Crumbling Soviet Military Bases: A 20th-Century Empire in Decay

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  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Mig-21, 126th Fighter Aviation Regiment, Mongolia: During the 1970s, this base was seen as the front line for potential conflict with China and was therefore kept on high alert, ready to attack at a moment’s notice.

    “These sites of power… are mostly doomed to disappear in the course of time.”

    Like an archaeologist entering the ancient tombs of pharaohs for the first time. That’s how Italian photographer Eric Lusito describes visiting these abandoned Soviet military sites; places that have been brought to ruin, but which remain – and contain – fascinating relics of their now-collapsed empire. “I had the feeling of discovering a new world,” Lusito tells us. “But one that was already starting to disappear.” Even the Cyrillic alphabet appeared to him like ancient hieroglyphs, before he had any clue about how to decipher it.

    Yet, language aside, it was Lusito’s intention that his pictures spark people’s imagination. “The ruins and images have the power to let everyone build their own stories,” he says. These haunting photographs, which have so brilliantly captured the crumbling shells of buildings against their stark landscapes, are certainly evocative enough to make us wonder about the people who inhabited them. Wonder – and then some.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    2nd Guards Tank Division, Mongolia: During Soviet rule, the population around Choibalsan, Mongolia was over 300,000, with a large number of military personnel, staff and their families. These days it is closer to 39,000.

    Eric Lusito has harbored a fascination for the Soviet Union for a long time. As a twelve-year-old, he remembers witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall on television.

    “Seeing these pictures, despite my young age, I was intrigued and disturbed in the face of the joy and emotion of the reunification,” he recalls. “The German people were finally together again after twenty-eight years of separation.”

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    44th Mixed Air Corps, Mongolia: “Glory to Communist Party of Soviet Union,” reads the slogan. Built in 1982, this edifice typifies the minimalist geometrical Soviet architecture that was characteristic under Khrushchev.

    That day in November 1989, Lusito knew he was watching something significant happening. “I couldn’t describe exactly my feelings,” he says. “All I knew was that, one day, I would make a journey that would help me to understand what had been going on beyond that wall.” The Iron Curtain may not have meant much for those of Lusito’s generation, but the fall of the Berlin Wall certainly left an indelible mark in his mind.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    41st Motor Rifle Division, Mongolia: At the foot of this statue, nicknamed “Aliosha”, after a soldier who fought in the Great Patriotic War, is an inscription reading, “All that was built by the people must be imperatively defended.”

    Yet, despite his conviction, it was a fair stretch of time before Lusito pursued his dream of visiting the former Communist bloc, with all its monuments to Soviet power. He first got a science degree and worked for four years as a technical sales rep. Yet he knew that this was not his true vocation.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    44th Independent Command and Measurement Complex, Kazakhstan: Built in 1956 to track Sputnik, the first satellite put into orbit, this station became one of the USSR’s most sophisticated space observation bases.

    “After several weeks of free time, childhood memories came into my mind, especially the images of [the fall of the Berlin] Wall,” Lusito recollects. “So I decided to go to the Eastern European countries in an old camper van, with a camera as my only companion.”

    Originally he did not plan to document his trip, as he wanted to have “free reign” to discover whatever was out there. However, fortunately for us he later changed his mind.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    14th Submarine Squadron, Latvia: Its proximity to Western Europe, among other factors, meant Latvia was one of the wealthiest regions under Soviet rule, and had one of the highest standards of living.

    In July of 2002, Lusito arrived in Novy Jicin, a town in the Czech Republic. He describes himself as feeling “a little lost – I did not speak a word of the language.” Nevertheless, he soon met up with a young local geography teacher named Radek, a meeting that would turn out to be a life-changing event.

    “We became friends and he invited me to stay in his home,” Lusito recalls. “With his family, we had long conversations in English about how people lived during the Communist era.”

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    677th Artillery Regiment, Mongolia: Nuclear power aside, Russia and China’s border disputes go back centuries and have claimed hundreds of lives. This ruined base sits close to the northern fringe of the Gobi desert.

    One day, Radek suggested that he and Lusito explore a former Soviet military base in what was formerly northern Czechoslovakia, and they duly did. “It was a spectacle both amazing and desolate,” says Lusito, describing the abandoned base. “It grabbed my imagination.”

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    12th Motor Rifle Division, Mongolia: When it was in operation, this area accommodated officers and their families. Soviet military bases abroad were typically remote and restricted locations.

    “I began to understand the strength of the Red Army and the fear it inspired,” continues Lusito on the sight that met his eyes. “Observing my reaction, Radek revealed to me the existence of other abandoned military bases. It was then that I made the decision to travel the former Soviet bloc in search of these sites which represented the ambition and power of the USSR.”

