Tag Archives: Cold War

Latvia and the Nuclear Scare

Nuclear mushroom as shown in the Soviet Latvian Air Defense instructions book

Nuclear mushroom as shown in the Soviet Latvian Air Defense instructions book

On August 6 1945 United States of America dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The world entered a new age – the atomic age. Suddenly the popular slogan of the WWI “the war to end all wars” got a new meaning. The next world war with the use of nuclear war would definitely end all the wars. Or at least as Albert Einstein said: I  do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks! After US lost its nuclear monopoly in 1949 the world society was put in endless nuclear scare. Both superpowers not only spent large resources on nuclear weapons, but also took great time to invest in civil defense. United States civil defense was known for its emergency drills, the Conelrad radio broadcasts and fallout shelter building. While from today’s perspective, all these actions seemed pointless, the USSR was doing just the same. In fact USSR was just as scared from American nukes, as Americans from Soviet. The USSR had its own civil defense units, drills and radio broadcasts. Latvia at this time was under the Soviet occupation and was filled with Soviet troops and rockets. The start of the nuclear war would mean that Riga, Ventspils and Liepaja would be targeted for nuclear bombing. Luckily such event never took place, but people were taught to be prepared just as American citizens.

Before we go into the details about the civil defense in the Soviet Latvia, let’s take a brief look into NATO-USSR nuclear race. US was the first country that managed to build and detonate the nuclear bomb. There were a limited German nuclear attempts on getting the bomb for themselves, but it was halted by lack of resources and Hitler’s disbelief in such weapons. Also many former German scientists, some of them Jewish escaped to US and took part in the  Manhattan Project. USSR knew about the American nuclear program and started their own in 1942. However, their progress was slower and uranium deposits were lacking. When on 1945 in the Potsdam the US President Harry Truman wanted to surprise Joseph Stalin about the US nuclear weapon, Stalin did not show any emotion at all. Truman even thought that Stalin had no idea what he is talking about. But, Stalin was well informed about the Manhattan Project from the very start. There was a ring of spies within the project. While US may brag about their nuclear bomb, they were unaware about the strongest Soviet super weapon – the foreign intelligence.

And it was the Soviet Foreign intelligence that helped Stalin to acquire his own nuclear bomb that was based on American blueprints. While the Soviet scientists insisted to make their own design the chief of the secret service Lavrenty Beria rushed them to build and test the bomb with the stolen US design. On August 29 1949, RDS-1 the 22 kiloton bomb was tested in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. After Americans discovered this on September 23 the nuclear race begun. In 1952 US tested the first hydrogen bomb. Year later Soviets tested their own. During the war in Korea US and USSR was at the closest point to start the nuclear war. While US de iure fought both communist Korea and China, Soviet Union secretly sent pilots against the US counterparts. US general Douglas Maccartur was ready enough to drop the nuclear bomb on China, but he was stopped by president Truman. Some authors suggest that end of his life Stalin himself secretly planned to trigger world war three.

The Nuclear blast wave

The Nuclear blast wave

The situation got even hastier when the Soviets got new leader Nikita Khrushchev, who believed that modern technology can help to defeat the capitalist block. He managed to achieve first hand in the space race: on 1957 Soviets launched first satellite Sputnik -1 in space on 1961 first man in space was Russian Yuri Gagarin. On 1962 Soviets detonated the strongest nuclear weapon the 57 megaton Tzar Bomb. The Western world was scared of the Soviet space advancements and the ballistic rockets. Nikita Khrushchev added tone to the fear with the phrase: “We will bury you!”.

However, the Soviet threat was overestimated: despite the general belief the USSR never had majority of nuclear rockets. US had Atlas D rockets with 14 500 km radius, next E and F rockets were placed in underground silos, that were capable of surviving a preventive strike. Soviet 8K74 rockets had no silos and in the event of nuclear attack they were vulnerable to preventive strike. US managed to make Titan -2 and Minuteman rockets. Americans were also not too concerned about the continental ballistic missiles, because they could attack USSR from East Germany and Turkey and other sites. Soviets could not and that’s why they needed such missile that also could send man in space. While the Soviets bragged about their nuclear submarines of which K-19 was nicknamed “Hiroshima” because its many accidents, Americans could produce two times more more qualitative nuclear weapons. And also the Soviet TU-95 bombers and MIG fighters looked scary. The US could produce dozen times more such weapons. The answer why was simple: US weapons were produced by private companies, while the USSR produced the weapons with 100% state resources.  And because of this USSR was unable to diverse their civilian production and ultimately ruined their economy. The Cold war a losing game for the Soviets from the very start.

