I looked out the window of our 15-seater van turned public bus for 30. Flat, frozen potato fields sprinkled with snow spread out in all directions. I looked at Google Maps on our phone. It confirmed we were about as rural as rural Ukraine gets.
“This is it,” I said confidently to Beth, surprising myself with how much faith I had in Google’s omniscience.
“OK,” Beth replied, hesitating, looking out the window at the unending nothingness.
Beth tapped the driver on the shoulder but he already knew where we wanted to get dropped off. We got out of the van, now standing on the side of the road at the top of a desolate T-junction. It was hard to believe while standing in a nondescript field with human habitation nowhere in sight, but 1.7 kilometres down this neglected side road a small facility contains a little grey button at a little grey desk that once had the unfathomable power to end humanity. It felt unwholesome, but I was excited to sit at the desk of doom and press the now-defunct button.
This blog is the ninth of a series tracing our journey over land and sea to Australia, starting in Ukraine. We’re hoping to make the foreign familiar for you by showcasing the unique and universal details of the places we go and the people we meet. To get all our posts, videos, and exclusive content, subscribe to our weekly newsletter here. For short, absorbing snippets of our adventure follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Spuds and rockets.
Deep in the heartland of agricultural Ukraine exists a decommissioned nuclear missile silo. For over 40 years throughout the Cold War, the silo’s control centre was manned 24/7 by the Soviet Rocket Army. With a moments notice from Moscow, this facility had the capability to fire enough nuclear warheads to start a war that would cause a nuclear winter; ending human existence. I didn’t know one could visit such a place until I saw it while browsing Lonely Planet. A quick Google search reveals there are actually only two former nuclear missile silos open to the public – one here and one in Arizona, USA.
Tourists can now pay 80
I’m struggling to articulate why it is I wanted to go. Maybe it was an opportunity to learn something about us as a species: how do we get to a point where it’s acceptable, even encouraged, to build devices that could end our existence? What was it like to work here? I pictured myself in my previous role as a travel agent sitting at my desk, looking at a map and instead of recommending exciting trips, I’d sit waiting for an order to press a button and contemplate where the missiles were aimed and how many people would die as a result of my seemingly benign action. It seemed an absurdly surreal occupation to fall into, or choose for that matter.
T’is the season?
So there we were at the side of the road in the middle of endless potato fields, all our worldly possessions slung on our backs. The van drove off and we watched it disappear over a crest, leaving us wholeheartedly committed to this novel detour. We walked down the deserted side road, unsure if getting off a bus in the middle of nowhere Ukraine was a good idea or the start of another entry for our travel fail section – especially as we were expecting to be met by a car and no one was in sight.
As we trudged down the empty road I suspected winter maintenance hadn’t made it into the Ministry of Tourism’s annual budget this year, or we were in the wrong potato field. From a distance, the small complex could be easily mistaken for a cluster of farm buildings with some abandoned agricultural equipment out back. Getting closer though, tractors slowly turned into tanks and fallen grain silos into rockets. With a single car
I never thought I’d be relieved to see a soldier brandishing a rifle but on this occasion he was a welcome sign. He smiled and ushered us into the barbed-wire complex. Scattered around the open-air museum were rockets of varying sizes, disused but well-kept tanks, large transport trucks for moving warheads, an old fire truck, two small, nondescript, single-story concrete buildings and taking pride of place in the centre: an enormous 30-metre-long shell of the suitably named SS-18 “Satan” rocket; an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of flying halfway around the world and dropping a nuclear bomb with 400 times more power than the two dropped on Japan during WWII combined. It was a ghastly graveyard of unused apocalyptic force. I pictured the rockets and tanks coming alive at night, gathering round a campfire and reminiscing on what could’ve been.
Elena, an English-speaking guide from the nearby town of Pervomaisk, was highly recommended by Lonely Planet. We’d arranged to meet her at the museum to show us around. So you can imagine our confusion when, after our 1.7 km trek with our fully loaded backpacks, we were met by a gun-toting, non-English-speaking soldier; not exactly someone who looked like an Elena.
In silence, we followed our military escort through the grounds into a square compound (which looked more suitable for interrogations than tour groups), down a flight of metal stairs, and through an underground concrete tunnel which extended 50-metres and abruptly halted at a daunting vaulted door. It felt like we might be about to meet the Ukrainian version of The Thunderbirds.
