Bidding a fond farewell to Tallinn we decided to have a look at what the Soviets had left behind. Guided as ever by atlas obscura we steered the van towards Haapsalu, a route that would allow us to take in a former nuclear missile base close to the coast, followed by a pilots’ graveyard on the edge of an old Warsaw Pact airfield and ending up with some non-specific maritime infrastructure in the town itself.
The missile base was pleasingly difficult to find and get on to. One access road was blocked with huge lumps of concrete; the satnav completely failed to detect any sign of the base or its approaches (no real surprises there, then…); but after a bit of searching we found a rutted track that bypassed another set of concrete blocks and, feeling slightly illegal, we eased the van onto the base itself. It had an eerie feeling to it, as abandoned military facilities seem to have, and while nature had clearly taken over here, nothing was so overgrown that it couldn’t be identified. Going in deeper on foot, we noted huge bunded concrete storage buildings, administrative blocks, guard posts and a network of former single track roads on our way to see one of the missle shelters. This was an unmistakeable location, surounded as it was with three seperate sets of fence posts – a low row about a foot high was flanked on either side by two-metre high fence posts – and one single track road led in through the fences to the shelter itself.
Kate set about photographing the shelter while the dog acted as lookout.
The graffiti inside the tunnel shows the dates that conscripts must have served here, and the three Cyrillic letters are an abbreviation for what you and I would know as ‘demobilisation’, with the date of May 1985.
Without knowing what sort of missile system they’d kept here, it looked as if the tunnel was a sort of ready-use pen where the missile and launcher would have been deployed to in times of tension, before being driven out and prepared for launching on the concrete pad to the left of the access track.
It was a strange thought that thirty years ago any westerner who tried to get this close would have been detained, and worse, long before they even got within sight of the base – and yet here we were, free to come and go as we pleased. None the less the place didn’t feel particularly welcoming, although the dog revelled in the chance to tear around chasing up new scents, so we extracted ourselves and made for the next stop.
This was to be a Soviet pilots’ cemetery outside their airbase, and this time the housing had been taken over by the locals even though the rest of the base appeared to be crumbling away. The cemetery itself was in the edge of some nearby woods and each grave told a sad if stilted story. They carried the dates of the pilot’s birth and death, often his rank, but never anything about how he died, other than to note (in identical, official phraseology) that he had “perished while carrying out his military duties”. Secrecy, it seems, continued beyond the grave. But for all that, someone continued to look after the place and several graves had flowers placed carefully on them, which was oddly reassuring.
Eventually we arrived in Haapsalu, parked up on the edge of the Baltic and put the kettle on. How very predictable, we thought, but there’s nothing quite like a brew in the comfort of your own vehicle after a day spent contemplating the remains of the former Soviet Union. We rounded off that particular experience later in the evening by dodging around a locked gate, complete with warning sign in Latvian, and checked out what in the end turned out to be the ruins of a mud spa treatment facility – although by this stage in things we were quite prepared for it to have been a Warsaw Pact maritime special forces’ barracks.
Either way, ruins are ruins and having taken note of some of the quite imaginative urban art that the town’s youth had decorated the place with, it was high time for me to go back to the van to start cooking supper while Kate took the dog down to explore the Baltic seashore.