The last tattered remnants of the Cuban nuclear program.
1 November 2012
The Russian State Company for Satellite Communications (or “Подведомственное Федеральному агентству связи ФГУП Космическая связь”) controls the majority of satellite transmissions in and out of the Russian Federation. The company owns satellite centres in a number of towns dotted around the Moscow region, or ‘oblast’ – including the Satellite Communications Centre (SCC) at Dubna, as well as further installations in nearby Vladimir and Medvezhy Ozera.
However, there are numerous other satellite dishes dotted around Moscow Oblast… and unlike those maintained by the RSCC, many of them have been left to slowly rust. I was staying at a hostel in Moscow city centre, when I got chatting to someone else crazy enough to go looking for these forgotten monstrosities; by the next morning we had gathered a party of four, hired a car, and were on our way.
Perhaps the most impressive of Moscow’s abandoned space communication satellites can be found close to the town of Monino, due east of the Russian capital. A friend had tipped us off to the existence of a vast dish, measuring 60m in diameter; and now left to the mercy of the elements.
It sounded too good to be true, and perhaps it was.
We began noticing the array of dishes as we approached the town. They seemed to sprout above the horizon in all directions, like a field of metal mushrooms. Driving past what appeared to be a military installation, we spotted an open gate – and behind it, the towering silhouette of a satellite dish.
We pulled up nearby, and, cautiously peeking around the end of the sliding metal gate, found the area inside abandoned. Whatever this site had once been, it bore little trace of that now.
It seemed to be a dumping ground for assorted mechanical parts – a cluster of worn-out old trucks were parked in one corner, their engines long since removed; iron tanks and girders lay strewn between bland concrete hangers; a vast walkway rose over the far end of the rough track, from which winches would have facilitated the unloading of heavy cargoes from incoming lorries. Perhaps strangest of all was the plastic geodesic dome partially hidden behind trees at one edge of the compound, surrounded by a sea of discarded plastic bottles… hard to describe, other than as some kind of strange, Soviet igloo.
A similar dome, though this time constructed from metal, sat on the other side of the scrapyard; and it was from this structure that we heard the only signs of life.
As we approached, jets of sparks shot out from the side of the dome accompanied by the harsh sound of metal grinding on metal. Suddenly the noise stopped, and a thick-set man in overalls came out to greet us.
Luckily one of our group was able to speak a little Russian, and so we asked him about the satellite dish – which lay just beyond a high concrete barrier.
He told us the dish had been out of action for many years, and that nobody even guarded it anymore. He then pointed towards an adjacent field, which ran the length of the concrete perimeter, and which he suggested would offer a better view… adding that on no account were we to try and get inside.
This patch of rough ground the mechanic had directed us to was easy to reach, through a gap in the chain link fence surrounding the scrapyard. Here all manner of rubbish had been dumped, ranging from books and clothes through to television sets, and what appeared to be an old reel-to-reel recording device.
The high concrete barrier allowed little in the way of a view, but then we spotted a gap beneath it – a muddy trench, where dogs or some other animals had dug their way under, and through to the satellite enclosure beyond. Just a quick look around, we decided.
I was the first through the gap, and as I brushed the worst of the dust and dirt from my clothes, I looked around at what seemed to be a military base – a row of identical, whitewashed barracks in the distance, combined with storehouses, hangers, and an expanse of neatly regimented lawns. Around the perimeter of the compound the ground sunk down into a ditch, while the satellite relay rose majestically ahead of us – the dish itself supported on a vast and complex cradle of interlocking metal parts, atop a grand base station tiled in navy blue.
Rather than spend too much time out in the open, I decided it would be safer to stay in my trench… and so I began skirting around the perimeter of the site until I was closer to the dish. Here I found a number of tunnels, cut into the side of the bank, and leading beneath the main enclosure. I tried getting into a few of them, but most had been bricked up not far from the entrance – and each one now served as a dumping ground for old light fixtures, surveillance equipment, electrical cables and box upon box of mildewed books.