However, both sides did not understand this. US had very scarce intelligence information about the USSR military potential, their greatest achievement was the Soviet double agent Oleg Penkovsky who gave a precise account about the Soviet forces and the approaching Carribean Crisis. However, the eccentric threats by Khrushchev the shoe beating noise was a good point for the American weapons companies to make more rockets. And the Soviet Union drastically followed them all the way until Gorbachev even after the Cuba fiasco in 1962. And Civil defense had to be always ready in case of the zero hour.

Diagram showing how home fallout shelter should look

Diagram showing how home fallout shelter should look

Civil Defense had headquarters  in every major city. A special civil defense committee was in order. It had many departments, communication, medicine, supplies, engineer, transportation ect. The CD also worked in regional level. In case of nuclear attack, people were instructed to have well stocked supplies. A blackout was required. To protect homes from radioactive fallout all cracks had to be sealed. In case of evacuation, the people would be informed by local authorities. Only most vital belongings had to be taken to fallout shelters. The Air attack alarm was to be issued by radio and sirens. All electricity and heating had to be shut down. Only the battery powered radios could be used.

Instruction how to get out of the damaged shelter

Instruction how to get out of the damaged shelter

After the strike wave of the nuclear weapon had gone away, people were instructed to wear the protective suits. If they weren’t any of them, noses and mouths had to be covered with everything by hand. Special instructions were given incase if the fallout shelter had craved in and people are unable to get out.

Most scariest part was the radioactive fallout. All factories, schools, hospitals and other facilities were supplied with gas masks. Also special medical kits were produced in the thousands. Medics had dosimeters. Radio stations and sirens would warn about the nuclear fallout danger. People were also instructed about the chemical attacks. Civil Defense instructions were present in every school, university or college. Preschool children were scared about the possibility of the nuclear strike. Later Civil Defense was a compulsory subject in most educational facilities. Special books were issued and spread among the civilians.

Instruction of how to use the dosimeter

Instruction of how to use the dosimeter

However, on 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded all these well thought out instructions went into chaos. The sheer truth is that when the real disaster strikes only a few knows what to do. People were thought of how to protect themselves from NATO nuclear strikes, but nobody expected the breakdown of their own nuclear technology.

On 1991 when USSR collapsed there was 980 Civil Defense structures. Most of them fell into private hands and used as basements. Many of them became abandoned and used by homeless people. Now there are 311 Civil Defense structures remaining, 177 belongs to private owners, 46 municipal authorities and 88 state authority. All of the remaining fallout and bomb shelters need serious renovation. They are flooded with water, has no electricity and filtration system is outdated. Large sums of money are needed to renovate these buildings. Only 5% of the Latvian population could take shelter in them.

Even if the nuclear scare is long over (or is it?) today the Latvian government has done little to improve civil defense. Most shelters are abandoned. The large underground bunker in a Grīziņkalns park in Riga is used by the DEAC data center. The top secret Soviet government Bunker in Līgatne is used as a museum. A nuclear attack is not the only real threat to Latvian population. The changing weather and storms are the lightest part. A recently built fertilizer plant in Riga that uses the same design as recently exploded plant in Texas, in theory could destroy large area of the city. Nuclear plants are projected in Kaliningrad, Russia and Belarus. And the possibility of war cannot be ruled out completely in these turbulent times. Today the Civil Defense is seldom taught in schools, although I had a special Civil Defense subject at the University.

Gas masks in case of fallout

Gas masks in case of fallout

Under the Soviet occupation Latvia had nuclear rockets within its territory. Rockets were placed in Zeltiņi, in Alūksne district, there were many nuclear arms in the Soviet airfields. The Early warning radar at Skrunda tried to locate the enemy rockets before approaching the USSR. Despite the US declared support for Latvian independence its unlikely that Latvia would be spared in the nuclear war. According to  http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap3d/ if Riga would be hit by US Titan II warhead of 9 Megatons 703,580 people would perish, 132,560 would be injured.  Radioactive fallout could even reach Leningrad, (St. Petersburg). That would be ultimate destruction of this country. Nuclear power is the Pandora box that man has opened and he must do something to prevent it from destroying its creator.

