Sunday, 22 April 2012

I have a spare cold war bunker to sell you...

What do you buy when your country starts selling off everything it owns, and it owns everything? This was a decision that various now-oligarchs had to make in the 1990s, and it turns out the correct answer was oil, metal or media companies. Everyone with the correct answer - pass go and collect a billion pounds (also the eternal hatred of most of your compatriots, but don't worry - you can always move to London).

Some people, however, made more...unusual, perhaps imaginative choices. For instance, at least one person decided that what they had always wanted was a bunker or two designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Preferably in a good location...ooh, and wouldn't it be nice if it had some fake marble pillars? "Fear not", said the government, "we have just the thing". A short while later, probably after slamming his head repeatedly into a wall for not going with aluminium smelting firms, said owner had to decide what to do with his 50-year-old metal tunnels under the ground. And the answer was....wait for it...a bar.

The best place for a party...a nuclear bunker with the shiniest red sofas money can buy
Unfortunately, that left him with another 7000 square metres of bunker to use. Having almost certainly bankrupted himself on red sofas, the cheapest thing was to leave the rest exactly as it was and then charge tourists for seeing it in the "original" state...and so the "Milestones of the Soviet Era" tour was born.

Actually, I'm both being unfair and conflating two separate bunkers, so I will now stop. The tour I went on spent five hours exploring two sets of bunkers - one built in the 1930s as a place for Stalin to escape to if the Germans entered Moscow, and one built in the 1950s to ensure continuity of government and telecommunications in the event of an American nuclear attack. Since they were both in Moscow, I couldn't help thinking that the former was fairly useless - if the Germans entered Moscow, surely the obvious thing would be to leave Moscow completely and retreat eastwards, not just across town.

According to the tour guide, whose had a bit of a thing for Stalin's "leadership", the whole of the Moscow metro was built as a cover for the construction of a series of underground command points, bomb shelters and storage facilities that began in 1933 when Hitler came to power. [Part of the preparations was a factory that could go from making pasta to making gunpowder in fifteen minutes, which I think is utterly brilliant]. A plan to build a massive 120,000-seater stadium and sports complex near Измайловский (Izmailovsky), a former imperial hunting lodge, was used to distract from the immense amount of work needed to build a back-up central command post there. Ultimately the bunker was finished, but work on the stadium was abandoned in 1939 and never restarted. It is now one of those bizarre places filled with small kebab shops that make everyone wonder who on earth would come all this way for a kebab. [Answer based on what I saw: no one] Underneath the stadium is a series of tunnels and rooms, including parking spaces and fuel for 150 tanks. What they actually let you see is the main conference room (the first room you come into) and the two rooms on either side of it - Stalin's study and his dining room, and then a couple of rooms now used for conferences/ as a cafe.

Unfinished stadium used as cover for the building of the bunker. Complete with guns on the field to shoot the losers.

Main conference room in the bunker with fake marble pillars (actually I think these are rather good - I still want to learn Venetian plastering).

The conference room has a special dome over the circular table so that Stalin's voice, which was naturally very quiet, would be amplified without him needing to strain himself. Facing away from the entrance, to the left was Stalin's study, which contained a desk, couch, map of the front, strange multi-player chess-like gaming-table and pictures of Lenin, Marx and Engels (the latter two look almost identical).

Stalin's desk in his office. There is a map of the front behind him, and Lenin's picture keeping an eye on him to his right.

It looks like something Gandalf would play, but it was actually it was one of Stalin's favourite games.

To the right was the dining room, which Stalin had decorated to look like a Georgian tavern, because he liked those. He also apparently liked artistic representations of himself, because pictures and sculptures of him were everywhere. I like busts on pillars, but personally I would have chosen my favourite Roman emperor (Julian II). However, there's no accounting for taste, especially Stalin's, who appears not to not have had any at all, judging from the monstrosity of a statue in one of the adjoining rooms. If you can look at the picture and not think, "what the hell is that?", there is something wrong with you. I may be being too harsh though - the heads may have been added later by the guide, who, as I said, was a fan.

Stalin: A man fond of Georgian taverns...and his own head

Irrefutable proof that having near-unlimited dictatorial power does not bring you taste

The bunker was linked to the Kremlin in Moscow by a 10 mile underground road. The plan was that Stalin would come here from the centre of town, and then either stay and work here (this is what actually happened in December 1941 when the Germans were bearing down on Moscow), or, if this was too dangerous, he had one of three options. Plan A was to fly out from the airfield next door. Plan B, in the case of bad weather, was to leave on the secret underground railway to the East. Plan C, in case of bad weather and the train breaking down, was to fight the Germans to the death using his 150 tanks. Not a bad set of plans.

The other set of bunkers, which is located near Таганская metro station (Taganskaya) was built in the 1950s when the possibility of the US launching a nuclear strike on Moscow seemed like a real threat. From an unassuming entrance off a quiet street, you then pass through a 50cm thick, 6-ton door before descending 60m (18 storeys) to the tunnel system. The depth of the bunker hit everyone at the same time, around the -10 storey mark on the staircase we were walking down, as the group suddenly realised that we would have to WALK UP the same way to get out. There was grim silence from that point on.

The tunnels and rooms are mostly empty, because in the 1980s the government decided to repair and update all the technology in them, and this was still going on when the funding dried up in 1990. At this point the whole project was mothballed until they sold off the bunkers, but there are a couple of rooms that have been reconstructed - including one with a reproduction nuclear-missile-launching interface, where you can go through the motions of pushing the red button and then watch an American city being blown into smithereens on a large screen above you. I'm not sure whether this is meant to be fun or not. As I am really pretty fond of America, I found it moderately disturbing.

The most depressing working environment ever

Work on repairing and updating the tunnels was called off in 1990 half-way through the process
This is where they ran into the seven dwarves coming from the opposite direction
Pretending to launch nuclear missiles against the US...what larks!

Now you see why the place needed updating

Desk of telecommunications operator. The machine on the right is for morse code, complete with little tapping thing.

We eventually emerged from more tunnels into the bar, where we were served a traditional meal of beef, buckwheat, tea and vodka. It was pretty good, but getting back to ground level was even better. Being in a bunker, even for a few hours, makes me realise how much I like grass and trees and the sound of birds, and how quickly I would go insane if I were trapped underground. And not just because I have seen The Descent.

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