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Plokstine former nuclear missile base

  
  - darkometer rating:  7 -
 
--- featured in TOURS ---
 
A unique site in the Baltics: a former Soviet nuclear missile base in Lithuania that has been opened to the public and turned into a Cold War Museum. The base operated until 1978, the missiles themselves have long since been removed, but you can still look down one of the silos. The former underground control centre and bunkers housing all auxiliary facilities have been converted into a rather impressive museum. A must-see for anyone with at least a passing interest in the Soviet era and the Cold War. 
More background info: The missile base at Plokstine was built in 1960, as one of the first underground launch silo facilities in the Soviet Union. Until its closure in 1978, it had four R-12 (SS-4 in NATO code) intermediate-range nuclear missiles, each capable of delivering a two megaton warhead to more or less anywhere in Europe, from Norway to Turkey, from Greece to Great Britain … and of course West Germany. What exactly the targets were at which point we will probably never know. Yet it's a sobering thought that one of these rockets could have been aimed at my home back then. 
  
The base was constructed in maximum secrecy in a remote and sparsely populated corner in northern Lithuania in what is today the Zemaitija National Park. The location was convenient not only because it was close to the edge of the territory of the USSR and the Baltic Sea, but also because the sandy soil near Plateliai lake was soft and easy to dig. The elevation of the site at 160m above sea level was also higher than most of the rest of the Baltics. 
  
After some local farmers were paid off to vacate the site, some 10,000 Soviet soldiers set about the construction of the base. The design consists of four silos all connected by underground tunnels to the command centre and support structures located in the middle of the compound with the silos at its four outer corners. The whole base could be hermetically sealed off and the crews could have held out underground for two weeks. To supply the base with water a 1.5 mile (2.5 km) long covered trench was built to tap the lake. Electricity was supplied by diesel engines. 
  
Next to the base there was also a small military town with barracks, a canteen, other support facilities and vehicles. Plokstine was part of the 179th rocket regiment which also included a set of eight surface missiles (i.e. soft bases). A nearby storage bunker held eight nuclear warheads as well as extra rockets. Two rocket cranes were available in the military town to lower the missiles into the silos (hard bases). 
  
The R-12 (SS-4) missile was 23m high, the thermonuclear warhead alone measured 4m in height and had the massive capacity of roughly 2 megatons. The fuel was an easy to store but highly toxic mix including nitric acid. The range of the single-stage missile was in excess of 2000 km (1300 miles), enough to reach Turkey or even Spain. Targets were allegedly changed at regular intervals. 
  
The missile base is said to have played a role in the 1962 Cuba crisis, since it was R-12 missiles from here that were secretly dispatched by train to ports on the Black Sea from where they were shipped to Cuba (where they did not arrive, as we all know). Apparently it was also staff from the Plokstine base who prepared the bases-to-be on the ground in Cuba. 
  
The missiles were supposed to have a life cycle of 7 to 15 years, and were accordingly replaced once during the base’s history. In 1978 the base was closed and the missiles removed. All R-12s were withdrawn during the late 1970s and early 80s and initially replaced with the infamous SS-20 (on mobile launchers) until all land-launched intermediate-range nuclear missiles were banned in 1987 under a treaty signed by the USA and USSR. The last remaining R-12s were destroyed in the early 1990s. 
  
From 1978 and during the rest of the Cold War the Plokstine base lay silent until Lithuania regained its independence and the USSR collapsed. The base was heavily looted in those early post-Soviet years – like many others of its kind all over the Baltics and the former USSR. But by some miracle it was not completely destroyed and could be saved and turned into a heritage site. It's unique within the Baltics (but cf. Pervomaysk in Ukraine). The site’s development into a museum was funded by the EU. It first opened its doors in 2011. The Plokstine missile base is part of the Baltic Network of Cold War sites, and one of the most remarkable sites of them all!
  