Knocking on the impenetrable door produced another camo-clad soldier who looked at us, picked up an old, yet surprisingly functional, rotary phone, laboriously dialled, conversed in Russian and hung up. The guards looked at us; we looked at them. It was a bit strange and I think the guards could see we were a touch confused. One held up a hand.
“Five minute,” he said, as if that would bring clarity.
I started to think we’d arrived at the wrong missile silo. Perhaps this one was still functioning and we were confused for new recruits. Highly trained Rocket Army soldiers ready to sit in the hot seat and oversee the end of the world disguised as wide-eyed, curious Western tourists.
After five minutes the tiny, yellow metal elevator behind the second soldier burst open and out sprang Elena. As if we’d ordered an English-speaking guide and the silo needed five minutes to manufacture one out of nuclear energy.
It turns out we’d arrived as Elena was just finishing up with another couple of oddly curious tourists down in the depths of the silo. I was tempted to ask why they came, in hopes of maybe understanding more about myself, but I refrained. I thought it might be an awkward moment when two dark tourists stand, shuffling uncomfortably while trying to articulate a morbid curiosity for a place that’s overwhelmingly sinister.
My shock at meeting Elena probably says more about my prejudices than her. I’d already envisioned a retired, ex-librarian with 30 cats and an unhealthy obsession with Soviet history, English, and Kyiv cake. Young, bubbly, energetic and dressed to knock ‘em dead at an important corporate function; Elena was the direct opposite. She was a striking contrast to the gruff soldiers and rusting missiles and tanks. I became curious as to what a young, fluent English-speaking, intelligent person was doing working in this vast remoteness, leading tours at a little-known museum.
While Elena showed us around the open air section first, it became clear she was endlessly knowledgeable about this facility. She knew all the technical details of the rockets and tanks. She could effortlessly rattle off their range, destructive power, and cost but also had unique insights into the facility based on her relationship with the engineers, officers and soldiers (who were former Rocket Army members in the Soviet Union) that still worked there.
Elena knew that some of these men sat at the button for hours on end, awaiting orders to fire that never came, still had nightmares almost 30 years on. In their vivid dreams, they received an order to fire but the button never worked – perhaps demonstrating these men had more fear of reprisals for not following orders than fear of the consequences of unleashing such destructive force. She knew the absolute secrecy that went with the work and the toll it took on their families. One engineer, while on duty for 3 days at the facility, missed the birth of his child. Communication was restricted so heavily, he wasn’t even aware his wife was in labour.
On top of this insider knowledge, I was surprised how passionately exasperated Elena felt at the amount of money the Soviet Union invested in all this military equipment while schools and hospitals remained stagnant. She’d been leading tours here for almost ten years now and I couldn’t detect a trace of monotony.
The museum still employs some of the engineers, officers, and soldiers from the Soviet Rocket Army. Many moved back to Russia after the Soviet Union broke up to continue working with nuclear weapons. The ones that stayed behind wanted to maintain the life they’d built, they had families embedded in the community and felt a connection with each other and the facility. They’d spent just as much time together, in what must have been an incredibly stressful environment – potentially ending the world and all, then they had with family (Shifts were typically 3-4 days in the facility full-time and 3-4 days off). As a result, they’d bonded deeply. While we don’t speak Russian, it was clear from the interactions we witnessed that these men saw each other as brothers, which only served to increase my curiosity as to how Elena fit into this
Nine years ago, in 2009, Elena was teaching English in her home city of Pervomaisk but quit to raise her newborn son Stanislav. Living just 30 minutes away from the museum, Elena saw an ad to translate for foreign dignitaries and tourists who toured the decommissioned site. Highly knowledgeable former Rocket Army officers and engineers provided great insight into the facility for tourists and visiting ambassadors, but they only speak Russian.
While translating, Elena quickly saw how the information provided on the tour was totally dependant on the guides former occupation at the facility. It’s easy to imagine soldiers talking endlessly about watchtowers and sentry duty while engineers passionately spoke of the detailed, highly dangerous duty of maintaining such a volatile weapon. Eventually, translations weren’t needed as Elena knew all the information and could answer any questions. She was given the opportunity to run the tours herself and seized it with both hands.
