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.

Places with a Soviet Flavor in Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg is one of the two ‘big cities’ in Russia which you’ll likely be touching during your visit to this great Country, and probably among the most tourist-friendly in this part of the world. There are tons of sights to see for anyone with an interest in art, architecture, history, fashion, shopping, dining, nightlife, etc. The city is very large, with a population of about 5 millions, and touring just the most famous places – like the Winter Palace, St. Isaac and the central area along the Nevsky Prospekt, as well as the Peter and Paul Fortress – will take already at least a few days.

What people from abroad – unlike Russians – are sometimes less aware of is that the Revolution in 1917 started and evolved in Saint Petersburg, which at that time was still the capital city of the Russian Empire, where the Tzar and the government resided. Here Lenin and the Bolsheviks worked in the tumultuous moments preceding and after the abdication of Nicholas II, the last of the Tzars, and here the communist-led organization of the ‘Soviet’ imposed its rule, before the governmental body moved its headquarters to Moscow, the ancient capital of Russia, soon in 1918. The prominent role the city had in the Revolution was acknowledged changing its name to Leningrad, the ‘City of Lenin’, which would stay until 1991.

So, besides the countless sites of great historical and artistic value connected with the city’s founder Peter the Great and the Tzars who succeeded to him, there are in Saint Petersburg countless places recalling the Communist Revolution and the Soviet period.

Furthermore, as this city used to be a frontline destination for people traveling for cultural interest from both within the USSR and abroad much before the end of Communism, many interesting museums were established here. Some of them still retain a typical Soviet flavor, in the choice of artifacts, exhibition style and in the management policies – you will be left unscrupulously in a queue in a freezing -20°C winter evening outside of a museum, waiting just for more hangers to be available in the cloakroom, if the rules say so!

This post is about some places in todays Saint Petersburg connected with the Revolution and the Communist era, and some museums still retaining their Soviet style. All photographs, both the good and the bad, are from mine and were taken in early 2017.

Sights

Here is a map of the sites described below. The city is huge, and the coverage of the subway system is by far less developed than that of Moscow, with stops quite afar from each other – so expect to walk really much in Saint Petersburg! You may also elect to take a taxi when needed, for you pay the distance, not the time, and it is much less expensive than in other big cities in Europe.

All attractions in this post – except perhaps the House of Soviets – are fairly central, so even when you need to walk for reaching them, you will never need to be in an unpleasant or dangerous area of the town.

Kirov’s Apartment Museum

This museum, located ten minutes north of the Peter and Paul fortress, is rather deceptive – it is located on the two top floors of a formerly luxurious apartments building from the late 19th or early 20th century, where all other apartments are privately owned today. You will need to go through the foyer of the building, where the stately and elegant appearance of the façade is soon lost to the incredibly shabby, purely Soviet style of the inside, with a small and poorly looking elevator to ease you climbing to the top of the building.

Before the Revolution these apartments, exceptionally large and modern for the time, were property of wealthy businessmen and professionals. Soon after the Revolution, when property was abolished and housing was reassigned, the second floor from the top was given to Sergey Kirov, a top ranking communist leader successfully enforcing Soviet power in Azerbaijan, a great supporter and a close friend of Stalin during his struggle for power after the death of Lenin in 1924, and later to become the leader of the Communist Party in Leningrad and supervisor of industrial production – a prominent figure in his times. Stalin ended up ordering him killed in the early Thirties – although not officially – coincidentally marking the beginning of the harshest period of communist dictatorship in Russia.

The apartment of Kirov has been preserved very well to this day. You can see a studio and living room, with hunting trophies including a polar bear, bookcases and photographs of Stalin and Lenin. The aura of the early years of Stalin has been integrally preserved, and the apartment looks like comrade Kirov had just gone out for a Party meeting! Stalin himself reportedly visited Kirov here more than once.

Other rooms in the living quarters include a dining room, a small living room, a library and a nice bedroom for children. A kitchen – with a General Electric refrigerator! -, a junk room and bathroom complete the main part of the private apartment. Two very large rooms include Kirov’s study and a sort of waiting room today turned into an exhibit of soviet-themed paintings and sculptures, mainly about Kirov. You can easily imagine Kirov receiving delegates from the factories around the smoky Leningrad of the late Twenties in this room, with the portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin always carefully listening to the talk!

On the top floor, the museum offers a two-rooms reconstruction of a school, a meeting room of a youth organization, a shared apartment and a children bedroom from the years of Kirov, from the late Twenties to the early Thirties. Many interesting everyday items, as well as communist-themed flags, banners, memorabilia, some paintings and sculptures and much more can be found here.

All in all, this is one of the most evocative exhibitions on communist personalities I’ve ever seen! Visiting in a freezing winter evening also helped to relive the old Soviet atmosphere. Visit is recommended for everybody with an interest in Soviet history, and for those with a thing for living architecture, for this is a good occasion to get an insight on the standard of life of the wealthy class immediately before and after the Revolution in this region. You can take a self-guided tour, and you are given a detailed booklet in English to help yourself along the visit. Visiting may take from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on your level of interest.

Arctic and Antarctic Museum

This nice little museum is interesting both for the pretty unusual subject – polar explorations carried out by Russian and then Soviet expeditions – and for the setting and style of the exhibition. It is hosted in a former church building in a neoclassical style from the 19th century.