  
What there is to see: When I went to Plokstine as part of a longer itinerary of Lithuania and the other two Baltic states (Latvia and Estonia), in April 2014, I had a guided tour pre-arranged, as you cannot visit this site on your own (see details below).
  
The tour was a private one for just me and my wife. So we were only four people – as the guide had taken along a younger colleague to help out with the English, because she didn’t feel fluent enough in the language. In the end we ended up with a mix of languages also including Russian and German, so it was at times a bit confusing what languages were to be interpreted into which. But it worked out just fine in the end and was actually good fun. It was clear, though, that foreign visitors were still much more the exception than the norm here. 
  
The tour proper started at a new bungalow-like building just inside the fenced-in premises of the former missile base. Here you would already have been well inside the high-security inner ring around the base and would probably have been shot as an intruder. Today you can just look around the small exhibition inside the bungalow, which is also the reception area and starting point for the regular tours. The exhibits include a few bits of Soviet memorabilia and propaganda posters, but nothing really spectacular.  
  
Back outside, our guide first took us across a section of the open-air part of the site, pointing out various details of the security measures back then and the functions of the above-ground elements of the base. The most notable of these are the four bulging silo lids. These hardly need any explanation. It was from these that the base's R-12/SS-4 rockets would have been launched. The mechanisms for opening the silo lids are no longer functional and blocked and the steel is red with rust.
  
We then descended a flight of stairs down into the underground bunker parts. At the bottom of the stairs a dummy guard sat at a desk, who obviously did nothing to stop us from proceeding. 
  
Beyond this entrance begins the actual Cold War Museum. It consists of a mix of text-and-photo panels, in Lithuanian and English (the translations are a bit shaky but mostly sufficient to get the content across), as well as some remarkable artefacts and documents. Some were to be expected in such a museum, e.g. the usual models of missiles, communications equipment, uniforms, machine guns etc. But amongst the more exceptional objects were the launch keys of such a missile base together with commemoration coins made from missile base metals that allegedly became common gifts between ex-missileers, even including ex-enemies! 
  
There were various videos too, played on small screens. Some of the footage to be seen was indeed remarkable: the building of the silos, the missiles being lowered into the silos, the warhead being put in place atop the missile, a launch sequence, and various other vintage moving images in sepia-tinted black and white. It was almost too Soviet, too James-Bond-like. But there were also a few coloured sequences, including footage of nuclear tests. And not all the footage was Soviet, some American counterparts were also to be seen, including images of Titan II missile silos and test launches. Scenes from life in the Eastern Bloc were also on show, including footage of the crushing of the Prague Spring
  
But anyway, the many audio-visual elements are evidence of a pretty high-tech state-of-the art commodification, much more so than I had expected for such a remote site. The EU funding must have helped! 
  
Topic-wise the museum exhibitions are divided thematically, with one section concentrating more on the technical side, another on the respective political propaganda of the opposing superpowers and their allies, one part was on so-called civil defence (i.e. all those futile measures that were supposed to protect the population from nuclear war and fallout), and one offered an illustrated time-line of the Cold War
  
Less commodified but quite fascinating were the spaces in the bunker outside the museum exhibition proper. Of the missile base’s original support facilities very little remains, basically just the large diesel engine that supplied the site with electricity back in the day. Even this was hacked at by scrap metal hunters during the time between the closure of the base and its conversion into a heritage site and museum. Almost all other metal parts, as well as all cables, had by then been stolen (note the holes in the supports in the corridors where the thick cables and fuel ducts used to be). 
 
The cavern that used to house the rocket fuel storage tank is now largely empty, just the supports for the tank remain. In its day this would have been the most dangerous part of the facility to be in – given how toxic those Soviet liquid rocket fuels were. Even though the space is empty now, it oozes a rather oppressive atmosphere. Likewise the long corridors between the different sections of the bunker.
  
One led to what used to be the Communications Centre. Today it is “staffed” by yet two more dummy mannequins in uniform, sitting in a kind of glass cage watching “the  button”. One of the guys wore a somewhat disturbing smirk on his face. I wonder whether the missileers really did derive any morbid fun element from their jobs … probably not. Most likely duty in these facilities must have been pretty boring. 
  
