition.

Some of the measurement equipment is still working, with old-fashioned, low-light electronic displays still lit – really an evoking sight from the Cold War era!

Yet in another hangar, a huge collection of GDR cars and motorcycles is on display. Most of these now vintage cars and vehicles used to be a rather common sight in the GDR. The now iconic Trabant was a product of the GDR. However, many other car manufacturers existed in the Eastern Bloc, and in the USSR as well, and their products were often exported to other Countries in the bloc.

Stately cars for the top-ranking communist leadership were usually Soviet-made. You can find a small gallery of these Cold War icons in a corner of the same hangar, ahead of giant portraits of the SED (the ruling party of the GDR) leaders – Ulbricht, Honecker, Krenz.

To the back of the hangar, classic motorcycles from the Eastern Bloc are on display. They include MZ motorcycles in use with the Völkspolizei, the police of the GDR. A sizable collection of cameras is also on display.

In the same hangar are a reconstruction of a gas station, as well as a crop-dusting propeller aircraft.

Notably, you can spot fading writings in Russian on the walls of this hangar, an heritage of the Soviet tenancy of the airbase.

Some museum items are on display outside. Some of the military vehicles in the collection are still in working conditions. Live demonstrations of tanks and armored transports are regularly planned, and make for a nice sight and a thrilling experience!

Soviet Relics

Despite having being taken over by the museum and other commercial activities, the premises of the old Soviet airbase of Ribnitz-Damgarten betray the long decades of Soviet use. Besides the relics you can find scattered around in the airfield (see here for a previous exploration), very close to the museum hangars you can spot several technical buildings belonging to the base, and now basically abandoned.

On the side facade of one of those, a colossal Soviet emblem can still be seen, albeit now fading.

Signs written in Russian can be spotted here and there, as well as an original, very interesting full scheme of the base (in Russian too), a typical sight in any Soviet base.

Now-rotting buildings for the base staff can be found emerging from the overgrown vegetation to the north of the hangars.

Finally, the runway is still in a good shape, albeit cut to the east to make room to yet another solar power plant – with a really questionable function, considering the rainy weather physiologically insisting on the region most of the year. The original centerline and other markings can be clearly seen still today.

The airport is closed, but since the runway has not been taken away, perhaps some hope remains for a future with at least general aviation activities, like in Rechlin or Finow.

International Reunion of Vehicles of the Eastern Bloc

Perhaps among the busiest days of the museum in Pütnitz, those of the ‘Internationales Ostblock-Fahrzeugtreffen’ (which translates into the title of this paragraph) make for one of the most exciting occasions for a visit. Usually taking three days, this colossal reunion hosts roughly 2.000 vehicles, from cars to trucks, from farm tractors to motorcycles, from side-cars to firefighting vehicles, and from 4×4 military transports to camping trailers – all made on the communist side of the Iron Curtain!

The reunion is international, and many come from beyond the near border with Poland. In 2021 the reunion hit its 20th edition.

All vehicles are parked in virtually any lot of flat land between and around the hangars of the museum, including the original taxiways and any grassy areas around.

Furthermore, besides some official movements and parade, you will see vehicles moving around at any time, with their very characteristic good old piston engine crackling sound, as well as much spitting and thick-smoking!

Besides the countless Trabants, built in several different versions you will come to discover, chance is to see massive Soviet GAZ military trucks, or even Hungary-built Ikarus buses!

The ‘Treffen’ of 2021 was especially unlucky with the weather, which on the plus side allowed many vehicles to show their all-weather capability!

To better appreciate the noise and smoke, have a look to these three videos!

Visiting

The Museum of Technology in Pütnitz allows you to access the otherwise inaccessible base of Ribnitz-Damgarten. Access is recommended by car. The entrance is to the northeast of the airfield, through the original gate of the airbase. The museum has a website here.

Visiting in normal conditions, i.e. out of any special event, may take about 1 hour, more for a piston-power-minded subject, or for military/vehicles enthusiasts. In occasion of the vehicle reunion, planning a half-day visit at least is recommended, since the display of vehicles is really huge and worth a careful glance. A talk with many nice owners and enthusiasts may be a further plus in this occasion.

The Cold War in Hungary – Military Collections, Leftovers & More

Many traces of the communist dictatorship can be found in today’s modern and thriving Hungary. The most visited ones, like Memento Park or Terror Haza in capital city Budapest, tell about the inhumane and pervasive aspect of propaganda and political repression. However, the history of this country in the second half of the 20th century is closely bound to the Soviet-backed communist seizure of power, and this has left traces also elsewhere, especially in terms of military leftovers. As a matter of fact, the Soviet Red Army was directly present in Hungary, to keep the status quo and to to be closer to the border with the West in case of an attack – and this of course left traces.

You can find a significant deal of material concerning more urbex-connected destinations in Hungary in another post.

