One of the most iconic symbols of the Cold War was the nuclear missile. These sleek, space age weapons could carry mass destruction to an enemy within a matter of minutes. Nuclear missiles were the protector and potential destroyer of not only the United States and Soviet Union, but a divided Europe as well. West of the Iron Curtain, the United States placed nuclear weapons in Germany and several other NATO nations. East of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union placed hundreds of nuclear weapons aimed at Europe in their constituent republics. These Soviet Socialist Republics, such as Ukraine and Belarus, ended up inheriting many of the weapons placed on their soil by the Soviet Union after the Cold War ended. Other former Soviet republics that did not inherit nuclear weapons, but had once been host to nuclear missiles, were left with the detritus, scars and residue from the weapons complexes of a most recent past. Today, one of these is now a remote and fascinating tourist destination.
A Secret History – Paranoia for the Sake of Paranoia
Deep in the woods of northwest Lithuania is the former Plokstine missile base. It was the first underground nuclear missile base ever installed by the Soviet Union. The site was so secretive and well concealed that it only fifteen years after it was completed did the United States actually learned of its existence. By that time the site was on the verge of deactivation. In the years that followed, the site fell into disrepair, was looted for metal and slowly, ever so slowly, decayed. That was prior to Lithuania regaining its independence. In the wake of nationhood, followed by membership in the EU and NATO, the Lithuanians looked to preserve this piece of notable and highly secretive history. This led to the Plokstine missile base being reimagined as a Cold War Museum that includes guided tours taking visitors into the very bowels of a nuclear weapons complex.
Incredible as it may seem, the relatively peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union has led to an historical amnesia when it comes to recalling how secretive and forbidding nuclear missile complexes such as Plokstine once were. All a tourist has to do today is call or e-mail ahead of time to schedule a guided tour of the former missile base. This is in stark contrast to when the site was operational. From the early 1960’s until the late 1970’s no one other than authorized personnel was allowed anywhere close to the site. This included local villagers who had been paid 4,500 rubles to relocate from the immediate area. They were not told why they needed to relocate, they were just told to do it. The truth is, they were lucky to even get a payment for their trouble. They certainly were not allowed to ask questions. If a military convoy was traveling through one of the towns on their way to or from the base, those who lived in the general vicinity of the site were told to close the curtains and turn off lights in their homes. This action is baffling. How exactly could light bulbs and nosy neighbors compromise the site’s security or secretiveness? It seems more like paranoia for the sake of paranoia.
Fear As Security – The Balance of Terror
The townspeople in the general vicinity must have been at least a little bit suspicious after 10,000 soldiers – the majority of which were ethnically Estonian – came into the area where they constructed the base. It took an enormous amount of sweat equity to create Plokstine. Labor was greatly in demand, the entire underground apparatus was excavated by hand. This included four missile silos. The mass of men labored amid the serene, cloistered forest for three years. Much of the initial work was done by hand shovels. Over two years later, on New Year’s Eve of 1962, the site was finally completed. As the New Year began, the Soviets declared operational the first of what would eventually be hundreds of underground nuclear missile complexes which would spread across the western portion of the Soviet Union. These would house enough mega-tonnage to destroy Western Europe several times over. Plokstine’s four silos held R-12 Dvina, liquid fueled Intermediate Ballistic Missiles. These could strike targets as far afield as London and Istanbul, Athens and Amsterdam.
The onsite personnel were almost entirely devoid of ethnically Lithuanian Soviet soldiers. In a system that was built on a foundation of mistrust and paranoia, Lithuanians were considered suspect. Three hundred security police guarded the complex every minute of every hour of every day. Underground officers from the strategic rocket forces waited on a launch command that never really came close to arriving. The only time that the site went into a higher state of alert was during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The years passed, the seasons changed and the front lines of the Cold War stayed more or less the same. Plokstine only existed, like all the other nuclear weapons during the Cold War, to assure an opponent’s destruction if they dared to attack with their own nuclear arsenal. The threat of such a cataclysm kept the balance of power between East and West roughly equal.
Nuclear Novelty – Vanished Empire
Unknown, nearly invisible, hidden in a rural backwater of the Soviet Union and only to be used in the most extreme circumstances, Plokstine was most notable for its inactivity. In retrospect, the base can be seen as nothing more than a giant waste of time, money and human capital. The same might be said of most nuclear weapons. On the other hand, just the knowledge that weapons like the ones at Plokstine were lurking out in the vastness of the Soviet Union kept the west at bay. Strangely enough, this allowed the Soviet Union enough time to implode from within.
Plokstine did not make it to the end of the Cold War. It did not even make it to the end of the 1970’s. A few days before the summer solstice, as daylight carved most of the night away, the base was shut down forever. For over thirty years it stood dormant and decaying. Finally it was decided that Plokstine would make a fitting monument to the Cold War. Beyond its cachet as the relic of a vanished empire, or as a nuclear novelty, Plokstine’s true value may well be as a symbol of secretiveness, paranoia and fear. The Soviet Union was scared of the west, scared of its own people and more than anything, scared of itself.