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    649th Independent Space Objects Radio Intelligence Center, Lativia: Sabotaged gas masks lie in a pile. Due to its location, bordering several nations, Latvia has been ruled by various foreign powers including the USSR.

    Of course, thinking about visiting old Soviet installations is one thing; actually doing it required a lot of preparation. Lusito began his project by spending six months living in Russia, “to learn the rudiments of the language and culture.” This basic understanding served him well.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Kurchatov-Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, Kazakhstan: These days the barbed wire fencing doesn’t look the most effective for keeping out trespassers.

    “To get access to the military sites, I knew that I would need the collaboration of the local population, and for that I would have to gain their confidence and trust,” says Lusito, further explaining the logic behind his initial immersion into Russian life.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    KGB Military Unit 93544, Russia: In 1991, the head of the KGB led a coup to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev and thwart his liberal Glasnost policy. Its failure led to the demise of the feared agency national security.

    Apart from this more general background work, Lusito had to carefully analyze the environment of each of the sites he intended to explore. Each place was different: “Some military bases had been looted, some were under surveillance while others were poorly guarded,” he reveals.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Swimming Pool, 14th Submarine Squadron, Latvia: Not a very inviting place for a dip

    It was important that Lusito knew the specifics of each situation he was heading into. “The risks could range from the confiscation of equipment and film, to a prison sentence,” he says matter-of-factly. Surely a daunting thought for any would-be explorer.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    129th Independent Radar Center of Early Detection, Latvia: This site, Skrunda, housed two Hen House radars and one Daryal radar – built in the 1960s and 80s, respectively – primed for tracking incoming westerly missiles.

    Another important factor was the equipment that Lusito decided to take with him to document his adventures. “I chose to work with a 4×5 inch large format camera to get the best photographic quality possible,” he explains. “As I certainly will not go back to some of the places.”

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Bust of Lenin outside 12th Motor Rifle Division, Mongolia

    During the expeditions he undertook, Lusito’s equipment had to withstand hazards and weather conditions severe enough to test any camera. “I went through a rotten floor in East Germany, the focusing screen broke in Kazakhstan, and there was wind and sand in Mongolia,” he tells us.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    164th Independent Guards, Kerchensky Red Banner Reconnaissance Aviation Regiment, Poland: The Communists controlled Poland until the late 80s, when economic instability and the destabilization of the USSR took hold.

    Despite these environmental challenges, Lusito reckons the main difficulty he faced was his choice of camera itself. “A large format camera needs a tripod, and it takes time to set up the equipment,” he explains. Yet this did add some additional excitement to the shoots: “I had to be extra careful not to get caught by someone before I could take the photographs,” he says.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Housing for 126th Fighter Aviation Regiment, Mongolia: Another classic example of simplified, economical Soviet architecture, with nothing wasted on decoration.

    As you might imagine from such risky expeditions, Lusito encountered no small number of surprises along the way. The story of his visit to the Semipalatinsk Polygon, a former Soviet nuclear test site in the north of Kazakhstan, is particularly fascinating.

    “Although entry is prohibited, the area is very large and easy to access,” he tells us. “However, despite the presence of an experienced driver, a map and a GPS, we got lost. Radioactivity is still present at the epicenter of the area, and getting lost in a radioactive area is a very special feeling.” Special – or downright scary?

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    193rd Tank Training Regiment, Latvia: After the 1917 October Revolution, Soviet leaders decided that it would be a good idea to create their own heroic mythology, an example for their citizens to emulate.

    “We then decided to go straight away to find our bearings,” continues Lusito, on his expedition into the Semipalatinsk nuclear test facility. “And in the evening, after driving for several hours, we saw a camp, hoping it was a village. As we approached, we saw unusual, large white tents, then helicopters and military trucks. But we had no choice but to continue.”

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Headquarters of the Central Group of Forces, Czech Republic: This center in Czechoslovakia was the headquarters of the CGF during Soviet occupation, with some 100,000 people stationed here between 1984 and 1988.

    As they arrived at the Semipalatinsk camp, military personnel stopped the car. Then, while the driver created a diversion, Lusito headed for some people that he “recognized were not Russian.” They turned out to be Western scientists from the UN who had come to test the radioactivity and ensure a treaty to stop nuclear tests was being complied with.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Training ground, Germany, a shell of its former purpose

    The UN inspection had been at the Semipalatinsk base for two months, “in the middle of nowhere, like a space mission to the moon,” Lusito recalls. When the photographer and driver had explained their situation, some soldiers, desperate after their enforced abstinence in the wilderness, asked them for some vodka. The visitors then made camp. “I felt a very special atmosphere at this place that night,” Lusito says.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    57th Division of Missiles, Kazakhstan: When WWII ended, it left the USSR as one of the world’s two superpowers. The horror and sorrow of the long conflict was often expressed in art depicting mothers holding their dead children.

