The last tattered remnants of the Cuban nuclear program.
16 May 2014
I’ve been putting it off for a while now, but it’s time to talk about the Crimea… more specifically, about the vast aquatic facility built there by the USSR, and designed to house a fleet of nuclear-ready, Soviet submarines.
Now memorialised, this Cold War relic enjoyed a brief stint as a public museum; and I was fortunate enough to pay it a visit as such, just months before the latest Crimean crisis.
OBJEKT 825: A Brief History of the Balaklava Submarine Base
The Crimean Peninsula has known many masters: from the ancient Greeks who once colonised this land, through to the conquering Roman, Byzantine, and later, Ottoman empires. In the last hundred years alone it has been held by the Russian Tsars, the Tatars, the Nazis, the Soviets, the Ukrainian Republic and the Russian Federation.
This apparent popularity is in no small part due to the region’s unique position; it commands the waters of the Black Sea, and from there, by way of the Bosphorus Strait, provides naval access into the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.
In 1783, Catherine the Great of Russia pushed down through Ukraine, building imperial ports and shipyards that could send fleets against the sprawling Ottoman Empire to the south. Now, in its most recent transition, Crimea has once again been claimed by Mother Russia; and given the conflict and confusion which has surrounded the region’s latest annexation, I’m very glad that I toured the region when I did – in September 2013.
The town of Balaklava lies on the southern edge of Crimea, not far from the larger port city of Sevastopol. The name rose to notoriety in the West with the 1854 Battle of Balaclava, one of the most heated bouts of the Crimean War; it was here on October 25th, that the British Empire’s ‘Light Brigade’ made their famously doomed charge against the Russian Forces in a last-ditch effort to take the port at Sevastopol.
Although Balaklava itself has functioned as an active military port for centuries, the submarine base was not constructed until 1957. It was during the Cold War, amidst escalating sabre-rattling between the US and USSR, that Stalin issued the directive to establish a fleet of nuclear submarines in the Black Sea.
The Soviet officer chosen to lead the project was the head of the USSR’s nuclear project, Lavrentiy Beria. Beria spent years researching locations, before eventually deciding upon the quiet, Crimean town of Balaklava. Here the sea enters the land by way of a narrow strait, while the twists and contours of the coastline served to render the submarine base invisible from prying eyes.
Immediately the town was secured, classified, and construction began on ‘Objekt 825.’ It was a project that would take four years to complete, as more than 120,000 tons of rock were cut and painstakingly removed to form vast, subterranean chambers open to the water.
It was claimed that the submarine base in Balaklava was virtually indestructible – its secret docks and corridors protected by a shell of concrete and steel, capable of surviving a direct nuclear strike of up to 100 kilotons.
Meanwhile, the town of Balaklava itself, which in time came to be occupied almost entirely by workers from the base, would become one of the most secretive locations in the whole USSR. Entry to Balaklava was so restricted, in fact, that even family of the workers were unable to visit the town without showing extensive documentation proving their justification for entry.
The Balaklava submarine base saw heavy use throughout the Cold War period – working in close association with the Soviet Black Sea Fleet stationed at Sevastopol – and not least at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis; the positioning of US Hercules missiles in Turkey provoked the Soviets to respond with nuclear armament in allied Cuba, as well as scrambling their nuclear submarines from Balaklava in anticipation of a counterstrike against Turkey itself.
Right up until the fall of the Soviet Union, in fact, the facility at Balaklava remained one of the USSR’s strongest deterrents to play against its enemies in Europe.
Closure and Memorialisation: The Balaklava Naval Museum Complex
Unlike many such facilities, the secret nuclear submarine base at Balaklava Bay survived beyond the fall of the USSR. It remained in use until 1993, when the decommissioning process eventually began with the removal of vessels, their torpedoes and nuclear warheads. The last Russian submarine sailed out of Balaklava Bay in 1996.
For a long time the complex lay abandoned; much of it was unguarded, and it was largely forgotten by the population who gradually began to drift back into an unrestricted Balaklava. Later, in 2000, the Russian Federation gifted the abandoned base to the Ukrainian Navy.
The museum, officially denoted the ‘Balaklava Naval Museum Complex’, was founded by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence on 30th December 2002. Opened to the public on 1st June the following year, the museum plan included portions of the 600-metre central tunnel as well as a weapons plant, an (empty) nuclear storage arsenal and a number of residential quarters and offices.
An Expedition to the Crimea
I didn’t have any intention of going to Balaklava; at least, not yet. After exploring the Odessa Catacombs, I’d been left with just three spare days before my impending tour of Chernobyl, and the famous ghost city of Pripyat. My time in Ukraine was running out, and from all I had heard about the beauty and history of the Crimean region I had already decided that it would be better saved for another – longer – trip.