The exhibition maybe pretty outdated for modern standards, but it may appeal to you if you are interested in the topic more than in cheesy presentations, and if you want to experience how a Soviet-style museum looks like! The small setting is cluttered with dioramas with stuffed animals, including a polar bear, dim lighted showcases with artifacts and memorabilia from expeditions, plus ship models and some larger artifacts, like tents, polar shelters and instruments for taking measurements.

There are also very interesting frescoes and large paintings, both on the walls and ceiling, all about moments in the history of Soviet polar expeditions. Models, photographs and much more complete the exhibition.

The ground floor is about arctic exploration, which was started in the early history of Russia thanks to the proximity of the Country with the arctic region. The top floor is on antarctic missions, and here the accent is more on international collaboration and permanent missions. Some very nice paintings, rather rare to find elsewhere, can be found here.

All in all, an unusual museum with much to tell on a very specific and not often well-covered chapter of explorations. The place is very popular among Russians, and the exhibition is totally in Russian. There are audio-guides, but I wasn’t offered one during my visit, so maybe there is no chance to get explanations in English – but I’m not sure about this. Of course, you may decide to go with a local guide on a private tour, able to translate the explanations for you. Visiting alone if you are interested in the topic and you have a basic knowledge of the matter may take about 1 hour – even without a guide and with no knowledge of Russian… this is the time needed for looking at the many photographs, paintings and artifacts!

Krassin Icebreaker

This ship, preserved in perfect conditions on the river Neva, has an incredible story. The hull was manufactured under Nicholas II in Britain, but the ship took service under the communist rule. She used to be a steam power ship at that time. She was involved in explorations and arctic missions, including the rescue of the Italian explorer Umberto Nobile, who went down with his airship over the Arctic after reaching the North Pole by air in the late Twenties. Krassin was deployed after the most famous polar explorer from Norway, Roald Amundsen, was lost while on an ill-fated rescue mission by plane.

Later on, the ship was sent to the US during WWII, where she was modified to receive structural reinforcements and defensive weapons in Bremerton, WA. She worked as an escort ship traveling back to Europe via Panama during the Battle of the Atlantic against Nazi Germany, and spent the rest of the war patrolling the northern shores of the USSR, reportedly grounding some German aircraft.

After the war, being part of the arctic fleet and having had a history so glorious, it was refurbished and upgraded with more modern equipment and propulsion system in Germany. It was then constantly improved while in service as a scientific platform, until a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it was permanently moored where you find her today.

The restoration work was carried out very well, and the vessel looks like it could sail away at any time! You can visit on guided tours in small groups. The visit includes the living quarters of the captain and crew and of the scientific staff – rather much above the military standard! – a room with technical stuff and the commanding deck. You are offered also a quick intro video in Russian.

I don’t know whether they’re offering tours except in Russian, but there are some explanations in English along the visit. Visiting in winter may add to your photos from the outside if the Neva is covered with ice, but the tour is shorter – about 40 min -, for you can’t see the power plant, as heating is probably absent in that part of the ship.

Absolutely recommended for everybody with an interest in ships, polar explorations, engineering and scientific expeditions! This is good for the kids as well. Be warned, the distance from the closest metro station is about 1 mile, but you may choose to walk along the bank of the river, with a nice view of the Winter Palace and the central district, with many photo opportunities. Rather close to the Krassin there is also the WWII submarine C-189, which I had not the time to visit. This is another entity from the icebreaker, with a separate ticket.

Museum of Artillery

This huge State-owned museum hosts a world-class collection of Russian and Soviet weapons from the middle ages to our days. The building is that of a former large artillery depot from the mid-19th century, in the immediate vicinity of the Peter and Paul Fortress, from which it can be reached in a few minutes. The museum is really a temple of Russian nationalism, and it’s very popular among Russians, whose military battles and victories are celebrated also with banners, uniforms, paintings, and several memorabilia.

There are two main branches inside the U-shaped building, placed in the two wings. In the first there is a collection of ancient swords and armors from the middle ages to roughly the early 18th century and Peter the Great. Next come many cannons and rifles from the 19th century, and more modern weapons, including what appear to be naval cannons from the years of WWI. The collection is really immense, and I had not purchased a photo permit – I had not enough cash! – so unfortunately the quality of the pictures is not very good.

The second branch covers from WWII to the Cold War. In this section there are cannons, howitzers, armored vehicles, and, much incredibly, full-scale tactical and early strategic missiles – which seem really big in the small rooms of a museum! There are also pieces of communication equipment and engineering tools, for the museum is namely also dedicated to the Engineering and Signal Corps.

Two small but interesting separate rooms are dedicated to the guard of Peter the Great and to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man behind the world-famous attack rifle, who really existed and passed away in 2013 aged 94. Some technical drawings and some exemplars of the rifle – including some special designs – are showcased in this room, together with portraits of the man in various ages, in Soviet and later Russian colors. Unique and extremely interesting.

A good third of the museum’s collections are on the outside, in the front courtyard and to both sides of the building. Most of the items preserved on the outside are too big for being stored inside the building, meaning they are really big! You can find cannons, armored vehicles, SAMs, strategic missiles and their transportation and launch vehicles, special vehicles for snow removal, and much more – all stuff you might spot in the historic video recordings of the countless parades on the Red Square, deep in the years of the Cold War!