Plokstine – A Preserved Nuclear Missile Site in Lithuania

While almost all nuclear sites you can find in European Countries once beyond the Iron Curtain are today totally abandoned and fairly unaccessible, there exists a perhaps unique exception. The Plokstine site in northwestern Lithuania has been selected around 2010 for complete refurbishment with the help of public money, and in 2012 it has opened its doors as a museum. Located in a beautiful natural setting crowded with hikers – namely Zemaitija National Park, a national recreation area around Plateliai lake – it has quickly grown to international fame, and is now recording several thousands visitors per year, with guided tours in multiple languages – including English – offered on a regular basis during the warm season.

What is today an intriguing tourist destination, used to be part of a large Soviet installation for launching ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. It is worth mentioning that Lithuania was a ‘Soviet Socialist Republic’ in the realm of the USSR, i.e. not just a satellite country of the Soviet Union, but part of it. Actually, this small country on the shores of the Baltic Sea, on the extreme western border of Soviet territory, was an ideal location for deploying weapons to hit European targets from within the Union. Furthermore, the Plokstine forest was – and still is – a little populated area, where construction works for a large top-secret military facility for storing and operating offensive cutting-edge hi-tech warfare would go likely unnoticed.

The missile complex was completed in December 1962, in the years of Khrushchev and Kennedy. The Plokstine site comprises of four interred silos and an extensive underground command station in the middle – the ensemble constituted a so-called ‘Dvina’ launch complex.

The ‘Dvina’ site in Plokstine was actually the last part of the missile base to be built. Two more sister surface sites, with four launchpads each, had been completed one year before, just west of the nearby village of Saiteikiai. These surface sites were similar to those you can find in Latvia (see this post), a neighbor country where unfortunately the last remaining ‘Dvina’ site was demolished in 2017, but abundant traces of the Soviet presence can still be found.

All three launch complexes in this region were designed around the R-12 missile. The R-12U missile was actually used in the underground ‘Dvina’ complex, slightly different from the surface-launched R-12. This weapon was better known by its NATO designation – SS-4 Sandal – and was a 2.3 megaton, single warhead, single stage nuclear missile. It reached true international notoriety before the base in Plokstine was activated, for this was the type deployed to Cuba in the missile crisis of 1962. Coincidentally, part of the staff transferred to Cuba in the days preceding the crisis was from the same rocket regiment of the Red Army (the 79th) stationed in Plokstine. Sandal missiles from here were reportedly transferred in complete secrecy to Cuba, via the port town of Sevastopol in Crimea in that occasion.

The base remained operational until the last missile – by then obsolete – left in 1978.

The Baltics were the first republics to leave the dying Soviet Union, openly defying the military authority of neighbor Russia. After the collapse of the Union and the end of communism in Europe, these three states – which historically do not belong to Russian culture – quickly joined the NATO and European Union, to escape Russian influence as much as possible. Most Soviet military installations were shut down and abandoned, and have been for two decades an interesting destination for explorers and war historians (see this post for many examples). Later on, most sites have been slowly demolished or converted into something else. Really a few of them have been preserved for posterity.

In this post you can find photographs from the Cold War Museum now open in the former ‘Dvina’ site of Plokstine, from a visit in 2017. Close to the bottom, you can find a few further photographs from a previous visit made by appointment in 2009, before the site was selected for renovation – these may be more appealing for Soviet-aura lovers!

Sights

What can be visited today is all in the area of the old ‘Dvina’ complex. The complex is mainly composed of four interred silos, covered by heavy steel & concrete bulged covers, placed on the four corners of a square. These gigantic caps are the most prominent components of the site from the outside. Today, an observation deck has been erected on the south of the area. From there, you can appreciate the distinctive plan of the ‘Dvina’ complex, with an access road terminating in a loop touching all four armored silo covers.

The weight of each cover is told to be around 100 tonnes, as it was armored to withstand a nuclear explosion. The covers would be pulled sideward with a sled mechanism, to open the silos before launch. Unmovable missile launch complexes, like the ‘Dvina’ site in Plokstine, were easy and attractive targets for western weapons, thus requiring a very strong defense barrier. Similar considerations led the design of the Titan missile sites in the US, which albeit more powerful and capable of a greater range, are roughly from the same era (see this post).

To get near the silos or get access to the museum, you need to pay a ticket and join a guided tour. The visit includes a tour of the Cold War Museum, which has been prepared inside the rooms of the former control center. The tour will start from the visitor center, a new modern building. You will soon go through a specimen of the original fences which ran around the ‘Dvina’ complex, and which included barbed wire and high-voltage electrified lines. Close by, you can find traces of original unarmored constructions, likely service buildings. The missile site was operated by more than 300 troops stationing in a number of smaller centers in the area around the complex.

