It was an anonymous grey button that could have been lifted from a Commodore 64. I just think if you have a button that could end humanity as we know it, it should be red. Or at least illuminated. I mean how much is an LED?
Sat 40 metres underground, I entered the five digit code to ready the system, and on the count of three we both pressed our launch buttons. Lights flashed on the main control board and the alarm reverberated around the small room. I was feeling surprisingly tense. Waiting for the sound of 200 tonnes of pure devastation to leave the ground. And then… nothing.
It was surprisingly entertaining. Not that I wanted to launch a missile towards the West but there was something enjoyable about it. It was like playing a game.
For some reason I decided to visit a Soviet missile base, perhaps simply because you can. Just 300km south of Kiev is Pervomaysk missile base, its proper title is the Museum of Strategic Missile Troops, I assume it sounds better in Ukrainian.
The base was capable of launching a missile until 2001 when it was decommissioned following Ukrainian independence and so they thought it would be nice to open it to the public. They’ve taken the missiles out of course which is probably a good thing.
There’s a museum providing the usual mixture of information and relics and outside you can have a play with trains, tanks, rockets, a variety of ordnance and even a real life SS-18 Satan intercontinental ballistic missile, although I’m assuming it’s been deactivated. I certainly couldn’t find a start button on the thing. The really good stuff they keep inside, deep underground.
The Unified Launch Command Centre is a large underground metal cylinder, shock mounted inside a deep shaft to withstand a direct nuclear attack. Twelve floors go down around 45 metres. The top houses a variety of gauges and panels and buttons and boxes and a whole world of things I couldn’t identify. Only the bottom two floors are open but these house the living quarters and control room. Although now a tourist destination the command centre has been left in its original state so you really can imagine what it was like working there.
To access the command centre you walk along an eery 150m corridor. The corridor is lined with pipes and insulation, Cyrillic warnings spray painted in strategic places. I made a note not to touch anything near them. The rocket fuel they used has the friendly nickname of devil’s venom. It’s extremely nasty stuff and many people who worked with it suffered serious side effects from even the briefest exposure.
At the end of the corridor, through a series of doors and hatches like a submarine, a small lift connects the surface with the twelve floors of the centre. Our guide said we’d go down three at a time as the lift is so small and there’s not really much more room down there anyway. Opening the lift door I thought three seemed ambitious, just me felt ambitious. As you step in there’s a reassuring gap allowing you to see down all the way to the living quarters. I call them living quarters but in reality it’s a small room with three thin bunk beds, a coffee maker, toilet and gun safe. Cosy. What struck me most was how much space the coffee machine took up — it was huge. I think I’d have preferred a beer fridge.
I couldn’t imagine living in these conditions for any period of time. It would have been worse as well, just for a laugh our guide turned on one of the ventilation systems — it was deafening. And that was just one of four that were in use. The centre was designed to allow the soldiers to survive for 45 days in the event of war. In trials they lasted 2 days before going insane. It’s not the most comfortable of places.
A ladder connects the living quarters to the floor above — the control room — where the good stuff happens. I squeezed my way up — a lot slower than I would have liked — into a compact world of screens and buttons. It looks like a 1950s vision of a spaceship. It was here I got to play at starting World War III and pressed that button. I’m pretty sure if I’d have worked there I’d have coloured the button with a red marker. Really carefully of course.
Soldiers were trained to repeatedly drill the entry of codes. To not think. If they had second thoughts or developed a conscience there was a procedure in place. Your colleague would go to the gun safe, retrieve the gun, head back up to the control room, shoot you in the head and press the button himself.
After a couple of minutes staring at buttons we squeezed back in the lift and headed up to let the others have their moment of global annihilation.
Arriving back at the top I was hit straight on with a coach load of school children. Logistically it’s a nightmare, to have a look at the various controls on top you have to go through the lift. But the lift is also needed to take people up and down to the control room and living quarters. Suffice to say I was glad I was leaving now. Passing a 150m long queue of them was bad enough. Although I guess you could cram more children into the lift at one time.
Apparently the world has come close to World War III a few times. One of those was when a Soviet early warning system falsely detected five missiles launched from the US. The soldier that saw the warning, Stanislav Petrov, disobeyed orders judging the launch to be a false alarm. The protocol was to launch a retaliatory strike. Fortunately he used his common sense, figuring a small strike seemed unlikely and so went against his orders. It didn’t go well for him.
The US had their own incident where a software test led to the reporting of an all out Soviet strike. Fortunately the fault was realised before any action was taken but there was a lot of panic at the time.
As we left on the bus, thoughts turned towards my dinner of chicken Kiev and Kiev cake. And to the oddity of the way I spend my days. There’s a whole world of dark tourism out there, and I seem to be drawn towards it. Now, all I need is to go and find a fully operational missile silo.
I visited Pervomaysk missile base in March 2018 with CHERNOBYLwel.come. All photos were taken with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 and 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens. If you got this far then you may as well follow me on Facebook or Instagram.