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.

The Estonian Aviation Museum

A nice and lively university town in the heart of the Estonian countryside, Tartu has really something for every kind of tourist – including those interested in aviation history. The Estonian Aviation Museum, or ‘Eeesti Lennundusmuuseum’ as they write it in the tricky local idiom, boasts a substantial and heterogenous collection of aircraft preserved in exceptionally good condition, which will not leave indifferent even the most knowledgeable aviation expert.

Having being for long a socialist republic in the realm of the Soviet Union – and today sharing a border with Russia – Estonia had access to massive surplus reserves after the end of the Cold War, so it is no surprise that Soviet aircraft are well represented in an Estonian museum. This already might appeal to western tourists, for the exotic, menacing silhouettes of MiGs and Sukhois are not often to be found except in less accessible spots in the former Eastern Bloc. Yet some more unexpected and rare models have been added over the years, including some SAAB aircraft from Sweden which are authentic collectibles.

The following photographs cover almost every plane that was there in summer 2017.

Sights

Most part of the collection has been preserved in a cleverly designed structure, made of small open-walled hangars with translucent canopies. The aircraft are illuminated by natural light, helping much when taking pictures, but they are not exposed to direct sunlight, rain or snow, which tend to damage both metal and plexiglas on the long run. Furthermore, the lack of doors and frames allows you to move around freely, and the place is not suffocating nor excessively warm.

The aircraft are basically all from the Cold War era, but some of them have outlived the end of the USSR and were retired more recently. The portraits are grouped here roughly based on the nationality of the manufacturers or aircraft mission.

Designs from the US

The American production is represented in this museum firstly by a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, operated by the West-German Luftwaffe. The General Electric J79 turbojets have been taken out of the airframe, so you can see them separately.

A pretty unusual sight, also the antenna and electronic group in the nose cone have been taken out and are on display. This Phantom is a F-4F, a version specifically developed for West Germany from the basic F-4E. The former inventory number was 99+91.

Another iconic model on the menu is a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, formerly from the Italian Air Force. This exemplar is actually an Italian-built ‘S’ version, and among the latest to be retired by the Aeronautica Militare. The engine, again a J79, is on display elsewhere in the museum. An unusual crowd of instruction and warning stencils populate the external surface of the aircraft.

Soviet Military Models

The majority of the aircraft on display were designed in the Soviet Union or other countries of the Warsaw Pact.

Two aggressive aircraft include a MiG-21 and a MiG-23. The first, present here in the colors of the Polish Air Force, is a MiG-21bis Fishbed, the latest development of this fast delta-wing fighter/light-interceptor.

Possibly one of the most ubiquitous fighters of the jet age, the MiG-23 Flogger is part also of this collection. The aircraft you see in the pictures is a MLD variant, representing the last upgrade of this iconic fighter, which was also the basis for the very successful MiG-27 design.

It bears the markings of the Ukrainian Air Force, therefore it is likely an ex-USSR aircraft. The engine is sitting besides the aircraft, and two rocket canisters are placed beneath the fuselage, close to the ventral GSh-23 twin-barreled cannon.

A less usual sight is a MiG-25 Foxbat, a super fast interceptor/recce aircraft. Conceived in the late Fifties when the race for speed was in full swing, it was developed into a high performance platform to counteract the threat of the SR-71 Blackbird. It was built around two massive Tumansky R-15 afterburning turbojets, rated at a pretty high wet thrust of 110 kN, resulting in an incredible top speed around Mach 3.2! The aircraft is pretty sizable, and you can appreciate that looking at the picture of the main landing gear – search for the cover of my Canon wide lens close to the ground and compare sizes!

The menacing silhouette of this huge bird, with red stars on the vertical fins and a bare metal fuselage, will likely make relive in you an ‘Iron Curtain feeling’!

One which will not go unnoticed is a Polish Air Force Sukhoi Su-22M4 Fitter in a flamboyant, very colored livery. This massive fighter-bomber represents the export version of the Su-17M4 built by the USSR for domestic orders.

