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.

Communist Highlights in Prague and the Czech Republic

Czechoslovakia had existed as an independent state since the end of WWI and the dissolution of the Austrian Empire. However, this small yet economically advanced province was soon to be caught right in the middle of a storm which insisted on central Europe until the 1990s, at which time this country finally gained its true independence.

Back in the Thirties, Czechoslovakia was forcibly annexed to the Third Reich as a result of the Munich Agreement in 1938. This event can be seen a major destabilizing step in Hitler’s foreign relations, clearly showing that the situation was deteriorating fast in central Europe.

Following the troublesome years of Nazi rule, this region was captured by Soviet and US troops at the end of the war. A new republic was founded, but the local communist party was very well organized, so Czechoslovakia shared the destiny of many neighbor countries which had been occupied by the Red Army in the final stage of the war. Backed by Stalin, a communist coup d’état in 1948 led to the establishment of a Soviet-style dictatorship, which was to last until 1989, making Czechoslovakia a Soviet satellite country.

Despite the relatively small size on the map, Czechoslovakia played a significant role in the economy of the Eastern Bloc. This country had a well established tradition in the production of weapons, metal hardware and machinery. Its soil is rich in Uranium. Furthermore, the forward position on the border with non-communist Western Germany and Austria further raised its strategic significance. When a secession from Moscow was tried by the local communist government, led by reformer Alexander Dubcek in 1968 – a phase known as the ‘Prague Spring’ -, the USSR reacted with all its military might, staging a full-scale invasion of the country by land and air, overturning the high ranks of the unreliable Czechoslovakian government, and putting this valuable region under a stricter communist leadership.

Clearly, the end of the communist dictatorship is today duly celebrated as a historical achievement both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia – respectively the western and eastern portions of Czechoslovakia, which peacefully split in 1993. The more than 40 years of struggle against Soviet rule constitute the theme of several interesting permanent exhibitions, but these are not the only witnesses of those troubled times. More tangible relics – all open to the public – are former border posts with former West Germany, a one-of-a-kind original communist prison camp for political prisoners, as well as some pieces of architectures and bunkers from the Cold War age.

This post is dedicated to these highlights, all to be found in the region between Prague and the border with Bavaria, in todays Czech Republic. Photographs were collected on a short trip in summer 2018.

Navigate this post – click on links to scroll

Sights

Museum of Communism, Prague

Far from a cheesy description of everyday life in the years of the Cold War, or an inaccurate account of the history of the communist plague as a social phenomenon, this permanent exhibition takes you in detail along the history of Czechoslovakia in the years immediately before WWII, when it basically lost its independence to the Germans, and going on to 1989, when with the so-called Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia abandoned the Soviet sphere of influence and overthrew the communist dictatorship.

The exhibition features an equilibrated mixture of original artifacts – paintings, statues, memorabilia,… -, photographs, models, dioramas and explicative panels.

Interestingly, speaking of the Thirties and the imposed annexation to the Third Reich, you can see models of the border forts along the former German (now Polish) border. These are covered in this dedicated post.

The history of the anti-fascist operations, and of the role of the communist party in them, are thoroughly analyzed, and so are the decisive years immediately following the war. It is recalled how this nation was partly invaded by US troops, hence it was contested as a pure-Soviet conquer. A short-lived free Czechoslovakian republic was founded, which fell under communist control, and in the years of Stalin, with a Soviet military presence in the country, this meant the end of any independence from the USSR.

Similar to East Berlin, Prague ended up to host a huge monument to Stalin. This was built on top of a hill facing the city, on the north bank of the river. It was suddenly blown after the death of the Soviet dictator, leaving an empty esplanade which can be still seen today (see a section below).

The establishment of a communist rule since the start meant the implementation of brutal repressive measures, including prison camps for political opponents, which were largely employed as forced laborers all over the territory of the state, especially for mining activities. Preventive imprisonment, extorted confessions and executions were typical to the years of Stalin. Even the troops who had come in contact with the western Allies during the war were exonerated and imprisoned, to perfectly guarantee the stability of the communist leadership of the army. A detailed account of this little-know, large-scale repressive activity is documented also by means of reconstructed interrogation rooms, as well as spy gear used by the Czechoslovakian communist political police, the StB.

A related interesting chapter is that of the border shared with neighbor western countries. Similar to the German Democratic Republic (see this post), the border with West Germany and Austria was heavily guarded to stop those who wanted to flee the country. A fence of many kilometers was erected and modernized on more instances. A number of citizens were sent to prison or even lost their lives trying to escape to the West. More on this can be found today on the border with Germany (see a section below).