My plans have a habit of changing drastically and at the last minute however, and this particular change of course came while I was drinking beers with a Finnish explorer I’d met at my hostel in Odessa. We’d been discussing Balaklava, as well as the abandoned military facility located beneath a mountain further inland; a vast subterranean installation known as Objekt 221.
“Why not do both?” he suggested to me. “Call this a research trip, then stay for longer next time.”
It was no small detour – instead of my nine-hour train from Odessa straight to Kiev (the meeting point for my Chernobyl tour), I’d be looking at a 12-hour journey from Odessa to Simferopol, main transport hub for the Crimea, and then another two hours to Balaklava itself. We’d then have just 36 hours to locate the aforementioned sites before I would need to get back to Simferopol, in time for my gruelling 14-hour train ride north to Kiev.
While the excessive journey times were far from appealing, there was certainly something to be said for the company: my new friend was an experienced traveller and an experienced trespasser; a Cold War aficionado with a respectable grasp of basic Russian.
“Alright,” I agreed, “let’s do it then.”
The train ride from Odessa to Simferopol was just a slow and laborious as we’d imagined, but we passed the journey with more beer and good conversation to arrive in the Crimea early the next day.
Simferopol, as it turned out, was chaos – passengers spill out from the train station in droves, to fill the adjacent coach depot with a sea of churning bodies. Buses reverse blind through the crowds, accompanied by sirens, horns and thick, dark smoke. To get a ticket to anywhere, you’ll need to queue in line for as long as an hour; all the while, taxi drivers, ticket touts and beggars serve you with unending hassle from all sides.
As the Crimea is linked to Ukraine only by a narrow land route, this city at the centre of the peninsula has grown to become a key transport hub connecting all local road and rail routes. Russian is the language of choice, with virtually zero English spoken by the various ticket vendors and travel agents scattered about the plaza.
A Ukrainian friend back in Odessa had warned me to be careful here: not just of the usual pickpockets and scam artists, but of full, physical assault. He told me to watch my back, for thieves who’d gladly crack a brick over my head to rob me, and leave me unconscious in an alleyway.
I suspect he was being overcautious, but there in Simferopol bus station I was painfully aware of the many eyes watching me. For the record, I’ve only ever experienced kindness and generosity from Ukrainians, who, in my opinion, are more or less a pretty wonderful bunch of human beings… but at the same time, desperation can drive people to uncharacteristic extremes; and between my laptop and camera gear, I knew that the contents of my bag would have made for a healthy retirement package by local standards.
In time we managed to buy tickets; we boarded a rickety old coach and burst out of the smoke and the noise of Simferopol, to find ourselves cruising between rolling, grassy plains and a sky of perfect blue.
We reached Sevastopol, dropped our bags at a hostel and then headed out to find a bus to Balaklava. After the chaos of Simferopol, Sevastopol was a breath of fresh air – both figuratively and in the most literal of senses. The ornate domes of orthodox churches crept along cobbled streets toward the seafront, and everything about the place had a sense of calm and serenity. I got the impression that nothing here happened with much haste; a theory that was soon proven true, as we flagged down a marshrutka taxi-bus and rolled our way slowly and painstakingly into the east.
We made the last leg of our journey by taxi.
“Podvodnaya lodka,” I said to the driver, appropriating the best Russian accent I could manage. “Militsiya muzey.”
We had driven around Balaklava for a little while before I realised my mistake – I’d asked for submarines sure enough, but rather than a military museum, I was asking the driver for a police museum. A small error, perhaps, but it was enough to double our taxi fare as the driver feigned ignorance and drove around the town in circles.
Soon enough however, we came back around a corner of the bay and down a slip road beside the water, where rusted signposts guided us to the once-classified installation up ahead.
Beneath Mount Tavros
The Balaklava Naval Museum Complex lies on the west side of the river that flows through the town, a series of deep caverns that stretch for a length of over 600 metres before emerging from a second opening on the far side of Mount Tavros. We paid our fare – the equivalent of a few dollars – at the unassuming entrance desk, before passing through a turn-style and into the mountain itself.
Inside, we found a naval base in perfect repair, its long, curving tunnels cut smooth through the stone and maintained at a constant temperature of 15 degrees celsius. There were a few other groups of visitors on this day, all Russian-speakers, but we soon lost sight of them inside the sprawling network of passages that branched like veins beneath the rock.
I say network, but perhaps that gives an inaccurate impression of the linear route offered to museum visitors. Our path followed long, curving tunnels, through bulkheads and between bars; but the proliferation of sealed doors, the blocked entrances around us, gave me the growing sense that we were seeing only a fraction of the whole facility.