In this one, you will find a mainly pictorial portrait of some of the best known attractions related to the Cold War period in Hungary, as well as some well accessible but less known ones, especially considering the general public visiting from abroad. As usual on this website, a good share of these sites is aviation-themed!

Photographs were taken in August 2020.

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Sights

Iron Curtain Museum, Felsocsatar

The Iron Curtain Museum has been created soon after the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 on the sight of a former small sector of the state border between communist Hungary and free Austria.

The site is mainly the result of the effort of a man, Sandor Gojak, a former border guard in the 1960s, who dedicated this permanent exhibition to those who attempted escaping the repressive communist regime in Hungary towards Austria and the West – both those who succeeded and those who did not, hence facing arrest or losing their lives due to the minefields prepared along the border line.

The site features three examples of the border line placed in the area over the years. They are look less impenetrable than those created between Eastern and Western Germany (see this post), yet they were similarly deadly in scope and facts.

The first is basically a simple line of barbed wire with wooden poles, and it was put in place soon after WWII. Mines were placed in close vicinity to the line. After wooden poles started to rot around the mid-1950s, mines were removed, a dangerous job which cost the health of some border guards, who were severely injured due to accidental explosions.

For a short while at that time, the border was free of mines, and about 300’000 people managed to leave the ‘paradise of workers’!

Soon after the anti-communist uprising in 1956, suffocated with violence by the Soviets, the border was further fortified with concrete poles, and the mine strip was increased in width.

Only at the end of the 1960s the mines were removed, after multiple accidents involving Austrian citizens, when the mines slipped into a creek near the border due to a flood, injuring many who touched them incautiously. This time the border security system was strongly potentiated, with the adoption of an electrified system for the immediate detection of proximity, linked to signal collection centers dislocated along the line. This system had been implemented by the USSR on the Pakistani border. Something similar can be found also on the border between Czechoslovakia and West Germany (see here).

The exhibition is completed by an example of a wooden turret, as well as a more modern fence – a specimen of the one put in place in 2015 between today’s Hungary and neighbor Serbia and Croatia, when a wave of migrants from the Middle East swept the Balkans.

The museum is full of vivid testimonies, thanks to the many historical pictures and artifacts on display, and to the fact that the founder is actually the man who runs the museum! – he is totally available to answer your questions.

Getting there and visiting

The museum can be reached here: 47.20376801287036, 16.429799972912328, on the border between Hungary and Austria, not far from Szombathely. The coordinates point to a convenient parking. The site is operated as an open-air museum, with opening times and an entrance fee. Moderate climbing is required, as the museum area is on the slope of a nice hill. Only cash accepted. Visiting may take about 45 minutes. Website here.

Military Park, Zanka

This small military park is a nice and cared for exhibition of Soviet-made weapons, located ahead of a resort which used to be an exclusive destination for vacation on the coast of Lake Balaton.

You can find here a couple of Mil helicopters – including the legendary Mil-24 in all its ‘beauty’! – in the colors of the Hungarian Air Force.

There is a MiG-21, also formerly of the Hungarian Air Force, a T-64 tank, a howitzer, a military snow blower, an amphibious truck and more light trailers.

Perhaps the most striking sight in this collection is the surface-to-air missile (SAM) SA-2, aka S-75 Dvina in the Soviet codification. A rather basic but powerful – and successful – missile from the 1950s, sold by the Soviets to many satellite Countries and clients over the world.

A revolving antenna can be seen on top of a truck. This is an example of the target acquisition antenna for the SA-2 system, code-named Spoon Rest by NATO, and known as P18 in Soviet codification. This radar system had a range of approximately 170 miles, and was an improvement of the previous P12 design. The launch site of SA-2 SAMs was always complemented by a set of antennas, including a Spoon Rest system. Actually, P18 could be coupled with the launch system of more advanced SAMs too.

All items in the collection here are pretty well preserved, making the visit an enjoyable stop along the exploration of the Balaton coastline.

Getting there and moving around

The park can be found here: 46.881838498667996, 17.7098619193198. The site can be visited in 10-30 minutes depending on your level of interest. This is an open-air museum, with ticket and opening times. Website (referral) with some information here.

Komarom Monostor Fort & Soviet Weapons Collection

An incredible, perfectly preserved military fort from the years of the Austrian Empire, Monostor Fort in Komarom can be found on the Danube, marking the border with Slovakia. At the time of construction, the two nations were united in the Austrian Empire, and the fort was erected between 1850-71 as a part of a defense line extending also north in today’s Slovakia.

Despite being extremely interesting for its articulated and complex construction – a brilliant example of military engineering from the time – the fort saw no action in its intended purpose. It was used for training for most of its life, then briefly as a prisoner’s camp in the years of Hitler’s administration, and finally as an immense weapons storage during the Cold War years, when it saw tenancy by the Soviets.

Today, the fort is open as a museum, duly centered on the interesting original construction from the 19th century.

One cellar has been left as it was in Soviet times, when weapons of all sorts were stored here, moved by means of a dedicated short-gauge railway.