Elena was soon earning enough guiding tours to provide a sustainable income for her and Stanislav. Young Stanislav now spends summers scaling tanks, clambering into defunct helicopters, and exploring the inside of fire trucks while his mom shows visitors around the underrated museum.
I had a question that plagued me throughout the tour: Was there any pushback or objection to having a 20-something-year-old former English teacher come in and take over the guiding of what must feel like such a monumental place to those who worked here? I would’ve concluded that these experts would be quite mortified to be cast aside by someone with no personal experience working at the site. Maybe the reverse has taken place. Perhaps the men were more than happy to be relieved of the endless questions from foreigners and the tedious back and forth translation process. It didn’t feel right to ask and if there were any issues, it was clear from Elena’s incredibly warm and fun interactions with everyone that she’s smoothed over any problems.
“They call me ‘Spy’,” Elena laughed, “anyone then [during the Cold War] who could speak English was certainly a spy.”
Elena’s nickname is tongue-in-cheek these days. The soldiers and engineers still working at the facility are clearly enamoured with Elena, which they showed by playing jokes on her. Sometimes, they turn off all the lights while she’s in the missile silo alone and pretend to go home for the day. Or they’ll shut all the hatches, trapping her in the miniature lift. The kind of practical jokes that leave you with just enough doubt to let your imagination run wild with panic-inducing scenarios running through your head. Elena insists it’s all in good fun, and after seeing some of her fun-loving side throughout the day I’m sure she gives as good as she gets.
The hot seat.
Elena, Beth and I walked along another daunting, underground 100-metre tunnel back towards the claustrophobia-inducing elevator we’d originally seen Elena spring from like a jack in the box. The three of us inhaled and awkwardly squeezed in to ride the 12 floors down to the dramatic finale of our tour.
We tumbled out of the elevator and shuffled around the tight former living quarters of the Rocket Army. A few stale, uncomfortable bunk beds, a microwave that looked powerful and large enough to launch its own nuclear weapon, and a tiny metal bathroom where one could use the toilet, shower, and wash their hands without moving their feet were the only luxuries for those soldiers on 3-4 day rotations in this underground agony.
Shifts in the control room where the ominous button was located, one level above, were in
It must be said, the Soviet soldiers manning the control centre at the time weren’t aware their arsenal could cause a nuclear winter and end all human life. They certainly knew, though, that they would just about kill every inhabitant of the target country and cause a retaliation that would kill millions in their native U.S.S.R. Causing hundreds of millions of deaths with the press of a button was still quite the overwhelming responsibility, particularly knowing that any moral objection would be greeted with a bullet in the head.
After Beth was done admiring the ’50s ambience of the seafoam green room and trying out both bunk beds, we climbed up a Batcave-esque manhole into the control room. In front of us sat dull grey and beige dashboards covered in rows of buttons, various meters and dials, and blinking lights. It was exactly what you’d think a ‘70s Soviet control centre would look like: efficient, well-organised and supremely utilitarian. There were three small single armchairs screwed into the floor in front of the dashboards, each with a seatbelt that looked better suited to a ’60s rollercoaster ride. Elena told Beth and
A flashing red light blinked on the board above us, it’s reddish glow bouncing around the room. an unsettling alarm softly rang out in the room. Elena informed us the computer screen to our left would display a ten digit code. The computer screen was blank but to try to keep the simulation as authentic as possible Elena instructed us to punch in any ten digits into our vintage keyboards. Then, Elena, slipping surprisingly comfortably into her commanding officer role, ordered Beth and I to count to three and push our respective little grey buttons labelled “Launch button” at the same time. I counted to three
I wondered if the Soviets would’ve had the same problem. After all the training and planning I comically imagined it all boiling down to two soldiers arguing: “ON THREE!”, “NIET! AFTER THREE!” We tried again; agreeing to push on three. We pushed on three. The flashing red light ceased and the alarm stopped. We were plunged into an awkward silence.
“What now?” I asked, thinking there must surely be more steps to come.
“That’s it,” Elena responded matter-of-factly, “You’ve just launched 75 nuclear warheads which will arrive in the US in about 30-minutes: wiping it out. They will detect the rockets about half way there and probably retaliate within 15 minutes; ending life on earth [which was at the time unbeknownst to either party responsible for the firing of these rockets]. You’ve been provided with enough food, water, and oxygen for 45 days in this underground silo and you’ll emerge to witness a lifeless planet; if you don’t go insane in the meantime.”
