If you’ve been reading this blog, you already know that I am deeply fascinated by Russian history and the freedom of being able to go and visit places that were once forbidden, the famous Soviet closed cities. If you are interested you can check out my previous posts on them. Imagine, then, when I discovered that today you can visit a place once so secret that you were not only forbidden to visit it, but also to ever mention its very existence outside the restricted circle of a few thousand military personnel who knew about it.
Bunker 42 in Moscow is a former secret military underground center for long range bomber command, now fully declassified and turned into a privately owned museum.
which you can either read or skip, if you are not interested in a specific topic.
The first mention of what is today Bunker 42 dates back to 1947, when it was referred to as “Object-02”. The definition of the underground complex (still to be built, at the time) simply as “object” denotes the level of secrecy surrounding the bunker. Either you knew what it was or the name would give you no clue whatsoever. The construction itself begun in 1951, as a place that could resist and keep on operating even in case of an American nuclear attack on the Russian capital. The complex was built using the same technique and the same machinery employed in the construction of the Moscow Metro. The depth of both is the same in the area (65 meters below ground) and the Metro itself was to double as a civilian shelter in case of atomic war.
Of course everyone working at the project was told that these were to be new metro tracks and at the time everyone knew that asking “one question too many” was a sure way to get a one-way ticket to Siberia… Military personnel would change into civilian clothing before exiting the complex through a long corridor leading to a hidden door at Taganskaia station and discreetly mix with the flow of commuters.
Even if compared to the gigantic Moscow Metro stations the complex might appear small, it is everything but. It extends for 7.000 square meters (well over 70,000 square feet). Up to 3.000 people could survive in the facility for 90 days.
The bunker was completed in 1956, so Stalin, who had first ordered its construction, never saw its completion. Nonetheless, the only recognizable historical figure portrayed today inside Bunker 42 is Stalin himself.
At the beginning of the 1960s the bunker was fully equipped and started operating as the emergency headquarter of the long range bomber command. Let’s keep in mind that in Soviet times under the name “long range bombers” were comprised atomic bombs on bomber planes and the entire atomic ballistic missile arsenal of the USSR. In order to guarantee survival after an atomic blast on or above the surface, the complex stocked large quantities of food and fuel, it was equipped with diesel generators, an air purification system; it had access to two artesian wells with drinking water.
One can only imagine the level of tension and fear that must have pervaded the bunker soon after it became operational in the crucial 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the world came incredibly close to an all-out nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union. But I will write more about that later in the post.
The bunker was then fully reconstructed and modernized in the mid Seventies, due to the accumulation of technical problems (lack of waterproofing, non-automatic actuators, physical obsolescence of diesel generators and ventilation systems) and to accomodate the newer technology required at the time for the Soviet missile arsenal. In the 1980s its name was changed to “GO-42” and the latest, numerical, part of this name lives on today in the museum. It was eventually decommissioned in 1995, four years after the dissolution of the USSR.
Then in 2006 the Russian government sold the gutted, ageing complex for 65 million Ruble (about 2.4 million USD in today’s money) to a private company, that promptly turned it into a museum.
The entrance to the bunker was hidden by a very nondescript building on 5th Kotelnicheski Lane and still today the museum is very hard to notice if you are not specifically looking for it.
After a small vestibule at the entrance you pass a heavy steel door and then have to walk down 290 steps in a narrow staircase, leading you 18 floors underground at a depth of 65 meters. If you are unfit to walk down (or up) the stairs, there luckily is also an elevator available to you.
At the bottom of the stairs you find a long corridor with full metal walls and ceiling and a concrete floor covered by a red carpet. This leads to what used to be one of the many security check-points and a larger room where, depending on your clearance level and your task you were directed to one of the four tunnels.