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The Irbene Radio Telescopes

The main RT-32 antenna in the forest of Irbene

The main RT-32 antenna in the forest of Irbene

Hidden in the dense coastal forests of Slītere a mysterious ex-Soviet spy center lays now used for science. Almost everyone including me who entered the site of the two large radio telescopes called Irbene, are amazed by the surrealistic atmosphere made by the abandoned ghost town and two large radio dishes in the middle of nowhere. This article will tell more about this site.

As the Cold War between US and USSR entered above Space, the need for Space espionage made Soviets to design ways to track and decode signals from US satellites.   The project begun in 1967 when the remote areas of the Ventspils district was allocated to secret buildup of object codenamed “Starlet”. The location was chosen because of dense low populated forest areas of Slītere that also was part of the Soviet border zone – so that no stranger could not ever discover this object.

The Close up the RT-32 dish

The Close up the RT-32 dish

The main object for space intelligence was a  32-metre, fully steerable parabolic, centimetre-wave range antenna (RT-32) and a 16-metre diameter antenna (RT-16).  The bigger one is the largest radio telescope in northern Europe and the world’s eighth largest.  Both objects are connected with an underground tunnel. In Soviet times there were more than two such antennas, even six that were later dissembled by the Soviets. Around the antennas a secret town was built for working stuff and guards. A 9 story apartment blocks, barracks, kindergarten and even school was built there. The working stuff could not leave the town without special permissions and the army made sure no one ever made close to the site.

The Second RT-16 antenna

The Second RT-16 antenna

It’s still not widely known what the KGB was doing there. The radio telescopes were probably used to spy on NATO Space communications, satellites,  space craft and also aircraft. It is said that the antennas were so sensitive that they could track a mobile phone signal if it was sent from one of the Saturn’s moons  and follow the aircraft that flies near the Horizon. The great importance that Soviet secret service gave to this object was clearly shown after the fall of Soviet Union. As in case of Skrunda Radar station the Russian government wanted to keep this object in their possession for unlimited time. However, Latvian government demanded to leave all Soviet objects at once. The object was only revealed to the public in 1993. When Latvian members of the Office for controlling the withdrawal of the Russian army entered the site, for their astonishment they found the members of the Russian secret service the FSB rushing to disable the object.

The tunnel connecting both radio telescopes

The tunnel connecting both radio telescopes

The FSB removed all the smaller antennas, and left only two bigger ones. But, they made them unusable, by cutting all the cables, hammering nails in the wires and spilled acid in to equipment. Worse, than that some leading figures of the Latvian delegation for the talks of the withdrawal suggested to destroy two remaining antennas in the same matter as the Skrunda Radar Station. The historian and diplomat Mārtiņš Virsis was one of them who nearly convinced the Prime Minister Valdis Birkavs to do this. However, the object was rescued by the pressure from Latvian scientists who recognized the importance of this object for their studies.

However, it was a heavy start, as the Russians had damaged both objects and left no blueprints and information about how this object works. In 1994 the site was taken under control by the Latvian Academy of Sciences. The antenna renewal work started and in December the power was restored. In 1995 the damage made by the Russians was slowly taken away- the nails were removed and acid torn equipment was repaired. In September 19, the  Latvian Academy of Sciences decides to found “Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre” (VIRAC) as a working unit inside the Academy.  In 1996 the first space signals were tracked – the Moon and Sun and radio emission at 12. 2 GHz during the partial solar eclipse was monitored.  In 1997 the receiver completion was made for 10.5 to 11,5 GHz. In 1999 the revival of second RT-16 antenna begun.

In last decades the VIRAC become connected to the Venstpils University. The work continued and today both antennas are fully operational, but more work still needs to be done to comply them with the international standards. Latest news about the actions of the VIRAC was the tracking of near to Earth flying asteroid DA14 in 16 February 2013. This proves that the VIRAC can now took part in important space research projects.  VIRAC works together with other space centers in EU and Russia. VIRAC shows example of how with limited funds and knowledge the seemingly unusable ex-Soviet object can be restored and used for civil matters. The same could have been done with the Skrunda Radar Station.