I was struck most by how simple and methodical the launch process was. Which, if you follow the destructive logic, makes sense. These desks needed to be capable of launching their missiles within 15-20 minutes of the US launching their equally apocalyptic arsenal. If the launch took longer, it’s possible your own warheads would be destroyed before you had a chance to fire them. Truthfully, I felt no great moral responsibility going through the process and pressing the button. Maybe it was because rationally I knew this was all just a simulation. Maybe it was specifically designed that way to trounce any independent thought or critical thinking that might come along with the prospect of delivering death to millions.
Rockets and countdowns aside, I was interested in the human side of this incredible place. How does one feel sitting for 6 hours, waiting for the command to launch weapons more destructive than anything humans have ever seen? The stress must be incomparable. Elena told stories of visitors who came and found, at the apex of their simulation, they couldn’t press the little grey button. These Baby Boomers were scarred from drills as children requiring them to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear attack. As a result, they found they couldn’t be the one to be the bringer of doom in a simulated environment.
What was far more overwhelming to consider, for me, was the fact nuclear missile silos still exist around the world today. And not in a decommissioned form but very much operational. We’re still just the click of a button away from Armageddon. With personalities like Trump and Putin in charge, it’s a terrifying prospect.
Leaving the museum, we boarded an old Blue Bird school bus (Donated by the US who helped decommission the facility in the early ’90s) for a 30 min ride to Pervomaisk, the hometown of Elena and all the silo staff. It was the end of the workday and everybody was jovial; camaraderie oozed. Elena was clearly the centre of attention as the men seemed to find her an endearing daughter figure. They all laughed together and although we didn’t understand the dialogue it was clear these men had spent many years together and were incredibly comfortable in each other’s company. Elena had clearly proven herself to be a welcome addition; no small feat I imagine.
Elena sat with us over lunch in Pervomaisk while we waited for our onward bus to Odessa. She wanted to be sure we got on the right bus which was a lovely gesture, especially as we were eager to chat and learn more. She regaled us with intriguing stories about the men on the bus who’d shared their experience during the Cold War with her. While doing some maintenance, an officer once dropped a wrench into the silo containing the nuclear missile and proceeded to blame a poor lowly soldier when reporting the incident (I imagined the soldier promptly shuffled into a train bound for the Gulags). This is also when she told us about the nightmares officers still had (receiving the command to fire and the button failing) and the unending isolation from family endured while on duty.
It was a relentlessly demanding role and I’ve never regretted not learning Russian before. To have but the briefest conversation with these men on the bus would’ve been fascinating. What would be a casual conversation for them about their previous job would’ve had me frantically scribbling notes and hanging on their every word.
Alas, I don’t speak any Russian but contented myself knowing that our experience at the nuclear missile silo museum, and Elena’s expertise, had restored my faith in the importance of dark tourism after a disappointing day-trip to Chernobyl. I hope the museum’s visitors continue to grow (Elena excitedly explained that numbers are indeed growing substantially – she had bookings for April when it was only December). I think the more people that see this button the more we might understand how fragile it makes us, and we may just start questioning why such a button is still necessary.
We boarded our minibus to Odessa at 5:30pm with 3 hours of driving in front of us, waving goodbye to guide-of-the-year Elena.
I put my notepad away at this point as I figured the blog post would end here. I was sadly, yet amusingly, mistaken.
45 minutes into our pothole riddled ride, our minibuses rear axle decided it had launched itself into and out of one too many cavernous ditches. We didn’t know it at the time, however, as our driver pulled off the road at a near-deserted bus station. It was now dark and the only light came from two blinking fluorescent bulbs inside the sparse station which looked like it had been dying a slow death since the day it was built.
Our driver turned off the engine.
Remembering all the idling minibuses we’d sat on, Beth noted, “They never turn off the engine,” looking at me forlornly
We figured we were in for the long haul.
In what was both an effort to keep warm and distract herself from thinking about the potential extent of this delay, Beth curled up in her seat surrounded by our bags, using her headlamp to read. I stood outside with most of the other 10-15 passengers who took the opportunity to suck down as many cigarettes as the impromptu break would allow. I battled the cold with the desire to stand with the knowledge sitting would be our assumed position for many hours to come. Our lackadaisical driver was assisted by some eager passengers to assess the damage. Phone calls were made, more cigarettes smoked, different men crawled under the minibus to look at the axle (which seemed unwise as it was potentially broken), and I sensed our situation was becoming hopeless.
