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.

Soviet Traces in the Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan & Georgia

A visit to the three Caucasian republics – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – today offers much to virtually any type of traveler. An incredible range of sceneries can be found there, from beaches to mountain ridges, from abundant traces of a multi-millennial civilization to futuristic skyscrapers and oil rigs.

As recent history has dramatically shown, these countries are inhabited by markedly different, deeply divided populations. Furthermore, all three of course still have a complicated relationship with their gigantic neighbor, Russia, which shares a border with both Georgia and Azerbaijan – with some unsolved uncertainties especially with the former, as shown in the cases of the contended territories of Abkhazia and Ossetia. On the other hand, Armenia is historically at loggerheads with Turkey, with which it shares a long – and impenetrable – border.

The three Caucasian nations have suffered the influence of stronger powers for ages. Constant clashes between Czar’s Russia and the Turks meant the loss of independence for long. As a matter of fact, both today’s Georgia and Azerbaijan where under Russia, and Armenia under the Turks, when WWI broke out. Soon after the war, short-lived independent nations were extirpated by the deadly action of the communist Bolsheviks, invading from Russia. The three Caucasian nations were forcibly incorporated in the Soviet Union, creating an artificial, uncomfortable friendship between each other and with Russia.

For roughly seven decades the three nations were on the southern border of the USSR, sharing a frontier with Turkey and Persia (later Iran). Turkey collaborated with the Third Reich in WWII, and later joined NATO, hosting – as it still does today – Western military forces on its territory. That border with the USSR was very active in the Cold War years. Aerial espionage missions were flown by the US from Turkey, ballistic missiles were installed, gigantic radar plants were put in place by the Soviets, who also manufactured MiGs in the outskirts of the Georgian capital – really a hot region in the Cold War!

As soon as the Soviet power started to creak at the very end of the 1980s, national movements faced again, eventually leading to the birth of independent nations as we know them today. This was not without a deadly struggle however, as for the case of Azerbaijan, mostly relevant for its oil reserves and the border with Iran. Furthermore, religious and cultural differences and unsolved disputes over the actual borders among each other meant that these three nations were never friends over the last three decades.

Besides this complicated geopolitical inheritance, the long-lasting Soviet tenancy of the three Caucasian Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) left traces, of course. Some highlights among the architectural leftovers of Soviet times are presented in this post, from all three Republics. Monuments, from Soviet times, or celebrating independence from the Soviets, are similarly included. Further traces are preserved in museums – military museums dating from the Soviet era, like in Gori (Stalin’s birth town in Georgia, see this post) and Yerevan, history museums like in Baku and Tbilisi, or collections of artifacts from Soviet times, like the world-class Auto-Museum next to the airport in Tbilisi.

Photographs are from a long visit to the Caucasus in summer 2019.

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Armenia

Azerbaijan

Georgia

Sights in Armenia

Republic Square, Yerevan

A fine example of Soviet-times architecture, Republic Square – originally named Lenin’s Square – was designed in the mid-1920s, soon after the creation of the USSR, and was actually built little by little, reaching completion in the 1970s. It is a great example of Soviet-classicism, contaminated by some Armenian motifs – Armenia boasts an original architectural school originating several centuries ago, and particularly evident in medieval Armenian churches.

The focal point, once a statue of Lenin at the center of the square and pulled down in the 1990s, is possibly the front facade of the rich History Museum of Armenia, in a pale color and openly recalling the lines of the beautiful monasteries to be found in the country.

Besides the museum building, fronted by a huge fountain, the oval shaped square is defined by four more buildings, coordinated in terms of volumes and colors. The frieze on some of the buildings is centered on the usual Soviet iconography – five-pointed stars, sickles, harvest, …

The easternmost building with a clock tower used to be the seat of the government of the Armenian SSR, and is now the palace of the Armenian Government.

The westernmost building was designed, and still is, a hotel.

At night, they regularly offer a nice show with music, lights and water games.

Visiting

Centrally located in Yerevan, you can reach this place in several ways. You probably won’t miss it if traveling to the Armenian capital city. Just note that parking is not possible on the square.

Cascade, Yerevan

A large – better, a monster-size… – stairway, climbing uphill from central Yerevan to a residential uptown neighborhood, was designed in the early 1970s and built in two stages, both in the 1970s and in the 2000s.

The stairway is interrupted by platforms, with sculptures and fountains, which make it look pretty irregular and full of details to discover.

Access to the famous Cafesjian Museum is along the stairway.

As of 2021, the complex is unfinished, still missing a planned building on top. The stairway offers a beautiful view of Yerevan, basically in its entirety. The panorama reaches to Turkey and mount Ararat.

Visiting

This is a highlight in town you won’t probably miss. A climb with a taxi to the top is recommended, descending the stairway instead of climbing it, especially on torrid summer days.

Mother Armenia & Victory Park, Yerevan

A unique sight in the former SSRs of the Caucasian area, the Mother Armenia statute is a typical relic of the Cold War, like you can find elsewhere in Russia or more rarely in the Soviet satellite countries of Eastern Europe.

The statue was born as a commemorative monument for the effort of the Armenian SSR in the Great Patriotic War. Having been designed soon after WWII, when Stalin was still the leader of the USSR, the monument was pretty different from now – a huge statue of Stalin used to stand on top of the huge pillar! This was removed in the early 1960s, being swapped with a nicer statue resembling an Armenian young woman, and titled ‘Mother Armenia’.

The base of the monument features a few decorations, based on typical Soviet iconography.

Around the monument, in what is called Victory Park, a few specimens of Soviet military technology are there to see. These include a few tanks, missiles and aircraft.