The abandoned town of Starlet

The abandoned town of Starlet

The ghost town “Starlet” however is another story. After all working personnel abandoned it became dilapidated. Building became empty all windows were broken and everything from the buildings has been taken away. The Starlet became a sort of “mini Chernobyl”. Its only inhabitants were homeless people or scavengers looking for metal parts or other valuable pieces. In 2012 the town was set to be demolished. However, the works were soon canceled as the main supervisor of the town was brutally murdered by the locals. Because of that the town is closed to visitors.

However, the excursions to VIRAC itself are still available, however its is recommended not to spend too much time around the ghost town. Surely many want to experience the feel of Chernobyl, but the recent events show that the Starlet is no longer safe to foreign visitors. But, despite of that the Venstpils Space Center will have future and its place on the map.

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Latvia – Soviet War Base 1944-1994

The map showing locations of the Soviet war bases in Latvia at late eighties

The map showing locations of the Soviet war bases in Latvia at late eighties

Latvia  first became home to  Soviet forces in 1939 when first 24 thousand men established a garrison in Courland region. After complete occupation of Latvia in 1940 the actions of the Soviet armed forces became unrestricted. In 1944 the Soviet Army returned to Latvia. After the end of the war following the path to absolute militarization and arms race, Latvia was now under full Soviet military grip. Army bases, naval ports, radio bases and even nuclear rocket launch pads were all around Latvia. The large concentration of the Soviet military industrial complex did a significant damage to Latvian economy and demographics after the regain of independence.

The outcome of the World War II did not satisfy the needs of the leaders of the Soviet Union, as the World Socialist revolution was still not achieved. Soviet Union had taken over Eastern Europe, gained influence over the Middle East and China and South Asia. However, when an American diplomat who remarked to Stalin of how grateful for him is to see the Soviets troops in Berlin the Stalin replayed: “Tsar Alexander reached Paris.” That showed that Stalin aspired for something more and the very quest for world dominance was not still abandoned. But, now Soviet Union met a strong opponent the United States of America, armed with nuclear weapons and great resources. Soviets issued a statement that they wont be the first to start the World War III, and started the complete militarization of the country to prepare for this war.

Since Soviet Union was able to extend their field of action far from its borders, by forming the Warsaw Pact and adding Soviet bases in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the Baltic States were added to second role in the theater of war. In case of the Soviet victory the Baltic States would suit as the main base for weapons maintenance and supply reserves. In case of defeat the Baltic States would be the retreat route. Because of that in the Baltic States there were no factories that produced the military vehicles and aircraft.

In the first years of the Cold war the Allies sent a covert missions to Latvia to support the local resistance movement. Latvian National partisans fought the uneven battle with the Soviet forces until 1956. Soviets last 20 thousand man in the process, but the Latvian national resistance was crushed. To prevent any breach of the Soviet border, the whole coast of the Baltic Sea was turned into “border area” including the city of Liepaja and Ventspils. People were deported from the close to sea areas, ending the century long fisherman village traditions. Airfields were placed at Ezere, Vaiņode, Liepāja, Medze and Ventspils.

In 29 August 1949 the Soviets did first successful nuclear weapons test. Only in 1992 the Soviet scientist Yulii Khariton, one of the main developers of the Soviet nuclear bomb admitted that the first soviet nuke was made according to stolen American blueprints. Soviets needed special carriers to deliver nukes to their targets – airplanes and rockets. The range of the first rockets was small, and they were placed along the borders of the Warsaw pact. The coast of the Baltic sea was defended with “land to air” anti-aircraft rockets.

The hangar of the Zeltini nuclear rocket base near Alūksne

The hangar of the Zeltini nuclear rocket base near Alūksne

Six years after first Soviet nuke test in 1955 at Alūksne, Bārta, Vaiņode first nuclear rockets were placed. On 1957 in Mārciena near the hill of Gaiziņkalns – the highest point in Latvia, a buildup for nuclear base started. A concrete supply road was built because the first rockets were heavy and needed either railroad or special concrete roads. However, it was discovered that in 1961 Soviet colonel Oleg Penkovsky had delivered the secret locations of the Soviet long distance rocket bases to UK and USA. As the secrecy was blown, the rockets were moved away to another places and Mārciena was abandoned. Luckily for Latvia since it was densely populated no nuclear tests were never made here.