A significant area is devoted to the wannabe-reformer Alexander Dubcek and the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’. The aggressive Soviet reaction to the experiment, backed by the new Brezhnev leadership, provided an example for other Soviet satellite countries seeking for independence. The invasion of Czechoslovakia, called ‘Operation Danube’, was carried out as a surprise attack, paralyzing all urban infrastructures by quickly landing troops and material with a well-organized airlift on the nation’s major civil airports, including Prague and Brno. Simultaneously, land troops of many countries of the Eastern Bloc crossed the border and rapidly occupied all military installations. Guerrilla actions took place especially in Prague, but it was soon clear that an action so massive could not be counteracted by the sole Czechoslovakian forces.

The Soviet aggression cleared any doubt about the attitude of the new leadership of the USSR. It was generally condemned even by the communist parties of the western world, but this was not helpful for Czechoslovakia, which could not overthrow the re-established Soviet-style dictatorship until the almost simultaneous collapse of the communist regimes bound to the USSR in 1989.

Getting there and moving around

This museum is an excellent resource and a starting point for gaining an insight on the history of Czechoslovakia from the late 1930s to the 1990s. A general knowledge of the Cold War history may help to better collocate the facts reported in the exhibition on the world stage, yet even if this is the first museum of the kind you may visit, it can be extremely interesting.

It is located in central Prague, perfectly accessible with a walk in the beautiful central district from the majority of the hotels. Visiting may easily take 2 hours for an interested subject. All panels and captions are in double language, Czech and English. Website with full information here.

Nuclear Bunker for Civil Defense, Prague

Following the escalation of the nuclear stockpiles in the US and USSR, countermeasures to resist a nuclear attack were implemented in many countries. Besides specific training for both troops and civilians, shelters were built for government agencies, and for the population of most crowded areas. While typically far from sufficient to save even a minimal part of the population in case of a nuclear attack, these structures were nonetheless rather extensive and sophisticated. Especially in central Europe, within reach of nuclear missiles from the start of the rocket age (see this post), nuclear bunkers for civil defense were serious structures, today standing as tangible witnesses of the Cold War (see this post).

In Prague, the system for civil defense was implemented in the form of a series of bunkers around the city center, started in the early 1950s. Over the following decades a network was created comprising the underground railway system and several metro stops, which  similar to West Berlin, could be turned into nuclear bunkers providing shelter, decontamination gear and supplies for hundreds of people for several weeks.

Of this comprehensive system only a small part can be visited today. The bunker in the Parukarka district, northeast of the city center, can be accessed from a distinctive concrete gate – today covered in ignorant graffiti – in the side of a hill. Right behind the external gate you can find a massive tight door, capable of resisting to a nuclear blast, and providing access to a stair well, leading deep underground.

From the bottom of the stairs, you are led through a network of tunnels, originally intended for storing supplies and as living quarters for refugees.

The toilet is still operative today. An emergency room with original medical tools has been reconstructed.

An interesting exhibition showcases a beautiful collection of gas masks, dosimeters, posters with emergency survival procedures and propaganda items.

A room where the main tunnel splits in multiple branches gives access to a decontamination facility, a security communication post, and an area where a small exhibition on the Cold War has been placed.

The latter includes sample mass-produced goods originally stored in the bunker, maps, and full nuclear and chemical protection suits and masks.

You can also try putting on a mask, and take up a rifle for a weird selfie!

Getting there and moving around

The bunker can be reached a few tram stops from the main railway station. The entrance is located next to the southwestern corner of Parukarka park on Prokopova alley, a block away from Hotel Olsanka. However, the gate is usually closed, and there is no booth or visitor center there. The bunker can be visited by appointment only, or on a regular basis by taking the special-themed communist tour of Prague (see website here). The latter was my option. This tour is offered in English and maybe other languages, and will take you on a walk to a few places usually portrayed in the historical pictures from the days of ‘Operation Danube’ of 1968, and during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The starting point is close to the Clock Tower, on the central square of historical Prague.

The highlight of the multi-hour tour is the civil defense bunker, which makes the tour appealing. For the rest, except for little information, the tour is not excessively interesting, especially if you have already a good knowledge of the history of the Cold War and of Czechoslovakia at that time. It may the depend on the guide – mine was a relatively young man, who albeit prepared, did not seem to be able to give answers to more detailed or technical questions. Furthermore, the time spent inside the bunker is limited, and very scant explanations are provided about the exhibitions and artifacts on display there. Time is not enough for good photographs. The website of the bunker, for more info or for booking a private visit, is here.

