Targeting tourists

23.07.2012 | By Yaroslav Kostyukov

Missile museum offer unique glimpse into the recent past

One of the benefits of getting rid of your nuclear arsenal is that the silos can be turned into museums. Ukraine became nuclear missile free in the 1990s, which left a lot of big empty holes in the ground around the steppe city of Pervomaysk (meaning: May 1st), located 250 km south of Kyiv. However, enterprising locals have turned one of these formerly secret locations into a museum devoted to strategic nuclear missiles. And its open to everyone

Even though the museum is a just stones throw from the town of Pervomaysk, it was a top secret base during Soviet times, which means that it is not accessible by public transport. The museum itself is located midway between the towns of Golovanevsk and Pervomaysk. The museum is organized as a military base with an underground command center, a missile silo and a number of aboveground administrative buildings. And there is a little hands-on action, since the silo holds a replica of the most dangerous weapon of the 20th century a nuclear missile. Upon arrival, the first thing you will see at the front entrance is a red button next to a sign with the instruction: Push to call. This will bring out a former commander of the missile regiment, who will welcome you. The admission fee is minimal in comparison with museums in Kyiv or elsewhere at UAH 15, or just under US $ 2. This is just for the above ground facility, though, so a greater sensation of what it was like to serve in a missile silo during the Cold War, pony up another UAH 30 and head down into the command center by an old elevator 45 meters underground.

Very few objects were visible on the surface when the base was operational in order to safeguard from recognition by outsiders. Today, the situation is a little different, and the facility has on display several models of missiles, tanks and related machinery. Despite this, the buildings that stood back in Soviet times remain the same today. These include a barracks, watchtower and surveillance antenna on the territory of the museum. Today, the barracks are used as the main administrative building, which houses the ticket booth and a theater that show a 15-minute film about the strategic missile forces of the USSR and Russia. This barracks also contains the main exposition of the museum, with five rooms of exhibits about missile forces in general, the first A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the modern-day Ukrainian army. A guide provides information about the size, location and strength of the 43rd USSR Army and its missile division, as well as a cutaway profile of the launch bunker and silo. The launch bunker has 12 floors, though only the 11th and 12th floors had any practical purpose. Further on the tour proceeds to a model of the launch position located on the 11th floor of the bunker, approximately 39 meters deep. Using this model, the guide explains the process of a missile launch, which most people are familiar with thanks to a number of Hollywood movies: turn the key and push the button. One of the tour guests will be asked to simulate this process.

The underground part of the tour takes visitors through a very long tunnel. This was a safety measure when the base was still in operation. Two huge safe doors block the ends of the tunnel, and each door weighs around two tons, which makes accidental or forced opening of the doors virtually impossible. After the tunnel is the old elevator. It is extremely small, as it was built for only two: the main officer and his lieutenant. They controlled the bunker and had to be ready to launch 86 nuclear missiles at any second. The elevator brings you down to 40 meters.

The bunker is deep underground in order to protect it from bombs or missiles, and for this reason the bunker is connected to the silo by a system of springs that would minimize any oscillations caused by the seismic effects of a detonated bomb or missile. The bunker was completely self-contained and the control unit (one officer and two lieutenants) could seal it from the inside and survive on their own for 45 days. This was considered enough to live through any nuclear fallout. Should a war have broken out between the USSR and the US, the main unit had to complete its mission and launch the missiles. The silo and the command center are covered with 120 tons of concrete caps. The one above the missile silo is mobile, while the one above the command unit is stationary. It takes 8 seconds to open the cap and around 10 seconds in total to launch the missile. The main armaments of the base were 86 SS-18 Satan missiles. Each missile was 30 meters in length, 3 meters in width, held 10 nuclear warheads, and could fly over 15,000 km.

Slightly more than 20 years ago, for an article like this or photos taken at this site the author could face a life sentence in prison if he was lucky enough to not be shot right on the spot. Today, not so such. Ukraines nuclear missile forces no longer exist and they protect any secrets. Everything left of former Soviet military hardware is on display in the museum in Pervomaysk.

How to get there: by car, 2-3 hours from Kyiv directly south on theE95 (Odesa Highway) to Pervomaysk, and another 30 minutes from there

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