Despite the shape, roughly similar to that of the MiG-21 also on display, the size of this aircraft is much bigger – you might think of Su-22 as a case for a MiG-21…

Soviet bombers are represented by a pretty rare Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer, which is today still in service in Russia. The example on display bears the markings of the Ukrainian Air Force, meaning it was once a Soviet aircraft.

This massive twin-engined beast outsizes all other military aircraft on display. The aircraft is on display with three support tanks under the fuselage and the inner wing pylons.

A less common sight is a Yakovlev Ya-28P Firebar, a long-range intercept version of this multi-role platform from the early Sixties. This design is very interesting, with a four-points undercarriage and a very long nose cone, where a radar system for a target-tracking and missile guidance system was located. The two turbojet engines are mounted in cigar-shaped underwing pods. The relevant sweep of the wing suggests a significant speed capability, yet many variants of this aircraft were developed to exploit also its good range performance. The antenna originally placed in the nose cone is on display besides the aircraft, which bears original Soviet markings.

Soviet Transport Aircraft

Two aircraft which could not find their way in covered shelters mainly due to their bigger size, are a Tupolev Tu-134A-3 and a Yakovlev Ya-40. Both can be accessed, so you can get a view of the inside, including the cockpits.

The Tu-134 twin jet, with its distinctive glass bulge in the nose ahead of the cockpit, has been for long a ubiquitous aircraft in the USSR and in many countries of the Eastern Bloc. The exemplar on display was taken over by the Estonian company Elk Airways, created after Estonia left the USSR.

Notwithstanding this, the aircraft betrays its Soviet ancestry and ownership in every particular, from the all-Cyrillic writings to the hammers and sickles here and there, from the design of interiors to the exotic cockpit, painted in a typical lurid Soviet green and with prominent unframed black rubber fans for ventilation.

The Yak-40 is an interesting three-jet executive/small transport aircraft. The one on display went on flying for at least some good 15 years after the collapse of the wall in Berlin.

The internal configuration features an executive room ahead of a more usual passenger section and tail galley. The style of the cabin and of the pure analog cockpit is really outdated for todays standards!

A rugged workhorse still flying today in many countries is the Antonov An-2, a single propeller, radial-engined, biplane tail-dragger transport. There are two of them in the collection. One is under a shelter and can be boarded. The interiors are very basic, but the visibility from the cockpit is very good especially for a tail-dragger with an engine on the nose.

Swedish Aircraft

An unusual chapter in air museums except in Sweden is that of SAAB aircraft, which are represented in this collection by two iconic models, a Draken and a Viggen, and an extremely rare, very elegant Lansen. All are in the colors of the Royal Swedish Air Force.

The Saab 35 Draken features a very distinctive double-delta wing, and was developed in the Fifties for reaching a high supersonic speed. The design turned out to be pretty successful, and was operationally adopted primarily as a fighter by Sweden and other European countries as well.

The one in the collection is painted in a bright yellow livery. The infra-red pod under the nose cone of this aggressive attack aircraft looks like the lidless eye of an alien!

The Viggen is a an attack aircraft from the late Sixties, developed for the domestic military needs into some sub-variants. With the JA 37 version displayed here, the Viggen went on to constitute the backbone of the intercept fleet of neutral Sweden, and was retired only in the early 2000s. The aerodynamic configuration features a prominent canard wing, and the Viggen was notably the first in such configuration produced in significant numbers.

The most unusual of all three SAAB designs on display is surely the SAAB 32 Lansen. A very neat design from the Fifties, loosely recalling the Lockheed P-80 and the Hawker Hunter, the Lansen was a jet fighter of the early Cold War developed specifically for Sweden and gaining a good success. The ‘E’ version on display was converted from the original fighter variant (‘B’) for the ECM role, and kept flying almost until the end of the 20th century. The green painting of the Royal Swedish Air Force is really stylish, definitely adding to an already elegant design.