By now my comrades had caught up, and we approached the dish itself. The service hatch set into the base was securely locked, yet it was an overwhelming experience just to stand in the shadow of this towering symbol of Russian telecommunications… I found myself wondering just how far its signals had reached, this space age device which the Soviets had designed to relay messages between shuttles and satellites.
However, our exploration was to be cut short – as we heard the sound of voices in the distance, and looked across the compound to see a small group of figures marching in our direction. It seemed the site was still in military use after all. One of our party had served in the United Nations Peace Corps, and his training kicked in now.
“Don’t run,” he told us, “they might shoot if you run”. Instead we fell into rank. From a distance we would have appeared just another drill team, as we marched briskly away from the relay dish and across the lawn… then disappeared over the brink of the perimeter ditch.
As we left the scrapyard, the gate was being drawn open to make way for an incoming vehicle.
The driver confronted us as we passed – demanding to know who we were, and what we were doing in his yard. We told him that we were just having a look around, and that the mechanic hadn’t minded.
“You must leave,” he said. “There is nothing for you here.”
After this pleasant interlude, we got back on the road – in hope of finding the main target. Following the vague directions we had been given, it wasn’t long until the dish came into sight.
Appearing first as a glowing disk on the horizon, it was some time before we came close enough to appreciate the sheer size of the thing. Once we had a visual, we turned off the main road; weaving our way through a winding network of dead end roads, in between a scattered estate of threadbare houses and garages.
The site in which the satellite dish stands is now owned by an aviation company called “MKPK Universal“… or “МКПК Универсал”, as the sign on the fence informed us.
A patchwork construction of wood and corrugated metal panels formed a perimeter fence around the compound.
This tired-looking fence rose to a height of roughly eight feet; but by climbing on scattered bricks or peeking through knot holes in the warped wood, we were able to get a good look iside.
What would once have been a concrete plaza had now given way to the onslaught of bushes and bracken, the hard ground cracking as weeds sprouted forth in ordered, green ranks. Here and there we were able to spot a number of low, metal roofed sheds, in addition to what appeared to be the remains of an Antonov An-72 – a Soviet transport aircraft which first became popular in the 1970s.
Getting inside the compound seemed easy enough. We had parked up near the main entrance, not much more than a concrete track connecting the yard to the nearby highway. From here we decided to trek around to the side of the perimeter fence, where concrete gave way to mud; brickwork to forest.
The fence was in even worse repair on this side, some sections reaching a near 40 degree angle. Before the first of us could drop down into the compound though, a noise from inside caught our attention – a long, low growl, as a lean hound loped stealthily toward us across the paved yard. Within seconds another beast had taken up the warning, emerging from behind one of the tin sheds.
I’m not a fan of guard dogs, and by the time a third had woken up, we conceded defeat. In a final desperate attempt at getting inside we headed back to the hire car, and tried one last resort – ringing the doorbell.
The buzzer was set into a plastic mount beside the main gate, and at first it appeared to have done nothing. A minute or so later though, we spied an old man pacing slowly across the yard towards us. He came barely within range of the gate, before calling out and asking what we wanted.
Again we turned to our translator; “just to take a look,” he said.
This was met, unsurprisingly, with a flat refusal. Growing ever more desperate, we offered him money.
“You have nothing I need,” came the reply, as the man shuffled slowly away.
A Few Final Thoughts on Urban Exploration in Russia
Ultimately, I felt it appropriate to file this report as a failure. Although the additional site we visited along the way proved to be fascinating (and allowed for some dramatic photo opportunities), our main target for the expedition still managed to elude us.
It was frustrating to get so close and then hit a dead end, and yet this report is typical of most of my experience of urban exploration in Russia. It doesn’t help of course, that our target was such a prominent technological installation – or that it was an important relay point for coded transmissions throughout the Cold War.
Moreover, the experience felt much more dangerous than some of my other explorations.
Back home in England, the rules are simple – and the worst I’d be likely to face for trespassing is a night in custody followed by a free breakfast. In much of Eastern Europe and even Asia, the greatest dangers you are likely to encounter (besides the inherent risks of the structures themselves) are wild animals, homeless people and paying expensive bribes if you get caught. Here in Russia though, it’s hard to know what exactly is at stake.