    However, this was not the most difficult situation in which Lusito found himself; he reserves this distinction for the Zangiz-Tobe missile base. He recalls: “Lost in the middle of the steppes of Kazakhstan, with four high-surveillance prisons located upon its grounds, I can’t even begin to list the obstacles crossed and the physical effort expended in order to gain access.” Sounds like a tale worthy of one of Indiana Jones’s exploits.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Image from a Diafilm (slide film) about World War Two: The text says, “For some 200 days fierce battles raged in Hungary. On February 13, 1945, our troops seized Budapest.”

    One of the observations Lusito found most surprising on his travels was the speed at which the military bases were deteriorating – becoming ruins, soon, perhaps, to disappear. “The Soviet Union has joined other lost empires in the depths of history,” he says. “But while we still have traces of [the empires of] antiquity, what will remain in 100 or 1,000 years of this civilization of the twentieth century?” he wonders.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Instruction Panel showing use of gas masks and self-injection to protect against gas or chemical attack

    Perhaps not that surprisingly, the local populations around most of the bases don’t have much interest in the former military sites, as least as far as Lusito could tell. “They are the witnesses of the Soviet occupation of their country and they prefer to see the sites destroyed,” he says. “At best they can be a source of raw materials. At all the sites I visited people had recovered anything valuable: metal, wood, objects.”

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Private photograph printed from abandoned black and white roll film found inside a Soviet military base

    Lusito confirms that, unlike the locals living near these abandoned bases, many people nowadays are extremely interested in sites such as these. “This can range from urban exploration to aftermath photography,” he says, and wonders: “Why are we more interested in the ruins of the past than building the future? This is perhaps due to the change of the millennium,” he speculates. “Before taking a new path we look back to see what our past failures were.”

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Soviet leaflet explaining how “to be of fighting service with the greatest vigilance”

    No doubt such absorption in the past has added to the positive reactions Lusito has received for his work. “A French museum contacted me after they saw my website and supported the project, which helped me a lot,” he says. In addition, a British publisher specializing in contemporary photography put an essay of his in print, and exhibitions of his have been held around the world.

    Lusito also tells the touching story of a young Russian girl who purchased his volume at a Parisian book fair. “She began to cry,” he remembers. “She told me what her grandfather had told her about World War II and the importance of the Red Army for them. I will never forget her tears.”

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Portraits of Politburo members

    Despite his achievements to date, Eric Lusito is not done investigating old Soviet installations just yet. “There is a place in the far east of Russia I would like to explore,” he tells us. “However, it would be a real expedition with at least two 4×4 vehicles and I do not have the money for it.” For now he is happy to concentrate on a new, and no doubt equally fascinating, project.

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Library, 129th Independent Radar Center of Early Detection, Latvia: During the Cold War, the Soviets created an elaborate network of spy satellites, radars and computer systems to detect possible incoming missiles.

    As for this series, Lusito says the photograph which best sums up his feeling about the former Soviet Union is this one (pictured) of the library of Skrunda, a base that housed “one of the few radars of the global Soviet anti-missile defense system.” He elaborates:

    “We see a Soviet painting in several pieces celebrating the military; the ceiling decorations are fake; books scattered on the ground including those of Lenin that nobody wanted to take home. It looks like the backdrop of a theatre play; it’s just a facade; there is nothing behind it. That represents the Soviet system well.”

  • Image: Eric Lusito

    Poster reading “I serve the Soviet Union”

    As we’ve seen, Lusito, also took pictures of “damaged, torn, faded posters, negatives, photographs,” as well as of the installations themselves. “The analogy with archeology continues, as I found these artifacts rummaging the rubble of the bases,” he says. “We know that buildings constructed by man may become ruins, but here we see how the images generated by a civilization can also disappear.” The former rulers of the Soviet state seem more and more like pharaohs.

    Is there a lesson to be learned from the ruins of the Soviet bases? If there is, Lusito believes it is this: “All systems, including the most powerful in the world, are doomed to extinction if they cannot adjust. And it can happen faster than we think. Scientists warn of the dangers of global warning, what are we seriously doing about it?” Much to consider.

    With special thanks to Eric Lusito for answering our questions and for permission to use his amazing images.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History
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