In 1960 the US espionage high altitude plane U-2 was shot down over the skies of the Soviet Union. Before that it was the only way how to spy on the Soviet bases. Now when the Soviets were capable of intercepting and destroying then space race begun. Both countries started to make spy satellites, that could find and monitor the secret nuclear bases with ease.

Because of that a radio location system was needed. In 1960 the town of Skrunda in Courland region was allocated for secret radio station “Dnepr”. Also in the forest of Irbene near the Baltic Sea the Signals Intelligence Base was built to track and decode the Allied Satellite signals.

Latvia was also home to the Soviet Baltic War Fleet. Liepāja War Port that was already used in Czarist times, became home to Soviet war ships, rocket ships and submarines. In 1988 the Soviet War Fleet command made gigantic mistake, by detonating 440 WWII era aviation bombs filled with phosphorus. Such bombs can only be dissembled and the phosphorus must be either melted or burned. Instead the bombs were detonated in the Baltic sea cape zone spreading large areas of the Baltic Sea with parts of phosphorus.  When entering water the phosphorous takes form similar to amber. When locals or tourists while looking for real amber picks up the phosphorus and places it in their pockets, the phosphorus heats up leaving deep wounds. The Soviet Authorities took no responsibility for this mess.

The Soviet Submarines at Liepāja War Port

The Soviet Submarines at Liepāja War Port

Latvia was home to numerous factories with goal to maintain and fix the Soviet war equipment, vehicles and aircraft. Even the Latvian civil factories were subjected to assist the Soviet industrial military complex, large part of their production were allocated to military needs. Cekule, Garkalne, Inčukalns, Mangaļsala were Soviet arms depots filled with mines, reactive weapons and ordinary equipment just in case of war. Airfields were many locations: Liepāja, Tukums, Vaiņode, Jelgava, Lielvārde, Jēkabpils and other places. Strategical rockets were placed in many places notably Zeltiņi near Alūksne. With such large concentration of the Soviet forces in case of the nuclear strike Latvia would be wiped from the face of the earth.

Soviets took away large plots of land from the local farmers to build their bases. Many spaces were polluted. The infamous Zvārde firing ground was for years used for the Soviet aviation tests. Even today the areas around Zvārde are dangerous because of the blind shells hidden in the ground. At the Tukums Airfield nuclear weapons were placed and kept until the fall of the Soviet Union. Also the pollution from the chemical weapons are present at some places.

After the fall of the Soviet Union the Soviet Army now Armed forces of the Russian Federation slowly unwillingly left Latvia. The process of talks between Latvia and Russia about the withdrawal of the ex-Soviet armed forces lasted until 1994 when Latvia became completely free from the grip of Russian military. However, the army bases they left became abandoned, looted and forgotten. Few of them are to use now. Latvian government made a gigantic mistake by destroying the unfinished Skrunda Radio Locator Antenna Tower, for it could be used for numerous purposes including science. Thankfully the two large parabolic radio telescopic antennas stationed at Irbene escaped the same fate, as the head of the Latvian-Russian talks historian and diplomat Mārtiņš Virsis recommended to destroy them also. Because of the protests by the scientists the radio telescopes were spared and now serves as space science center. Some deserted Soviet airfields in Tukums and Jēkabpils are now used for civil means. The nuclear rocket base in Zeltiņi are used as a tourist attraction. The fortress in Daugavpils are used for museums.

The abandoned building in Mārciena rocket base

The abandoned building in Mārciena rocket base

One part of the Soviet military heritage that still dwells in Latvia are families of the old demobilized Soviet officers. After the end of the military service they choose to stay in Latvia, bringing their families. After the fall of the Soviet Union the Latvian state could not find legal means to deport them back to Russia, as Russia itself refused to allow so. Russia has not repaid the losses done by the Soviet military during the occupation. The losses include pollution, effects on human health, the collapse of Latvian civil industry and the demographic changes. These losses will probably never be repaid by Russia, at least not by current government, and Latvia needs to move on and repair these losses by themselves.

Selected Sources:

Upmalis, Ilgonis.(2012) Latvia – USSR military base : 1939-1998: materials and documents on the Soviet army’s presence in and withdrawal from Latvia. Riga : Zelta Grauds.

Upmalis, Ilgonis, Tiglass, Ēriks, Stankēvičs, Ēriks. (2011) Latvija padomju militāristu varā : 1939-1999.Rīga: Latvijas okupācijas izpētes biedrība.

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