An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
27 November 2012
Somewhere North of Moscow, hidden deep in the sprawling pine forests which cover so much of the Russian countryside, there lies an old, forgotten holiday camp. Decorated with bizarre, otherworldly and oft-times terrifying sculptures of deep sea creatures, this Soviet Young Pioneer camp seems now to have fallen into the hands of a somewhat more sinister sector of Russian society – as I was to find out for myself, when I headed out into the forest looking for it.
Russian Road Trip
We set out from Moscow in a rental car; myself and several equally curious companions. As we drew closer however, we discovered that the coordinates pointed to a nondescript patch of forest, apparently miles away from the nearest road. We had no choice but to navigate our way around the target area, testing each turn-off in search of an access point.
The journey took us through a scattering of remote, rural villages, to a deserted cemetery tucked away in a discreet woodland clearing, and along many miles of the rough and boggy forest tracks used by local woodcutters. While traversing one of the latter, the car became so deeply stuck in the mud that for a while we wondered if we would need to abandon it there.
A little later we were following a straight tarmac road through the forest, when we spotted a group of men cutting across a clearing for a nearby forest path. The satnav confirmed that they were heading towards our destination, and so we tried to catch up with them… they scattered when they saw the car approaching however, melting into the forest with elvish speed. We tried to pursue on foot – but the track was thick with undergrowth, and we were distinctly unsettled by the prospect of being watched by the strange party who had been so keen to avoid us.
Driving back to the main road, we skirted another 90 degrees east around our elusive destination. The next road we tried led to a remote hamlet – no more than a handful of houses – and all built in the traditional local style; sharp, triangular domiciles constructed from wood and clay. One of our party was able to ask a couple of workmen for directions in Russian – I made out a few words, such as “camp,” “old,” “where?”. The workers replied with blank faces and so we drove on past them, following a narrow, wooded lane that wound deeper into the forest.
Suddenly, just as we were beginning to lose hope for ever finding our destination, we stumbled across a great, bulbous arch beside the road. It appeared to be formed from multicoloured styrofoam; more grown, than built. We had arrived.
We pulled up beside the entrance… but before we had even turned off the engine another vehicle appeared, approaching us fast from further down the forest track. Behind it in the distance lurked the shape of a factory, or perhaps a warehouse, mostly hidden by thick green foliage.
The vehicle – a smart 4×4 with blacked out windows – drew up alongside us before the driver slowly unwound his window. The man inside was in his mid-forties; bald, formally dressed, and partially obscured behind a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. He spoke to us only in Russian.
“What do you want?” he asked.
We decided to play stupid: claiming to be lost, and expressing an innocent interest in the buildings behind us.
“Go back to Moscow,” he said. “There are churches and museums for tourists. There is nothing for you here.”
There was something in the man’s eyes, something in his tone of voice that brooked no argument. Even without understanding every word the threat was clear. As we sheepishly obliged, turning the car back the way we had come, he watched us in silence with cold, unblinking eyes. Then he began to follow us. Slowly and at a distance, he escorted us out of the forest, back through the village and all the way to the main road. Here he pulled up beside the turning, and waited until we had disappeared from sight.
We had come a long way by this point, had already invested a lot of time and energy trying to locate our destination. More than that, I had been researching this site for months, poring over maps and coordinates. None of us had any intention of leaving empty handed. And so, as we sat drinking cans of beer outside a nearby village shop we decided, against all common sense, to sneak back for another look.
A Leninist Nightmare
There was brief talk of ditching the hire car, and walking back to the camp through the forest; the only thing that sounded worse than meeting our friend again though, was the notion of running into him without an escape plan. Besides, we had a crazy Glaswegian cabbie in the driving seat, who was confident he could outmaneuver anything on four wheels.
The road was clear as we returned to the entrance of the camp, and parked up facing our escape route. We left one man with the car as the other three of us clambered through a hole in the chain link fence, sprinting for cover behind a row of bushes, then rounding the corner… to come face-to-face with a hideous, cyclopean octopus halfway through devouring a building.
From here on in, things got weird.
I can’t tell you much about the history of this site in particular, other than the fact that it was abandoned in the mid 1980s. It is one of many such sites however, which lie dotted across the former USSR. The Young Pioneer camp (or in Russian, ‘Пионерский лагерь’) was a concept popularised by the Soviet Union. The first of these state-governed holiday parks was built near Gurzuf, Ukraine in 1925; the famous Artek Camp. By the 1970s there were almost 40,000 pioneer camps scattered across the USSR, with millions of children in attendance nationwide.
Typically, parents would have to pay to send their children to one of these camps… though in some cases the parents’ employers would subsidise the child’s place. Enrolment in one of the more prestigious camps however, such as Artek, was generally reserved for those children born to influential families.
Naturally the pioneer camps were richly fed with state propaganda. The initial intention of Lenin’s Young Pioneer Organisation, after all, was the propagation of communist ideals into young, impressionable minds. In addition to a wide range of sporting activities, many camps subsidised this Soviet grounding with career-specific education – there were camps themed for young technicians, others for geologists; some were aimed at developing the interests of young naturalists, which, I suspect, may have been the case in this instance.
After the tentacles there came other indescribable horrors. In every corner of the camp we found great, eldritch shapes of nameless menace; shoals of fish gloating from high pedestals, while writhing red vines burst forth from walls to clutch blindly at the sky. A flock of grazing sheep scattered as we ran past, bleating as they dispersed amidst the hollow buildings.
Around another corner, in a paved clearing amidst the centre of the madness, I stumbled across a blasphemous effigy of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov set in a flaming plinth of antiquarian stone; Lenin himself, watching blindly over the arcane decadence of the camp.
Elsewhere a bird of prey perched high atop a crimson cliff, while beneath it some creature of the deep peered up through cold eyes. An abnormal beast of unspeakable origins gazed on impassively – the head and tail of a monkey stitched clumsily to the lumbering body of a kangaroo.
For the duration of my stay in this camp of horrors, my mind was torn between getting in and getting out. I tried every door I came across, every window, but they all proved securely locked. Meanwhile, I was painfully aware that at any moment we might be discovered by our host; an unnaturally intimidating man of unknown motives. In the end I resigned myself to simply exploring the grounds surrounding the buildings. Between the looming shapes of otherworldly creatures and my own racing adrenaline levels, this proved adventure enough.
Perhaps most singular amongst these terrors, however, was the figure of a naked child… held high in the squamous grasp of some writhing, loathsome thing from the ocean’s depths.
I simply cannot fathom the intentions of the architects. Though I’d like to imagine that these strange designs have grown more bizarre over the years, as they began to slump into inevitable decay, nevertheless this pioneer camp must have been somewhat unnerving even at the time of its construction. Whether the initial idea was to entertain, or perhaps rather to scare the resident children into obedience through such disturbing imagery, is impossible to say.
It was with some relief that we made it back to the car without incident; a sense of relief which grew as we left the camp, the forest and then the village behind us, and got back out onto the open road.
NB: While the somewhat intimidating security presence we encountered didn’t stop us from going back for another look, it did manage to put a serious limitation on the amount of time we were comfortable spending at the site… and with a car parked out the front, we were hardly inconspicuous. It also acted as a powerful deterrent against getting caught sneaking inside one of these bizarre buildings.
If you’re still curious to get a glimpse of the interior however, then have a look at the report over on English Russia. Needless to say, the architects’ taste for interior decor is equally alarming.