Located 25 km north of the town of Pervomaysk and some 300 km south of Kyiv is the Pervomaysk Missile Base, a nuclear stronghold of the former Soviet Union. The site was originally home to 86 rockets, each of which could destroy the US four times over. Rockets from Pervomaysk were able to reach New York within 20 – 25 minutes. The targets of this base were not known by the staff until the base was demilitarised in 2001 when it was revealed that it was not only the US that was a target (obviously), but also other NATO countries including the UK, France, and Germany. Part of this was to stop the officers working at this base from thinking about the potential damage they would cause by pressing the button. They tried to keep the targets as dehumanised as possible. Yes, I pressed it. The screen lit up and a Ukrainian man in army fatigues, who had only spoken Russian all day, laughed “Goodbye America!”
Our guide fervently and frequently reminded us that it was not just the USSR who had these types of missiles, the US had them too. This seems fairly obvious to anyone with even the most basic understanding of the Cold War, but she sure seemed defensive about the existence of these missile silos, including the one at Pervomaysk.
There were a number of false alarms during the Cold War, including a Commander-in-Chief in Moscow who received information from a satellite that there had been an explosion within the territory of the United States – an explosion that could be the launching of a rocket. The officer knew that the United States wouldn’t just launch a single, solitary rocket to destroy the entire Soviet Union – senseless! So he ignored the signal and did not launch any ICBMs. Later they discovered that it was just a sunbeam that reflected into the satellite. Regardless, the Commander was never heard from again. Officially the Soviet Union had three of these close calls, Germany had six and the US had nine. Unnerving to think how close we have already come to the end of the world.
As I said before, Pervomaysk was home to 86 ICBMs. The distance from the control centre to the missile could be anywhere from 3 – 15 km. The site that has now been converted into a museum is the exception – there are only 200 m between the control centre and the site of the rocket. During the times when the site was active, there were signs on the gate saying it was a Medical Storage facility. Unlikely, but probably easier to believe it was medical storage than to find out for yourself. The site had four different security systems. First, vibration detectors 150m either side of the fence. These would detect the movement of anything heavier than 1500g. Second, infrared beams surrounded the perimeter of the facility. If the beam was broken, it would signal to the guards that someone wanted to enter (or exit). If either of these systems was triggered, the guards would first use loudspeakers to command the person to stop. If they did not stop, they would be shot. There were also electric fences running 800 volts – enough to kill a person or large animal. In an emergency situation, this could be increased to as high as 3000 volts. If the voltage was raised this high then all the grass would have been burned 5 m either side of the fence. If that’s not enough, the entire territory was also covered with landmines. Building number 6, the site of the museum today, was connected to all the other important building by tunnels.
Officers worked inside the control centre that was 45m underground. The silo is 12 stories deep, with metal walls 6m thick and a roof that weighs 120 tonnes. They were underground for the duration of their six-hour shift. In the case of nuclear war, the silo is equipped to sustain the soldiers within for 45 days. This too was problematic. Psychologically, it is very unlikely someone could stay in a confined space for such a long time. Reportedly, they carried out training during the Soviet Union and people started losing it on day two. I started losing it after being down there for 15 minutes. Only two people were working within the silo at any given time. So, in the event of nuclear fallout, what was the point of keeping these two people alive? Callous? Maybe. But a valid logistical question nonetheless. Also – if there was nuclear radiation, 45 days would not be enough time for it to dissipate at all, so at the end of the 45 days, they would run out of supplies, come up to the surface and die anyway. Just another example of Soviet Union propaganda at work – these were university educated people who had been in the army for at least five years and at no point did they think to question, or dare to question, the efficacy of this emergency system.
The silo is suspended underneath the ground and was able to shift one metre up or down and 70cm left or right in order to protect the people inside in the case of an earthquake, or a direct attack. They had safety belts and would still have been able to press the button. Floors 1 – 10 contained equipment and have been closed due to a directive from Moscow. Only floors 11 and 12 are open to the public. Two people would work in the control room inside the 11th floor. In the case of a red light, you would receive a code, type it in, turn a key and push the button. This had to be done within 1.5 seconds of your colleague for the missile to launch. It was impossible for a single person to launch the missiles as you would not be able to jump from one control desk to the other within this amount of time.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine held about one-third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. However, while they had physical control of the weapons, they did not have operational control, as the missiles were dependent on Russian controlled command links. Pervomaysk was demilitarised in October 2001 and was the last of 46 missile silos across Ukraine to be deactivated as part of their commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
How to visit Pervomaysk Missile Silo?
Tours to Pervomaysk are generally operated by the same companies who offer tours to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. For a single person private tour, the cost is around $300 US, however, we joined a group who had already signed up so only paid $75 pp for the day. Expect to pay anywhere between these two amounts, depending on the size of your group. The cost covers transport (two and a half hours each way from Kyiv), an English speaking guide, and local entry costs.
Of course, it is also possible to drive yourself and visit independently, so long as you have the Ukrainian or Russian language skills to facilitate such a trip as no-one working at the base speaks English. You would, however, save yourself a lot of money. Drive Kiev-Odesa Highway approximately two hours, make a left turn to Holovanivsk on the P06 and then another 30 minutes to the outskirts of Pobuz’ke village.