Today your route is easy to choose, as only one of the four tunnels is open. It is worth nothing, though, that the private company owning the bunker keeps on investing in the museum, adding real Cold War era machinery, artifacts and memorabilia. If you look at pictures and reviews of the museum on the internet from a few years ago, you are likely to see a lot of empty rooms and space, which has, in the meantime, been filled with interesting things to see. The downside of this is that the entrance ticket is significantly more expensive than in all other Moscow museums. For foreigners the base price for a group tour (in English) is 2.200 Rubles (about 32 Euros or 37 USD with the current exchange rate).
In exchange for parting with a considerable sum, though, you get to see a real, historical and unique Soviet military bunker, which is, by the way, incommensurably more interesting and full of things to see than the “Stalin bunker” near the Izmaylovo Kremlin.
The tour takes you through a series of chambers, from the high command meeting room (pictured earlier in the post) to soldiers’ dormitories and rooms dedicated to various themes (like the different food served to soldiers, officials and generals in the Soviet Union – spoiler: generals got to eat caviar every day because “omega 3 is good for your brain”).
People have different tastes. That’s a given. So what is for many one of, if not the highlight of the whole tour, for me was its lowest point. Let me explain.
When you get to the (reconstructed) missile launch control room, two volunteers are asked to go and “man the control stations”. In the ensuing simulation they follow all necessary steps, culminating in the simultaneous turning of a key on each console, and then launch a simulated nuclear attack on the USA via Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). After that the tour guide even thanks them for their “service to the Soviet Union” (the guide doesn’t say “motherland” in the tour for foreigners). The launch is followed by a rather lengthy documentary on the devastating effect of a nuclear explosion projected on a large screen over the command consoles, with some clips taken directly from the 2002 movie “The Sum of all Fears“.
To me it all feels like a sort of a game, a mindless frolic, if you will. Sure, there is a video at the end that says how bad nuclear weapons are, but that, too, is taken (at least in part) from a Hollywood blockbuster movie… There is no sense of the horrific threat we, as human beings, were under for almost half a century, of the very real risk of total annihilation, of nuclear winter. It feels like playing a videogame and I found it deeply unsettling, especially considering how actual the risk of having “trigger happy” people in charge of nuclear arsenals today (Donald and Kim, I AM taking about you guys….).
This sense of “nuclear is just another bomb” in a way, echoes through the remnants of the Soviet era, for instance through original posters that showed soldiers how to defend themselves from the effects of a nuclear blast. These “advanced techniques” included hiding behind a tree stump or in a shallow ditch or, maybe the most effective: crouch behind a bale of hay. And ironically these instructions were accompanied by the writing that it is of paramount importance to know how a WMD works…
And this brings me to the last section of this long rant…. uhm I mean “post”.
THE MISSING HEROES
As mentioned, the only recognizable historic figure in the Bunker 42 is a statue of Stalin. But the museum makes no mention whatsoever of the two REAL HEROES of the nuclear age. And to think that they are both Russian and one is even a Moscovite!
So after my visit I feel somehow compelled to pay my respect to these two remarkable men myself by at least telling you their stories.
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov
On 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered, nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping signalling depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine’s crew had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic. Those on board did not know whether war had broken out or not. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decided that a war might already have started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.
Unlike the other subs in the flotilla, three officers on board the B-59 had to agree unanimously to authorize a nuclear launch: Captain Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the second-in-command Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. Typically, Russian submarines armed with the “Special Weapon” only required the captain to get authorization from the political officer to launch a nuclear torpedo. However, due to Arkhipov’s position as flotilla commander, the B-59‘s captain also was required to gain Arkhipov’s approval. An argument broke out, with only Arkhipov against the launch. Even though Arkhipov was only second-in-command of the submarine B-59, he was in fact commander of the entire submarine flotilla, including the B-4, B-36 and B-130, and equal in rank to Captain Savitsky. According to author Edward Wilson, the reputation Arkhipov had gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year’s Soviet submarine K-19 incident also helped him prevail. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface and await orders from Moscow. This effectively averted the nuclear warfare which probably would have ensued if the nuclear weapon had been fired. The submarine’s batteries had run very low and the air-conditioning had failed, causing extreme heat and high levels of carbon dioxide inside the submarine. They were forced to surface amidst its U.S. pursuers and return to the Soviet Union as a result.