According to the literature, this base had not just housed submarines; there had been wet and dry docks here, repair shops, torpedo warehouses and, of course, the highly secure areas that had once housed an arsenal of nuclear warheads. On top of that though, the Balaklava submarine base was designed to accommodate and protect all site personnel in the event of nuclear fallout. Given that most of the residents of Balaklava were once associated with the base, I wondered exactly what the capacity of this installation might be; how much more of it there was, hidden behind closed doors.
We followed the route past a scattering of museum exhibits, framed schematics and deactivated torpedo shells, before the tunnel opened – quite without warning – into a vast, subterranean space. Where the passage before had been clean, close and whitewashed, lit by fluorescent strip lighting, this next chamber was formed from high, vaulted concrete arches, spotlights flickering across the rippling water to throw a shifting pattern of shapes across the walls.
This was the central tunnel: a deep, underground canal that cut a straight line through the mountain. Reaching a total length of 602 metres, this space was designed to accommodate no less than seven nuclear-ready subs; that number rose to 14, however, when including the various additional galleries which had never been opened to the public.
One solitary guard stood watch over a central observation deck, and he watched me intently – though not unkindly – as I set up a tripod and camera above the rippling water.
From this central space the path led us back towards the mouth of the tunnel, a walkway that jutted out above the water on the far side of the chamber. Natural light spilled in from the mouth – a blinding, white semicircle – to be met by muted greens and purples from the atmospheric spot lighting inside.
Across the water from us here, at the end of a small jetty, rose two ghoulish figures; mannequins draped in cloaks and gas masks, grim effigies raised for no apparent reason; and which, inevitably, added perfectly to the almost gothic quality of this semi-submerged cathedral to war. I wondered if they served as memento mori, ghost-like figures that lamented the blind and brutal cruelty of nuclear warfare… or then again, maybe I was overthinking a simple display of the protective clothing worn by site engineers.
Beside the mouth of the cavern, the now-familiar system of guide ropes, locked doors and painted arrows herded us on through a series of heavy steel bulkheads. Somewhere a klaxon sounded, just as we reached a long, corrugated passage lit by a chain of rust-red lights. At moments like this I could have believed the base was fully functional, that nuclear subs were being prepped, orders barked over a loudspeaker in Russian demanding an immediate strike against Allied Forces in the Black Sea.
We were reaching the end of the exhibition now, where a final few chambers held more traditional, museum-style displays of weapons and ammo. There were mortars, torpedoes, rifles and grenades, projectiles hung from the ceiling on thin wires to give the illusion of missiles in flight. On a wall by the exit, a painted slogan read:
“не все говори что знаешь, но всегда знай, что говоришь!”
“Don’t always say what you know, but always know what you’re saying!”
A few more industrial chambers, passages of corrugated metal daubed in black-and-yellow hazard paint, and then suddenly we were outside.
After the dark and sombre tunnels, the contrast was staggering; to step back into the sleepy town of Balaklava, perched in a deep crevice between grass and stone, gazing placidly out across the waters of the Black Sea.
The Fate of Object 825
In connecting with the past, I have always preferred truth to illusion; ruins over replicas, interaction over narrative. Museums sometimes bore me, if only for the terminal stagnation that so often comes as a result of the memorialisation process. To memorialise is to embalm; to deny even the potential for future life.
When I first heard about a secret Soviet sub base in the Crimea, I had the idea that it was abandoned. I now find myself wondering what it would have been like, for those locals who visited the facility between the years 1996 and 2000 when the base really was left abandoned – and with minimal security.
The segments that we saw were impressive, but they hinted at a much larger, subterranean complex. The residential areas, the weapons plants, the nuclear storage facilities and repair shops which we didn’t see: somewhere beneath Mount Tavros was a whole city, and we’d toured just a few select boulevards.
For all that though, I admired the authenticity of the museum experience. What text there was had been in Russian, while it appeared that every effort had been made to preserve the integrity, the atmosphere of a fully-operational nuclear submarine base.
On 17th March 2014 the Crimean Parliament declared its independence from Ukraine, leading to the formal annexation of the peninsula to Russia. The Ukrainian military forces stationed in Crimea were ordered to surrender, their bases and facilities switching to the ownership of the Russian Federation.
It’s perfectly feasible – perhaps even probable – that the Balaklava Naval Museum Complex will remain just that: a well-tended memorial to a militaristic age now mostly forgotten. If, however, the hidden bulk of the installation has been maintained to the same standard as those areas opened to the public, then it’s difficult not to speculate whether Russia – a country that once fought with such determination for the privilege of a Black Sea port – might not be tempted to put these cavernous facilities back to use some day.
If you haven’t seen it already, you might want to check out my other report on abandoned military objects in the Crimea:
Inside Objekt 221: An Abandoned Soviet Stronghold in the Crimea