At times we had to wait to let larger groups of Lithuanian visitors pass. I had the impression that their tours were somewhat faster-paced than our little private one. We were also given plenty of time to take photographs, inspect whatever museum exhibit or text we wished at a leisurely pace, and ask questions. It felt like quite privileged treatment. 
  
Eventually we set off for what is possibly the highlight of it all: one of the actual missile silos. This is connected to the main bunker by means of a long tunnel. Halfway down this corridor there was yet another dummy mannequin, this one in full rubber protection suit and gas mask. Eerie.
  
The missile silo is empty – the missiles had long been taken away after the site was decommissioned. But the view down to the bottom of the silo with its open doors at different levels below was still quite impressive … as was the massive steel lid on top of the silo. You could enter the inside of the silo through an extra hole that had been cut into the steel casing of the silo tube to get a good look down into the dimly lit void that was once home to a most deadly weapon of mass destruction. 
  
We then stepped back outside and had a look round the remainder of the outdoor parts of the base. There's also a small watchtower from where it was possible to get a better overview of the whole site from an elevated vantage point (see photos).
  
Normally the tour would have ended here. But our guide(s) offered to show us a few further locations related to the base but outside the museum compound, so we drove off again in our hire car.
  
The first stop was nearby at the former warhead storage facility. Apparently they stored warheads separate from the missiles. I never quite understood why. One would have expected the missiles to be on hair-trigger alert all the time with their warheads at the ready (cf. Titan missile silo). But apparently that was not the case, at least not all of the time. We only took a look at the outside of the warhead storage facility – it was not possible to go inside.
  
We also stopped at a couple of the old outer fence security guard posts as well as by a water inlet by the lake where the base used to be supplied with water from. This spot also afforded a pretty view across the lake.
  
Then we headed back to the National Park HQ. Here the guide was keen to show us the new visitor centre as well, which hadn't even yet opened to the public officially but was more or less completely finished. It had some interesting bits too but hardly anything related to the missile base or anything else of a dark-tourism nature. Mostly it was about the local flora & fauna (see below). 
  
All in all, I found the Plokstine missile base an absolute highlight of my three-week tour of the Baltics. Together with the Ligatne Soviet bunker and the Irbene radio locator over in Latvia, this was the best of the best of the Cold War relics to be found in this part of the formerly Soviet world. Highly recommended.
  
  
Location: part of Zemaitija National Park, which is located in the north-west of Lithuania not far from the border with Latvia. The national park visitor centre is at the nearby village of Plateliai, at No. 8 Didžioji street. The nearest larger town is Plunge, which is ca. 110 miles (175 km) from Kaunas to the south-east (and 160 miles / 260 km from Vilnius). 
 
Google maps locators:
  
missile base:  [56.032, 21.906]
  
warhead storage facility:  [56.0285, 21.9023]  
 
national park visitor centre and regional museum: [56.0424, 21.8153]  
  
Access and costs: remote and with restricted access, namely by guided tour only; but great value for money.
  
Details: To get to this remote location you have to have a car. The missile base and Cold War Museum itself are located in a secluded spot in the forest to the east of Lake Plateliai, but the headquarters of the National Park is in the village of Plateliai on the western shores of the lake, at No. 8 Didžioji street.   
  
Regularly scheduled tours that you can simply turn up for at the missile base’s gate directly were only available in Lithuanian at the time when I visited (April 2014). Foreign-language tours had to be pre-arranged by email, at info(at)zemaitijosnp.lt or plokstine(at)zemaitijosnp.lt, or over the phone: +370-448-49231 (for the national park centre) or +370 677 86 574 (for the Cold War Museum direct). Their website does no longer specify the need to pre-arrange visits but it is wise to check this ahead of time. I can't believe that they have suddenly introduced English-language tours to run just like so, on demand, let alone on a regular scheduled basis. 
  