Author Noam Chomsky in his book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance wrote that we were “one word away from nuclear war” and “a devastating response would be a near certainty” implying that had Arkhipov not stood up against the submarine commander, the launch of a nuclear torpedoes against the United States Navy likely would have caused a major global thermonuclear response which could have destroyed much of the world. In 2002 Thomas Blanton, who was then director of the US National Security Archive, said that “Vasili Arkhipov saved the world“.
Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov
On September 26, 1983, just three weeks after the Soviet military had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was the duty officer at the command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system when the system reported that a missile had been launched from the United States, followed by up to five more. Petrov judged the reports to be a false alarm, and his decision is credited with having prevented an erroneous retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States and its NATO allies that could have resulted in large-scale nuclear war.
Had Petrov reported incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched an assault against the United States, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. Petrov declared the system’s indication a false alarm. Later, it was apparent that he was right: no missiles were approaching and the computer detection system was malfunctioning. It was subsequently determined that the false alarm had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds above North Dakota and the Molniya orbits of the satellites, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.
Petrov underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his judgment. Initially, he was praised for his decision. General Yury Votintsev, then commander of the Soviet Air Defense’s Missile Defense Units, who was the first to hear Petrov’s report of the incident (and the first to reveal it to the public in the 1990s), states that Petrov’s “correct actions” were “duly noted.” Petrov himself states he was initially praised by Votintsev and promised a reward, but recalls that he was also reprimanded for improper filing of paperwork because he had not described the incident in the war diary. He received no reward. According to Petrov, this was because the incident and other bugs found in the missile detection system embarrassed his superiors and the influential scientists who were responsible for it, so that if he had been officially rewarded, they would have had to be punished. He was reassigned to a less sensitive post, took early retirement (although he emphasizes that he was not “forced out” of the army, as it is sometimes claimed by Western sources),
For his actions in averting a potential nuclear war in 1983, Petrov was awarded the Dresden Preis 2013 (Dresden Prize) in Dresden, Germany, on February 17, 2013. The award included €25,000 ($32,000). On February 24, 2012, he was honored with the 2011 German Media Award, presented to him at a ceremony in Baden-Baden, Germany.
On May 21, 2004, the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens gave Petrov its World Citizen Award along with a trophy and $1000 “in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe.” In January 2006, Petrov travelled to the United States where he was honored in a meeting at the United Nations in New York City. There the Association of World Citizens presented Petrov with a second special World Citizen Award. The next day, Petrov met American journalist Walter Cronkite at his CBS office in New York City. That interview, in addition to other highlights of Petrov’s trip to the United States, was filmed for The Man Who Saved the World, a narrative feature and documentary film, directed by Danish director Peter Anthony, which premiered in October 2014 at the Woodstock Film Festival in Woodstock, New York, winning “Honorable Mention: Audience Award Winner for Best Narrative Feature” and “Honorable Mention: James Lyons Award for Best Editing of a Narrative Feature.”
On the same day that Petrov was honored at the United Nations in New York City, the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations issued a press release contending that a single person could not have started or prevented a nuclear war, stating in part: “Under no circumstances a decision to use nuclear weapons could be made or even considered in the Soviet Union or in the United States on the basis of data from a single source or a system. For this to happen, a confirmation is necessary from several systems: ground-based radars, early warning satellites, intelligence reports, etc.” But Bruce Blair has said that at that time the U.S.–Soviet relationship “had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system—not just the Kremlin, not just Andropov, not just the KGB—but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. … The false alarm that happened on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in U.S.–Soviet relations.” At that time, according to Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB chief of foreign counterintelligence, “The danger was in the Soviet leadership thinking: ‘The Americans may attack, so we better attack first.'”
Petrov has said he does not know that he should regard himself as a hero for what he did that day. In an interview for the film The Man Who Saved the World, Petrov says, “All that happened didn’t matter to me — it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing. I did nothing.’ ”