No information about what had happened, what was being done or how long it would take was passed on by anyone to anyone. I wasn’t surprised or anxious to know, it was just interesting to think about the lines of cranky customers that such a delay would cause at London Victoria or Gare Du Nord. Everyone here appeared casual. It was as if we were just making a scheduled 10-minute stop.
I got chatting to another passenger who saw our conversation as an opportunity to practice English. He was heading to Odessa to meet a friend with hopes this friend would land him a job with a Norwegian solar energy firm. His previous one month experience working in a nuclear facility left him confident of recruitment. I had my doubts.
He proceeded to show me a video of him working in the nuclear plant. I couldn’t quite understand what was happening on screen but it certainly looked hazardous. People in full protective gear and face masks moved around an industrial space while behaving somewhat carelessly with tools and equipment. They seemed to care more about dancing and showing off for the camera than the task before them. I wasn’t sure why he was showing me the video and I felt it inappropriate to ask. He did add, somewhat proudly, that if authorities saw what he’d filmed arrests would be likely.
Eventually, like most interactions we’d had with new friends in Ukraine, the war crept into our conversation. When I asked about his family, he told me they all lived in Elena’s town of Pervomaisk with the exception of his brother. He lived in war-torn Donetsk in the east of Ukraine.
“I wonder if he’s alive,” he pondered aloud, seemingly to himself. I didn’t know how to move the conversation along so we stood in an awkward, prolonged silence.
These are the kinds of surreal, haphazard conversations I had gotten used to in Ukraine. In fact, I’d come to quite enjoy the randomness of them, you just never knew where an interaction was going to take you and I found them fascinating. Seemingly everyone had a story that could be page one headlines but told them with the nonchalance of a page ten footnote.
In the midst of this cultural exchange, a homeless man approached us and interrupted in Russian.
I thought he was asking for money but my new passenger friend proceeded to pull out his phone and dial. He said the homeless man asked for an ambulance because his legs were cold. I was shivering and shuffling on my feet to keep warm wearing attire that’s gotten me through Canadian winters. This man faced the same chill wearing ragtag clothing he’d seemingly cobbled together. None of it looked terribly well insulated.
When my passenger friend (I never did ask his name) was done on the phone, I asked if he thought an ambulance would actually show up. He wasn’t sure, “This is Ukraine,” he added, giving me all the context I needed. Within 15 minutes though, we saw hopeful flashing lights coming over the dark horizon. I was impressed with the response time.
Whatever hopes I had for the Ukrainian medical services based on their efficient response were quickly dashed when the vehicle came into view. If I was lying on the ground, bleeding profusely, I would most likely die immediately of lost hope at the sight of this ambulance and its crew.
The ambulance itself was what I imagined a
Emerging slowly, by choice and restriction, two absurdly obese, bearded, and alarmingly
To our surprise, the ambulance officers gently helped the homeless man into the ambulance after a few short interactions that seemed to entail more grunting and mumbling than audible language. I hoped the hospital was in better shape than the ambulance but decided against asking my new friend what the conditions would be like and kept its state to my imagination – as children tells themselves their dear dog Rover is now on a farm loving life and not buried under the clothesline.
A shivering and tedious two hours after breaking down, a replacement bus bounded towards us. We boarded, exhausted and just about frozen solid, knowing we wouldn’t get to Odessa till around midnight. I willed Google Maps’ little blue dot on but it moved across my screen at the speed that Ukrainian ambulance officers sedately exit vehicles. I cursed Google and its lack of teleportation power.
I crashed into our hotel bed fully-clothed when we crawled into Odessa. Known within Ukraine as ‘The City of Sex’, our neighbours let us, and everyone on our hotel floor, know exactly why. I rolled my eyes, laughed and rolled over to cover my head with the pillow. I’d learned by now that it was just another day touring Ukraine: anything could happen and it probably would – I loved it.
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Travel insurance is a complex subject and should be apart of your research before heading anywhere. We wrote a comprehensive blog here to give you the tools to make a decision. We recommend World Nomads.