The meeting point for our pre-arranged tour in April 2014 was not at the missile base itself but at the National Park HQ in Plateliai (see above). After meeting the guide there we drove in the car that I had hired all the way to the missile base on the other side of the lake, partly along tracks through the woods … so I felt fortunate that there was no need for me to navigate, as the guide gave directions. But if you want to drive up there on your own, then follow these directions: 
Drive down the main street leading out of Plateliai in a southerly direction for ca. 3.3 miles (5.3 km) then take the turn to the left (signposted Plokštinė) and carry on for another ca. 3 miles (5 km) through dense forest until you come to the museum's car park in a clearing. The museum's reception is behind the gate in a small bungalow to the right. 
The former warhead storage facility is a short distance away to the west. First carry on  along the main track, then take a sharp bend left. You can also circumnavigate the lake by carrying on further on the main forest track in a north-westerly direction. This will also take you to the lake shore, through some holiday villages and eventually joins the main road back to Plateliai north of the lake.  
  
Opening times: the site used to be open only seasonally but according to their website now appears to be operating year-round; scheduled tours in Lithuanian run throughout the day, on the hour from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in high season (May to September) and every two hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from October to April. Tours in English or other foreign languages can be arranged for any time during the day – at least this was the case when I arranged mine in April 2014.  
  
Cost: regular admission (with a tour in Lithuanian) is 3 EUR between 1 November and 30 April, 3.48 EUR in May and June, and 5 EUR from July to October. Half-price concessions apply to children, students, pensioners and disabled persons. (Note however that those with serious mobility issues may not be able to negotiate the steps into the bunker and the silo – and these parts of the site are certainly not wheelchair-compatible!) 
  
For the pre-arranged tour in English we paid (in April 2014) a total of 164 litas (ca. 48 EUR) for the two of us, including the regular admission fee. What it would be now that Lithuania has switched to the euro I cannot say. You'll have to enquire. 
  
  
Time required: The tour of the site itself lasted a good 90 minutes when I was there in spring 2014, but we were overtaken by groups of Lithuanian visitors a few times, so it's obvious that those normal tours are shorter. Afterwards our guide also offered to show us around yet more sites in the forest that were associated with the missile base, which added another 45 minutes or so to the total duration of our visit.
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: The closest set of sites of major interest to the dark tourist are Liepaja and Karosta across the border in Latvia, only 50 miles (80 km) away as the crow flies, but some two hours drive from Plokstine via Palanga. A similar distance to the south-east is Raseiniai, which might be worth a short stopover if carrying on towards Lithuania's second city Kaunas, which is a further 60 miles (90 km) to the south-east. 
  
A very unusual relic from the Soviet era can be found on the Baltic Sea coast near Palanga, namely the former Baltic summer house of the USSR's leader Leonid Brezhnev (from 1964 to 1982). This has been converted into a luxury hotel (called Auska) and modernized, but some of the original features remain, including the swimming pool in the shape of Lithuania and some very retro light fixtures. 
  
Further afield but thematically related sites in the Baltics include the former Soviet bunker in Ligatne, east of Riga, and the enigmatic Irbene radio locator north of Liepaja. 
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Since Plokstine is located right in the heart of Zemaitija National Park this nature reserve and Plateliai lake as its centrepiece are the most obvious non-dark options here. The main park village of Plateliai also has a couple of museums, including a recently updated one on the national park, its history, culture, flora and fauna, which we were allowed a preview of in April 2014. By now it will have opened officially. 
  
Further away, the Baltic Sea coast with its beaches beckons, if that's your thing. South of the major port town of Klaipeda begins the Curonian Spit (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with its spectacular wandering sand dunes and wildlife. The southern half of the spit lies within the Kaliningrad oblast exclave of Russia (visa required!).
  
A very special pilgrimage site that Lithuania is famous for is also not far from Zemaitija National Park, namely the fabled Hill of Crosses, where over 100,000 crosses are densely packed atop a hillock, which makes for a pretty unique site to behold. This is to be found just north of Siauliai, some 75 miles (110 km) east of Plateliai. 
  