Soviet-Related Buildings and Monuments, Prague

A few buildings in Prague have a historical significance bound to the Cold War, either for the role they had in the years of the communist dictatorship, or for the fact they were erected in Soviet style.

A first example is the headquarter of the StB, the political police of Czechoslovakia, similar to the KGB, Stasi or Securitate of other communist countries. This is located in central Prague, and occupies a building which had been previously built for another purpose.

To the northwest of the historical district, on the northern bank of the river, you can find a prominent example of Soviet architecture – Hotel International. This was designed in the years of Stalin, and this is reflected in the typical Stalinist tower architecture (see this post). It had been intended as a building of the department of defense, to host high-ranking military staff. It never covered this role, and after the construction years, lasting 1952-1956, it was inaugurated as a luxury hotel, with the same name it bears today.

After the end of communism in Europe, the hotel has been refurbished, returning the exteriors to the original appearance. The star on top the central spire is original too. The frieze features hammers and sickles, as well as other examples of typical communist iconography.

Today a rather unapparent square with a nice view of the old city, the base of the monument to Stalin with the giant staircases leading to it from the water level can be found on the northern bank of the river. This area is today partly degraded, and used for temporary art installations. Only pictures from the time allow to get an idea of the monster size of the sculpture group once standing there, with Stalin and other folks overlooking the city.

The monument was blown after Stalin was condemned by the Communist Party of the USSR, soon after his death.

Among the relatively few statues and prominent buildings dating back to the years of communist dictatorship is a couple of cosmonauts. This can be found in the southern periphery of the city, immediately out of the metro station Haje. The neighborhood is mainly residential, dating from Soviet times. Notwithstanding the general decency of the area, these two astronauts are somewhat forgotten, close to an overgrown hedge.

Getting there and moving around

The mentioned communist architectural highlights in Prague are somewhat scattered.

The StB headquarters are located on the corner between Bartolomějská Ulice and Na Perstyne, at the very center of the historical district. The former Stalin monument can be reached climbing uphill from the northern end of Chechuv Most bridge, a short walk from the historical district. Besides the questionable interest for what remains of the monument, climbing up is advisable at least for the exceptional view you can enjoy from the balcony.

The Hotel International is located further north of the city center, where Koulova alley meets Cinska road. The nice residential area is served by a number of tram and bus stops, but reaching may be easier by car. Clearly, you can also elect to stay at the hotel.

The two cosmonauts can be found in the southern peripheral district Haje, just outside of the homonym metro stop, close to a larger bus stop area. Again, reaching is less time consuming by car.

Vojna Prison Camp, Pribram

A one-of-a-kind memorial in the panorama of former communist-led countries is preserved just south of the small town of Pribram, about 40 miles southwest of Prague. This is a full scale prison camp for forced laborers, instituted by the communist dictatorship in the years of Stalin, back in 1947. The prisoners of this camp were interned only for political reasons. Together with other similar installations, it supplied workforce for the extraction of uranium ore from mines nearby. The number of inmates increased steadily until the early 1960s, reaching the order of 1,500, until a series of amnesties were promulgated and prison camps were closed in Czechoslovakia.

The camp went on to be operated as a military depot, and reopened as a national memorial in the late 1990s.

Close to the entrance, which is via the original gate in the outer fence of the camp, a former industrial building has been substituted by a modern building with roughly the same shape, hosting a conference center and the visitor center. When on a self-guided tour, you are advised to start your visit with an exhibition on the history of the Czechoslovakian prison camps, hosted in the former guard quarters. The exhibition provides models, pictures and quick numbers to get an idea of the proportion of the repression and internment of political prisoners, as well as of the forced labor system set up by the communist leadership.

A memorial to those who perished as a result of political repression and imprisonment in the area of Pribram concludes this part.

The partly original and partly reconstructed buildings on display include a complete external perimeter, a prison and a rigor cell.

Inside an inner guarded perimeter, a few barracks for the inmates have been reconstructed or refurbished, and are used to showcase temporary and permanent exhibitions. One of great interest at the time of my visit described in detail the days of the liberation from the Nazi occupation – US troops briefly took over control of the area, and they met the Soviet army nearby Pribram.