Behind the Iron Curtain: An Abandoned Tour of the Eastern Bloc
In 2013, photographer Rebecca Litchfield was commissioned by Carpet Bombing Culture to photograph the abandoned buildings and areas of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. Litchfield’s journey took her through ten countries in Eastern Europe to capture what was left from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“For me the place that had most impact on me emotionally was Chernobyl, I have visited many abandoned buildings, some of which have affected me deeply and emotionally. But never had I encountered a whole town, which had been devastated by disaster to such a degree. Decaying slowly and sadly, the town is a snapshot of how Soviet life once was. It was therefore important to me to capture and share it as it is today.”
If you’re interested to learn more about Rebecca’s journey creating this book be sure to check out her detailed blog post. For more from Rebecca, check her out at the links below.
Bulgaria – Buzludzha
Perched on top of Mount Buzludzha, this monument to Communism is the largest in Bulgaria. It is located on the site where the Bulgarian Socialists first began their clandestine meetings in 1891 later, this mountain pass witnessed perhaps the bloodiest battle yet fought in the ongoing war against the Turks. It’s no surprise then, that this location bears a great symbolic importance. Designed by Georgi Stoilov, the monument was funded by voluntary donations from the citizens of Bulgaria, and featured expensive materials such as marble and glass.
At its heart stands a huge amphitheatre, where a mural adorning the walls celebrates themes from Bulgarian and Soviet history. The 70m tower meanwhile, once bore a huge star formed from red glass. It was made in the Soviet Union, although in a display of local one-upmanship, the architects had it constructed to be three times the size of the star adorning the tower of Moscow’s Kremlin.
The monument was abandoned in 1989 and gifted to the state in 1991; since when it has been heavily looted for metal and other valuable materials. The copper that once covered the roof has been stripped away, so that the monument is now open to the elements. Once an opulent symbol of Communist rule, the Buzludzha monument today stands in a state of slow decay on top of the mountain; its thick glass windows smashed, while Bulgaria’s harsh winters bury the structure each year beneath a layer of ice and snow.
[Irbene] In the forests of Latvia, two ex-Soviet radio telescopes and a spy centre lie abandoned. In 1967, the Soviets began a Cold War project intended to track and decode signals from US satellites. The larger of the two dishes is also the largest in northern Europe, as well as the 8th largest in the world. There were originally six in total, but others were dismantled by the Soviets. Of the two remaining, all cables were cut and acid poured over them to destroy the potential for future use.
These satellites almost suffered the same fate as the nearby secret base at Skrunda, which was completely destroyed after use; however, the facilities were saved by Latvian scientists who wanted to preserve the objects for future study. There was a lot of secrecy surrounding the activities at the base, even though a small town would develop around the antenna to house the families of those that worked there.
Not just the town itself, but this whole area was a forbidden place in Soviet times; anyone who wanted to visit people in the nearby towns would therefore need special permission to do so. Irbene was so secretive in fact, that the public only found out about it when the site was officially revealed in 1993; long after the Soviets had left.
[Skrunda] Skrunda is a former secret town, where an important Soviet radar station was once located. The installation was of great importance to the Soviets as it covered the whole of Western Europe. Here they were able to listen to objects in space, as well as tracking incoming ICBMs.
During the Cold War this secret location was closely guarded, and in time grew into a full, residential town. There were over 60 buildings in the complex, including a school, apartments, barracks, a shooting range, a gym and a theatre. Once Latvia had gained back its independence however, the Soviets were given four years to dismantle the radars. The entire town was sold at auction for just 17,000 Lats (around £20,000) but as of 2013 nothing has yet been done with the site.
[Patarei Prison] In 1828 Tsar Nicholas 1 of Russia commissioned the construction of the prison on the Estonian coast near Tallinn. It was completed in 1840 and remained in use until 2004, a potent symbol of the troubled relationship between Estonia and Russia. The prison was a transit location for thousands of prisoners en route to the fearsome gulags in Siberia. Conditions inside the prison were horrific, with frequent overcrowding. One winter 25 inmates were housed in a cell for just seven.
The prison was the scene of many hangings, with a specific chamber devoted to this purpose. The bodies of the hanged would be thrown over the cliffs into the Baltic sea below. After the death of Stalin in 1953, the resultant thaw in the relationship between the Soviet Union and estonia led to an improvement in prison conditions, with flushing toilets and central heating installed.
[Berlin Wall] There has been no more potent symbol of the Cold War than the Berlin Wall, which was erected overnight on 12-13 August 1961. The wall sealed West Berlin within a 165.7km concrete enclosure, protected by sentry towers, bunkers, barbed wire, guard dogs, tripwires, floodlights and anti-tank emplacements. The fortifications appeared without warning, and many families were separated when the previously open border was suddenly sealed. It is estimated that at least 239 people were killed trying to escape.