The guide will lead you along a walk around the surface part of the complex, where you can see the construction of the caps from very close. The metal part is very rusty, but the concrete cover has been refurbished and looks like new – a pretty unusual sight, for connoisseurs of Soviet military relics!

Access to the underground missile service and control center is via a small metal door, right in the middle of the square formed by the four silos.

A few rooms in the control center today host the exhibitions of the Cold War Museum. A room displays a quick time-line of the Cold War, since the end of WWII to the end of the USSR. In the adjoining rooms you can find propaganda items

Another room is about defense against nuclear threat. This is interesting, with many artifacts like dosimeters and medical tools, plus easily readable instructions of ‘dos and don’ts’ in case of nuclear attack.

Another room is about the evolution of weapons over the Cold War decades, with original material from the time, including heavier tactical weapons.

The exhibition is modern, small but not superficial, and may appeal to any public, including children. Besides the exhibits, you can appreciate the relatively small size of all rooms and connecting corridors in the former control center.

As you are driven next to the missile operation part, you can find a scale model of the ‘Dvina’ complex and a cut-out of a R-12U silo, together with a map of the relatively few missile sites in Lithuania – from the map, it can be argued that, for some reason, many more sites were prepared in nearby Latvia.

Resting quarters for the troops and a communication station with original electronic gear have been reconstructed based on original footage and pics. Communication with the military headquarters was clearly an essential task – it was the only way an order to launch could be issued – and the serviceman on duty was responsible for assuring a permanent link with the chain of command. In other words, he was instructed not to leave his headphones under any circumstances, during a several hours-long shift!

On the sides of the corridors you can see holes for the extensive network of cables and pipes. Further on, you meet the most ‘hardware’ part of the exhibition. First, the original diesel-fueled power generator has been refurbished and is standing in its original room. The underground complex was designed not only to withstand a nuclear blast, but also to provide shelter for all servicemen for several days following an attack. This meant air filters, food, water, technical supplies and of course electrical power, were all essential assets. Oil for the generator was stored in a container in an adjoining room.

Finally, you get access to one of the four silos. You need to go through a tight door opened on the wall of the concrete structure of the control center. Writings in Cyrillic can be spotted on the walls in this area. From there, you will see the cylindrical shape of the metal structure of the silo from the side. This metal canister is really big, the ‘Dvina’ silos featured a much greater diameter than the SS-4 missile they were built for. This was somewhat different from their US counterpart (see this post), where the missile diameter fits the size of the silo without much margin.

You can get access to the silo via the original hatch, cut in the metal wall close to the rim on top of the silo, just beneath the external cap. Going through this hatch is incredibly difficult – it is extremely narrow, much longer than the size of a human step, and tilted upwards! It is hard to understand why the Soviets built it in a size so small – this applies to the control center too, for all corridors are really narrow and the ceiling in the rooms is so low you may easily need to bend forward! For those who don’t want to try the original entry to the silo, there is now a non-original door cut in the side of the canister.

The inside of the silo can be observed from an original service deck, immediately under the external cover. From here you can clearly appreciate the size of the construction – the missile was more than 70 ft long, and sat here in a vertical position. The SS-4 was among the first missiles to make use of a storable liquid propellant, which allowed it to stay in almost-launch-ready conditions for a prolonged time, if resting in a silo. Nonetheless, the time for opening the armored caps was about 30 minutes, which meant this was not exactly quick to launch. The understructure of the armored caps can be clearly appreciated from inside the silo.

Photographs Before Restoration Works – Ghost Base

When I visited this site for the first time in 2009, it was open only by appointment. Unfortunately, I had only a compact camera at the time, and the very low light inside plus a rainy day outside, meant I could take only a few acceptable pictures.

However, they provide an idea of the state of the ‘Dvina’ complex before it was decided to reconfigure it as a museum.

As you can see, the armored silo caps were in a worse shape than today, yet not heavily damaged. The barbed wire fence around the four silos was probably original Soviet.

Inside, the control rooms were basically empty, except for some communist emblems and flags. Green wall paint and Cyrillic writings could be found even at the time, so what you see today is likely original. The generator, whilst in bad shape, was there.

The silo could be accessed only via the original hatch, and except for the partial darkness, its appearance is similar today.

It is out of doubt that the ‘Soviet ghost aura’ of the base was somewhat lost in the restoration process, yet credit must be given to the effort of the local government in preserving a rare and relevant trace of military history through an expensive restoration process.

Getting there and moving around

The Cold War Museum (Šaltojo karo muziejus in the local idiom) is located in the Zemaitija National Park, northwestern Lithuania, east of lake Plateliai. Access is via the road 2302. The place is totally accessible and well advertised locally. Visiting the outside of the armored caps and inside is possible only with a guided tour, offered in many languages including English, and lasting about 50 minutes. No fee is required for climbing on top of the observation deck. Full information through the official website here.

Soviet Leftovers in Latvia

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.

Sights

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.

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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.