Listening for Missiles
Soviet Military City Deserted
Our navigator was telling us that were closing in on Skrunda. We had been driving for hours and while the excitement grew the journey seemed slow and the miles long. A couple of times, we stopped to shoot some smaller abandoned buildings which we noticed from the moving car. Our schedule was sound and we would have 5-6 hours in Skrunda before the sunset. Mostly the scenery was of farms and thick, gloomy forests. We felt that we were on foreign ground although Latvia isn’t so far away from Finland. We were close, and the coordinates didn’t let us down. We found an old sand road with signs telling us that we were there. After a while, we encountered an old guard booth with a Lada (Made in Russia-styled car) parked in front of it. We had heard that the locals made some extra cash with entrance fees to Skrunda because the town had built quite a reputation in the past years. The rumours were true, in the car an old woman was waiting for some visitors to the place. We had no trouble paying the woman the entrance fee and besides tickets, we got ourselves a good laugh. She gave us also a map of the area with no English translation so it was basically useless to us, but of course we thanked her and started to make our way to the town. We collected the equipment from our car and started pacing towards the silhouette in the distance. We were in the ghost town of Skrunda.
Skrunda-1 is a piece of utopia that is slowly slipping away from our minds, into history. In the vicinity of the town of Skrunda used to lay a Dnestr-M- type radio station. With the help of this station, the Soviet Union could have detected possible nuclear weapons launches from the West. Another station of this type was planned but never constructed. The city of Skrunda was quickly built after the development of the ICBM, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, which can carry a nuclear weapon from one continent to another. Soldiers, proudly wearing hammer and sickle in their uniforms, sat 24 hours a day, year after year, listening to a possible missile launch from another side of the world. The missiles never came, although both powers kept their fingers on the red button through the Cold War. The balance of terror kept Skrunda alive.
Over 70 buildings to Explore
Buildings made from cheap grey brick seemed to go on forever, column after column. The apartment buildings were identifiable by their height from the other buildings. The lines of windows crossed the buildings symmetrically. The administrative buildings were located between the high apartment buildings. The town used to have its own school, a theater and many other buildings constructed for a specific purpose. These purposes were difficult to guess and the identical exteriors of the buildings didn’t help us. We separated because there was over 70 abandoned buildings to explore. I chose the first apartment building in front of me. Almost all the windows were broken, in every building. The shards made loud sounds under my boots when I entered the cold and dim stairway. There was no sign of beauty or architectural touch inside the building, only symmetrical steps in box-shaped staircase. Sad. The smell of mold came to meet me quickly, by now it was a familiar smell. The scent of urban exploration. I started climbing the dusty steps and entered the first apartment that I found. I knew that the apartment would be identical to one another. The communist dream. A couple of empty bottles, some books on the floor, faint illustrations of flowers on the wallpapers. Someone used to live here, a family with laughing children. All the happiness had disappeared from this place. No hope or joy. This was a dead place. All the furniture had been moved, stolen or transformed into shapeless goo. The floors were covered with this weird moldy mass that used to be something with armchairs. Because of the broken windows, winter entered the apartments yearly. Slowly, the process of decomposition transformed interiors of the apartments. Actually, not all the apartments were the same. In the top floor, I found a door with nice leathery decorations. Behind the door I found a slightly larger apartment. Maybe the “penthouse” was the apartment for an officer who was higher in the ranks. The thank you-gift of the Soviet Army was couple more square meters of space for the officer and his family.