And further south Lithuania's two most important cities Kaunas and the capital Vilnius both offer a wide range of things to do and see.  
  
  
  • Plokstine 01 - missile basePlokstine 01 - missile base
  • Plokstine 02 - gatePlokstine 02 - gate
  • Plokstine 03 - annotated aerial shot of the basePlokstine 03 - annotated aerial shot of the base
  • Plokstine 04 - Cold War Museum visitor centrePlokstine 04 - Cold War Museum visitor centre
  • Plokstine 05 - from USSR to NATOPlokstine 05 - from USSR to NATO
  • Plokstine 06 - Soviet keepsakesPlokstine 06 - Soviet keepsakes
  • Plokstine 07 - to the siloPlokstine 07 - to the silo
  • Plokstine 08 - into the bunkerPlokstine 08 - into the bunker
  • Plokstine 09 - dummy guard greeting grimlyPlokstine 09 - dummy guard greeting grimly
  • Plokstine 10 - model of the bunkerPlokstine 10 - model of the bunker
  • Plokstine 11 - when the base was in operationPlokstine 11 - when the base was in operation
  • Plokstine 12 - now the launch keys are prized souvenirsPlokstine 12 - now the launch keys are prized souvenirs
  • Plokstine 13 - model of the missile siloPlokstine 13 - model of the missile silo
  • Plokstine 14 - model of SS-4 missilePlokstine 14 - model of SS-4 missile
  • Plokstine 15 - another rocket modelPlokstine 15 - another rocket model
  • Plokstine 16 - tense old daysPlokstine 16 - tense old days
  • Plokstine 17 - but it must also have been incredibly boringPlokstine 17 - but it must also have been incredibly boring
  • Plokstine 18 - Cold War historyPlokstine 18 - Cold War history
  • Plokstine 19 - propagandaPlokstine 19 - propaganda
  • Plokstine 20 - the power blocs in 1959Plokstine 20 - the power blocs in 1959
  • Plokstine 21 - East-West confrontationPlokstine 21 - East-West confrontation
  • Plokstine 22 - civil defencePlokstine 22 - civil defence
  • Plokstine 23 - it probably would not have helped muchPlokstine 23 - it probably would not have helped much
  • Plokstine 24 - gas maskPlokstine 24 - gas mask
  • Plokstine 25 - command centrePlokstine 25 - command centre
  • Plokstine 26 - smirking dummyPlokstine 26 - smirking dummy
  • Plokstine 27 - corridor with empty cable ductsPlokstine 27 - corridor with empty cable ducts
  • Plokstine 28 - power plantPlokstine 28 - power plant
  • Plokstine 29 - same as in a submarinePlokstine 29 - same as in a submarine
  • Plokstine 30 - scrap metal hunters had a go at itPlokstine 30 - scrap metal hunters had a go at it
  • Plokstine 31 - former fuel storagePlokstine 31 - former fuel storage
  • Plokstine 32 - corridorPlokstine 32 - corridor
  • Plokstine 33 - helmet left behindPlokstine 33 - helmet left behind
  • Plokstine 34 - towards the siloPlokstine 34 - towards the silo
  • Plokstine 35 - gas-masked dummy guardPlokstine 35 - gas-masked dummy guard
  • Plokstine 36 - silo lidPlokstine 36 - silo lid
  • Plokstine 37 - view down the empty siloPlokstine 37 - view down the empty silo
  • Plokstine 38 - they cut a hole inPlokstine 38 - they cut a hole in
  • Plokstine 39 - for easier accessPlokstine 39 - for easier access
  • Plokstine 40 - back outsidePlokstine 40 - back outside
  • Plokstine 41 - former warhead storagePlokstine 41 - former warhead storage
  • Plokstine 42 - Plateliai lakePlokstine 42 - Plateliai lake
  
  

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