In time the wall became a mural for enterprising and amateur artists, many of whom painted humorous or satirical graffiti across the concrete. Every so often, GDR border guards would supervise workers while they whitewashed the wall; only for the graffiti to reappear. The wall could never be silenced, always finding a way to voice the inhumanity that it symbolised. The last person killed at the Berlin Wall was Chris Gueffroy in February 1989, a matter of months before it finally fell on 9 November that same year.
[Military Barracks] The barracks were constructed in 1937, and used by the Germans as an elite riding & driving school. Soon after the cavalry school moved here from Hanover, and the estate would go on to produce some of Germany’s best post-war equine judges and riders.
During the late 1930s the site would be commandeered by the military and extended to incorporate over 50 buildings, including military barracks. Then, following the end of World War II, the site was occupied by the Soviet 35th Guards Motor Rifle Division; they continued to use Krampnitz as a military base and training site up until their departure in 1992, and the site has remained unoccupied since that time.
[Máv Class 424 Steam Train] The 424 053 Mávag 424-class locomotive was made in 1941 by Mávag, chassis number 5345, vehicle number 424.127. The locomotive was renumbered several times, to 424.189 In 1961 and to 424.053 In 1982. It was used during the Communist era with a red star in front of the train. The 424s were coal burner, in the 1960s some engines were converted to burn oil, but their performance did not increase enough to compete with the diesel equipment.
U-475 Black Widow Submarine
[Foxtrot B-39 U-475 Black Widow Submarine] Used during the cold war, the black widow u-45 was a patrol and attack submarine. Between 1957 and 1983, around 75 were made by the soviet navy. This example of the black widow was commissioned in 1967 and based in Latvia. Decommissioned in 1994, the submarine was sold and used as a museum in London. During its operational use it carried 22 nuclear-tipped warheads and 53 explosive mines. Its torpedoes are disarmed. Its owner is seeking investors to restore the submarine to its former glory as it is currently in a decaying state.
[Laboratory] An abandoned pesticide laboratory in Russia, closed due to the decline of agriculture in Russia. The laboratory was primarily used for the development and research of new methods of chemical plant protection; as a consequence of reduced funding and demand however, the lab was eventually closed, its buildings left abandoned.
[Children Summer Camp] The Young Pioneer Organization was a youth movement founded by Lenin himself, which would become prolific throughout the USSR. The movement ostensibly served the purpose of ensuring that all young people were inculcated with an understanding of the role they should play in a larger collective. Individuality was not seen as a positive virtue, rather it was often considered to lead to problematic behaviour; traits such as wilfulness, or worse, rebellion.
While the family was supposed to instil this collective ethos into young people, the activities of the Young Pioneers supplemented it. Camps would offer free holidays in summer and winter, usually sponsored by the government and trade unions. Under Communism, young people were seen as an important way of remoulding society and its attitudes. In effect, the state sought to create a new ’Socialist personality’; and so even at a summer camp, the activities on offer would have been carefully selected with this goal in mind.
Ukraine – Pripyat/Chernobyl
When the Chernobyl Power Plant was built in 1970, many of the facility’s staff were housed in the nearby city of Pripyat. Around 50,000 people once lived here, spread across 160 buildings that had contained a total of 13,400 apartments. This forward-thinking urban development had featured 3 indoor swimming pools, 2 sports stadiums, 35 playgrounds, 15 primary schools, 5 secondary schools and a technical college; there was a hospital that could hold around 400 patients, while the green streets of Pripyat were lined with over 250,000 trees and shrubs.
After the nuclear disaster in 1986 however, the whole city was forcibly evacuated for fear of radiation poisoning. Now those trees and shrubs are the only inhabitants left, in a sprawling city reduced to broken bricks.
Pripyat’s Hospital No. 126 consists of 5 large buildings, each of them 6 storeys in height. In the wake of its sudden abandonment, medical equipment, beds, bottles, babies’ cribs and other equipment were all left to rust and rot away.
In the hospital’s basement meanwhile, lie the uniforms of the firemen who lost their lives in the days that followed the disaster. They were admitted to the hospital after exposure to the extreme radiation, and were later taken to Moscow hospital where they died in care. To this day, their uniforms register dangerously high radiation levels.
There are many kindergartens in Pripyat. These buildings remain perhaps the most chilling places to see, as they serve such a stark reminder; a reminder of the innocent children who fell victim to the radiation and subsequent sickness.
Most of the kindergartens still contain the toys of the children, which today lay strewn across the floors. Many of the beds are still made and, hauntingly, gas masks appear scattered from room to room. These grotesque masks were intended to offer protection in case of chemical attacks, but ultimately, nothing could prevent the radiation sickness that spread as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.
Pripyat’s ‘Luna Park’ was a new development in the city, scheduled to open as a part of the May Day celebrations in 1986. It stood just behind the Palace of Culture, featuring a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, a carousel ride and swing boats.
The Chernobyl disaster struck just days before the opening ceremony however, and the Luna Park never saw its intended use. The park did provide just a few bittersweet hours of entertainment, though as the citizens of Pripyat awaited the official notice of evacuation, the Luna Park opened its gates to provide a distraction from the smoke clouds that brewed ominously on the horizon.
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