We met up with Tanja in the main street and decided to continue the journey together. We moved away from the apartment buildings and stepped inside an administrative building located in the outskirts of Skrunda. From outside it was impossible to say what this building was used for. The interiors gave us some clues but many of the buildings in the area kept their purpose as a secret. Two large barracks contained large spaces, maybe some sort of ballroom for soldiers. All the furniture had been taken so they didn’t seem so ceremonial anymore. A lonely lampshade still remained, maybe it had been too far from the ground to be stolen. Upstairs, we found wooden gun racks and cupboards that were decorated with hammer and sickle, classic icons of soviet power. Each room constructed an exciting imaginary setting to our minds with mysterious soldiers in a secret military town. Back in the day, the secret of Skrunda started to unveil actually through radio and tv, but not the way you would think. The nearby civilian population started to witness interference in their radio- and tv-broadcasts. The radio transmission could stop for no apparent reason and weird shapes formed over tv-broadcasts. Maybe they were the faces of long forgotten heroes, faces that were painted in the walls of Skrunda.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1992 but the last soviet soldiers left Skrunda 1998. On the remnants of Soviet Union, the state of Russia was built and Russia would have wanted to continue the use of Skrunda. This wish never came true for the generals of the new Russian army. The huge radio station “Darjal - UM” was demolished in a controlled explosion which cost up to 8 million US dollars. The older radio stations operated until 1998 and when they were closed down, the remaining soldiers packed their equipment and left the area quietly. The military installation known as the town of Skrunda-1 has been abandoned ever since. Throughout the history, Skrunda was closely kept secret. Not even the civilians living only 7 kilometers away knew about the military town. Dark woods cloaked the concrete town with all its secrets.
I was looking at a wall, covered by series of different paintings. Soviet era propaganda. In one particular painting, young soldiers are aiming bravely with machine-guns. The next one illustrates a handsome bunch of sailors defending a sinking ship in flames. Next to the sailors, a huge face of Lenin is constructed into the wall out of stony mosaic. I had seen it before in many Urbex photos. After a photoshoot of the walls, Tanja led me into a two-floored building. The walls of the second floor were painted bright pink, which seemed kind of odd. I peeked from a small window and understood quickly where we were. Just a couple of rows still had benches. The stage had collapsed years ago and it was now only a pile of wood rubble. I was looking at the theater of Skrunda, or what was left of it. Maybe the theater was used as a movie theater because the hole from where I was peeking, would be a perfect spot for a projector. Maybe 25 years earlier, young men were sitting on the rows with no idea what would happen to the Soviet union, and to Skrunda for that matter.
Illustrations of soldiers in various athletic poses seemed a bit funny to us. A little laughter was welcomed. We were standing in the gym hall of Skrunda, which was decorated by gymnastic recommendations for the soldiers. The floor of the hall was gone, only rocky soil was under our feet. The basketball hoops were still intact but covered with rust, naturally. We could still see the large hammer and sickle in the wall. For decades, Skrunda tried to cover herself from the gazes of ordinary people. Now, in the 21st century, military bases live in a symbiotic relationship with their neighboring towns. Skrunda on the other hand was living its own life, like a tiny society which offered all the essential services to the inhabitants. The essential services were defined by the authority though, and a black market must have flourished. The luxury items were for the elite. The set up reflects well the ideology of communism: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Skrunda tried to imitate a society on its own scale and because of this, was so unique. A miniature utopia.
What kind of a place was Skrunda for the kids? We found some clues when we entered the former school of Skrunda. The dusty corridors danced in apathy. We only understood that we were inside of a school after we recognized the words in the doors, each door had a sign labeled: “класс” and a sequentially laid number after each sign. The cyrillic word can be translated into “class”. From the dust we found odd illustrations about smiling children jumping rope, driving tricycles and throwing ball. The paint on the walls was hanging chaotically wherever we looked. Communism and capitalism were unknown ideas for the children who didn’t see anything bad in a picture of Mickey Mouse, and apparently the teachers didn’t either, because the happy cartoon character with classic large ears decorated a paper calendar. I was wondering about the people who were sitting in these classes - how do they see society and our world now? What was taught in these classes and how was the life of child in this town? Maybe I’ll never know, not much remains. I can only forge an image in my mind which is based on the sad and dusty walls of Skrunda. I know that this place used to have joy, laughter and everyday dreams of ordinary people. So much is forgotten, so much left unsaid.
We spent hours in Skrunda. When we were finished with one building, we headed to the next and eventually we had seen them all. We carried our camera gear for hours with us. Countless corridors, basements, roofs, apartments and halls were saved to our memory cards. We also installed a Theta 360 set-up to the main street so we could capture the whole sight of Skrunda. We saw Skrunda in the sunrise and in the sunset. The town was ghostly quiet when we left, we were the only people in a whole town. The familiar sand road quickly disappeared into the dark forest along the town when we drove out. Skrunda was like an odd dream which left us somehow troubled. Maybe the camera could interpret what we had just seen.